Robots: our ticket to life on the moon?

If I were a scientist intent on colonizing space, our very own moon wouldn’t be my first choice. But maybe, since it’s the closest of all celestial bodies, it should be. And, maybe the answer to us getting there is robots that would construct homes for us and pave the way for lunar life.

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What’s the proposal? Robots would be dispatched to the moon to set up solar panels in massive craters on the moon that would warm the craters up and make them more habitable for humans. Why craters? I assume they would provide some sort of natural protection from asteroids. And the craters contain ice, a necessity for human life.

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This makes sense. Look at what we’ve been able to do on Mars. We’ve dispatched robots to explore the martian plains, sending back tons of scientific data. We have satellites landing on comets, and probes sending back amazingly detailed images of our sometime ninth planet Pluto.

So why wouldn’t we eventually rely on robotics to construct complete habitats for our descendants?

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The European exploration of North and South America was a deadly and costly venture. There’s little reason to believe that human colonization of space will be any safer. And, as compared to our ancestors, we have little stomach for death. We no longer think it’s acceptable that some people HAVE to die in order for us to ultimately be successful. But, if we can make the transition to off-world homes both easier and safer, then maybe life among the stars will still be within our reach.

Will we ever colonize distant worlds?

On first glance, that question seems absurd. Humans are an adventurous species, so the thinking is of course we’ll spread out among the stars, especially as word comes of more and more planets that may be close to Earth-like.

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)But Alaistair Reynolds, sci-fi author of great books such as Revelation Space, throws a little cold water on that idea in a new essay.

Reynolds is a strong proponent of space exploration. But he brings up a couple of interesting problems.

First, there’s the issue of time.TV shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars utilize faster-than-light technologies to travel among the stars. These technologies, however have yet to be created. Not only that, not one experiment has uncovered anything that can travel faster than light in nature. As Einstein theorized, it just may not be possible.

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That would leave us with daunting travel times just to reach the nearest stars. We’re talking at least decades for a one-way trip. How would that work, logistically? How could we assemble a flight crew willing for a life-long mission? Would this mission be simply exploration, since there may be no guarantee that there would be habitable worlds at their destination?

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Then there’s the issue of a target. As out science is refined, would we be blessed with an abundance of potential worlds to visit? How would we pick just one? It sounds like a silly question, but for such a massive undertaking, we might need to collectively focus on a single goal. That may not be an easy task. Look at our exploration of our own puny solar system. we have no lunar base. We have no Mars base. And the plans for manned exploration of the Red Planet are always being pushed back another decade.

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As Reynolds explains, the study of space may be the answer to the Fermi Paradox, which states that if there is intelligent life, how come we haven’t run into it? Reynolds speculates that maybe as other intelligent alien species surveyed the universe, they became less awed by creation, and more content with their own little corner. They’ve stayed silent and hidden to us.

I hope this last bit won’t be true of humans. Knowing our history, I doubt it. Maybe the answer is that humans are indeed unique in their hunger for more, always more.

Mars Alive!

If I had a hundred lives and the corresponding years, I’d spend a chunk on space travel. Can you imagine the disorienting feeling of stepping foot on another planet? I can’t but I would like to.

Mars is one of the planets on that list. Well, there aren’t that many viable options right now. Venus is a hot mess, Saturn and Jupiter are too gassy, and who would ever want to go to a place named Uranus? Mars is the best bet of a bad lot. But it is dry and barren. As it turns out, it might not always have been the case for the Red Planet.

Mars ocean

Those brilliant scientists at NASA have determined that Mars once had an ocean — a deep ocean — that covered nearly half the planet. This means it was warm enough for life (meaning us), and it may have actually been home to life.

I’m not one who thinks that Earth alone is the be-all and end-all of life. I do believe that life is special and rare, though. Could this mean that our next door neighbor was teeming with life?

Possibly. If the NASA scientists are right, then there was liquid water—a prerequisite for life—and time enough for life to develop. What that life on Mars would have looked like is anyone’s guess.

Eternal life, here on Earth

Those wacky scientists are at it again. And if they have their way, we’ll live a very, very long time.

The latest? Scientists have perfected a technique where they lengthen the telomeres of cells’ chromosomes. The length of telomeres, which protect cells from damage, corresponds with the health of cells. The longer the telomeres, the healthier the cell. By artificially lengthening the telomeres, they’ve turned back the clock on these cells. OR, to put it another way, they replenished the cells’ bank accounts.

Before anyone books that vacation a hundred years out, this has only been done in the lab, on cells. The scientists believe that this technique may someday help treat diseases of aging such as heart disease. So, it seems that everlasting life would be a piecemeal thing — treat each condition as it comes up.

But there’s always the dark side. If we lived forever, or close to it, where would we all fit? We’d definitely have to colonize Mars, and Venus too. And what if it goes wrong? What if the procedure turns us into a race of zombies, as in Resident Evil? Now that would make life interesting.

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Are ancient aliens ignoring us?

We’re obsessed with life beyond Earth.

For a while, we thought we might find it close to home. Venus turned out to be a hellish bust, and Mars is turning up nothing but red rocks. SETI has been beaming a hello for decades, but no one has greeted our call. So, unless you believe that Roswell is indeed the site of an alien vacation community, we’ve come up with nothing.

