Thursday, April 28, 2016

Home in the Void

The idea of space colonization has been explored in many ways over the past several years. Many individuals in the industry and scientific community have become fixated on the idea of Mars domes or underground caverns where humans would eke out an existence until it could be terraformed. Between where we are now and terraforming Mars, there is a very important step- maybe even an alternative- that we should consider. Free space settlements are those that are not terrestrially bound. This type of settlement would exist in the vacuum of space, which in itself presents a host of positives and negatives.

On the one hand, the fact that we are not terrestrially bound means that we do not have to worry about the hazards of the planet (or moon’s) surface. Cosmic background temperature stays relatively constant at -454 degrees Fahrenheit. The main problem we have with temperatures and building structures is not one extreme or another, but rather drastic temperature changes. The surface of Mars, for instance, varies immensely from -195 to 70 degrees depending on time of day, and this can cause stresses to equipment. Another advantage to living in free space is the relative lack of weather. Although there are bouts of cosmic radiation that surge through space, the surface of Mars is plagued by massive dust storms and other potentially dangerous weather. Living in free space would not limit us by location. We would have the added advantage of avoiding entry of another atmosphere, as well as the possibility of using centrifugal force to create artificial gravity. This would allow us to circumvent some of the problems with living in low-gravity environments, such as fertility and bone-density issues.

On the other hand, living below ground on a planet may be a way to avoid severe weather and temperature changes. Living on a planet may allow us to source more material locally, instead of sending everything up into space from Earth, which would save money. Conceding that living on a planet is not a bad idea, however, does not mean we should not build free space settlements. A space settlement could actually be a stepping stone for Mars missions, as it would be much cheaper to assemble and launch a rocket from space instead of from Earth.

What type of structures could we expect to be living in? Early on, colonists might live in small quarters, like the international space station. As we gain the ability to scale, either by making transportation to space much cheaper than it is now, or by using resources in space, we could build some really luxurious abodes. Bernal spheres, O’Neill cylinders and Stanford tori all rely on the same principle: spinning to create artificial gravity. The interior walls would, in theory be able to support human life, with conditions not too different from here on earth. These mega structures would be on scales of five to twenty miles, which is infeasible today, but in the future, it may be a better alternative than living in a Martian cave.

- Krishna Rao