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That hasn’t stopped us from making it a focal point of sci-fi and pop culture, from HG Wells’ vicious War of the star trekWorlds to the community of agreeable, and sometimes sexy, aliens embodied in the Star Trek series and movies.

And, the research to identify life supporting planets is going full steam, with hundred potential candidates identified to date. Now, we may be able to expand our time frame as well.

First, the title of this io9.com article — Freakishly Old System of Planets Hint at Ancient Alien Civilizations — is misleading. Nowhere does the writer, or the research, state that we’ve found any kind of proof (or even a hint) of alien life.

But what we’ve discovered—that rocky planet systems are billions of years older than we first thought—is intriguing in its implication. And what is this implication? That life, and advanced civilizations, have had several billions of years in which to develop.

Our universe is considered to be about 13.8 billion years old, and according to the article, scientists have detected a planet system that is about 11.2 billion years old. Before this, scientists didn’t believe that rocky planets capable of sustaining life could have formed that early in our universe’s life span. Now they know different.

But this leads to the inevitable question: if there are so many planets that could potentially support life, and if these planets have existed for at least 11 billion years, then why isn’t our universe teeming with life? Surely there would be ONE advanced civilization that would have colonized the stars. Was there NEVER a planet capable of supporting life? Or, did they ALL fail to advance to the point we have?

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)One of my favorite sci-fi writers, Alastair Reynolds, explored this very topic in his book Revelation Space. His world view was bleak: advanced civilizations destroyed each other, leaving behind a higher power that would snuff out advanced civilizations whenever they reached the point of breaking their planetary bounds.

If that’s true, then we’re in danger.

Or, maybe there are tons of aliens out there, and they don’t find us interesting enough to return our calls.

Why not Venus?

It’s been described as Earth’s twin, our sister planet, roughly the same size and composition as the home world we all know and love.

Venus Earth
But it’s the hellish parts of Venus that make it our evil twin:

–Its atmospheric pressure is nearly 100 times greater than on Earth. If you set foot on Venus you would be crushed.

–It is damn hot: over up to 900 degrees. At best, you would bake.

–Its atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, with clouds that rain sulphuric acid. Not only would you be unable to breathe, but the acid would melt your body.

Venus
So what’s good about this hell planet? What possible use could we have for it?

It turns out that Venus is not as useless as it may seem, at least not according to NASA.

If we are ever to become serious about off-world colonies, Venus might be a good place to start. But how could we ever live on such an inhospitable world? We couldn’t. Instead, we could float just above its poisonous atmosphere.

This is what some NASA scientists are planning: floating cities. These giant blimp-like structures would be tethered about 30 miles above Venus’s surface. At this level, the atmospheric pressure is roughly similar to that of Earth, and the temperature, while still an inhumanly 160 degrees, would be suitable for these structures. The crafts would be solar powered as well.

Venus floating cities
But if Venus is so bad, what’s the benefit?

It allows us to get our feet wet in terms of establishing colonies in space, and we could avoid problems such as extreme temperatures or adverse gravitational conditions (too little gravity and our bodies would break down faster than we would like).

I have never considered Venus as a potential off-world site, and the more I think about it, the better it sounds. Of course it would not be easy. There are many logistical problems, not to mention the cost involved.

At the very least, these NASA dreams can provide another cool setting for sci-fi.

Mars attacked!

Was there once a grand civilization on our neighboring planet that was annihilated by a nuclear attack? One researcher says yes. While it’s impossible to prove (for now), the sci-fi geek in me loves this story.

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Mars has gotten some, but not enough, attention in the world of sci-fi. H.G. Wells got the ball rolling with War of the Worlds, where we were attacked by Martians (I loved the Tom Cruise movie as well). There have been sporadic Martian-themed stories, including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red/Blue/Green Mars trilogy. And there have also been one-off stories, like Doctor Who‘s The Waters of Mars episode.

mars and earth

But these are all fictional. What about the real Mars? The red planet is smaller than ours, colder, and less hospitable to human life (and any life, so far). It’s long been theorized that the Mars of the distant past was a very different planet, one capable of supporting life.

John Brandenburg, a plasma physicist, speculates that Mars once had a civilization as advanced as the ancient Egyptians. But this civilization caught the attention of some nasty aliens, who nuked these Martians, and rendered the planet uninhabitable. His evidence? The large number of nuclear isotopes detected on Mars.

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The takeaway, according to Brandenburg, is that we’d better get our butts (and not just rovers) to Mars ASAP, and figure out exactly what happen, lest it happen to us as well. See, we’re too noisy, blasting our radio signals out into the universe. Eventually, the Martian killers are bound to notice us.

He has a point. If there is a superior civilization out there, they may very well decide to rid themselves of any competition. And we’re pretty much defenseless. But what can I do about a high-tech alien force attacking? Not much of anything, so I’ll file that away in the “Things I cannot control, so therefore I won’t worry about it” drawer.

The idea that there were advanced civilizations on Mars that suffered a nuclear holocaust intrigues the sci-fi fan in me. Was Mars nuked? I don’t know nearly enough about the science to say no, though I think that Brandenburg is taking one too many leaps of logic. Nevertheless, the nuking of Mars makes great sci-fi fodder.