Space colonisation logistics

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2011

Man, space really is back on the menu all of a sudden – an odd reaction, perhaps, considering that the Shuttle has now flown its last. But then again, the commercial space sector is making positive noises, and perhaps the general global sense of gloominess is pushing us to think beyond the confines of Mudball the First…

Psychology aside, if you’re planning to move up and out, you need a battleplan. Over at Lightspeed Magazine, Nicholas Wethington sets out a basic sequence: [Moon -> Mars -> Asteroids -> “Icies”]. Personally I’d have suggested [Orbitals -> Lagrange -> Moon / Asteroids -> Mars -> Outer System], though the Moon does have the advantage of all that radiation-absorbing regolith lying around.

Wethington wisely points out that water is one of your main essentials, wherever you want to go. Fortunately, it turns out that there’s a whole lot more water out there than we initially thought:

The numbers get to be striking, as Hauke Hussmann and colleagues show in a 2006 paper in Icarus. Start with Galileo, the mission to Jupiter that brought home how much we needed to modify our view of the giant planet’s moons. Galileo discovered secondary induced magnetic fields in the vicinity of Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, offering strong observational evidence for subsurface oceans on all three. The fields are thought to be generated by ions contained in the liquid water layer underneath the icy outer shells. Europa has, of course, become a prime target for future study re astrobiology thanks to the prospect of water combined with a possibly thin ice layer.

The Hussmann paper goes on to calculate interior structure models for medium-sized icy bodies in the outer Solar System, assuming thermal equilibrium between radiogenic heat produced by the core and the loss of heat through the ice shell. Now we really start expanding the picture: The paper shows that subsurface oceans are feasible not just on the now obvious case of Europa, but also on Rhea, Titania, Oberon, Triton and Pluto. A case can also be made for the Trans-Neptunian Objects 2003 UB313 , Sedna and 2004 DW.

Add that to the asteroids and comets, and there’s plenty of options… though none of them are exactly convenient to us at first.

Once we’re out there grabbing iceballs and digging resources out of odd-shaped rocks, we’ll need to stay in touch with one another – how else are we gonna broker the sale of our freshly-mined metals? Luckily Google’s Vint Cerf is on the case, ignoring the more mundane issue of address space on the terrestrial intertubes in favour of thinking about an interPlanetary internet [via SlashDot]:

We recognized as far back as 1998 that the traditional Internet design had implicit in it the assumption that there was good connectivity, and relatively low latency, whereas in a space environment, when you are talking at interplanetary distances, you have speed-of-light delays and those can be minutes to days. We need this new Bundle Protocol to overcome the latencies and all the disconnects that occur in space, from celestial motion [and from] orbiting satellites.

The Bundle Protocols are running onboard the International Space Station. They are running in a number of locations around the United States in the NASA labs and in academic environments. There’s a thing called the Bundle Bone, which is like the IPv6 backbone, that is linking a lot of these research activities to one another.


So during 2011, our initiative is to “space qualify” the interplanetary protocols in order to standardize them and make them available to all the space-faring countries. If they chose to adopt them, then potentially every spacecraft launched from that time on will be interwoven from a communications point of view. But perhaps more important, when the spacecraft have finished their primary missions, if they are still functionally operable — they have power, computer, communications — they can become nodes in an interplanetary backbone. So what can happen over time, is that we can literally grow an interplanetary network that can support both man and robotic exploration.

Obsolete sats as network nodes… an encouragingly frugal solution. And talking of frugal, if you’re planning to be in the first wave of outward migrations, you might want to snap up some cheap kit. Two used Soviet space-suits, one (presumably) careful owner each

To infinity, and beyond! More inspirational space stuff

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

Yesterday’s scale-of-space post gathered comments pretty quickly, at least in part due to my own failure to define my terms properly… but it’s a reminder that space still stirs up the imagination like little else, whether one’s imaginings be favourable or dismissive.

And so, here’s some more imagination fuel! As mentioned before, space seems to be clambering back onto the futurist Zeitgeist train of late – a response to the grim economic certainties of the foreseeable future (such as it is)? We all need something to reach for in our dreams, I guess… and if you’re gonna reach, why not stretch to your utmost? The Technology Applications Assessment Team of NASA’S Johnson Space Centre aren’t limiting themselves to anything less than affordable and achievable concepts for manned deep-space missions [via MetaFilter]:

… six technology applications that they are focusing on: satellite servicing, ISRU on the Moon, a SBSP demo, solar electric propulsion vehicle, propellant depots, and the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).


The Nautilus-X MMSEV is intended as a reusable in-space vehicle for cis-lunar and deep space missions. It would offer a sizable volume to sustain a crew of six and hold enough supplies to sustain a two year mission.

Radiation mitigation strategies, such as creating safe zones with water and H2-slush tanks, are being investigated. It is “capable of utilizing variety of Mission-Specific Propulsion Units [integrated in LEO, semi-autonomously]”.

Most strikingly, it would include a ring centrifuge to provide partial gravity for maintaining crew health.

Caveat: “affordable” is a very relative term:

Estimated cost and time: “$3.7 B DCT & Implementation 64 months”

Ouch. Still, pipedreams they may be, but every human achievement was an act of the imagination first, right? But uninformed imagination is just, well, making stuff up… so get yourself over to Centauri Dreams and check out a suggested reading list for people interested in the possibilities of interstellar travel.

Last but not least, and in the name of providing at least one answer to the “sure, we could go there, but what’s the point?” retort, Brian Wang of Next Big Future has excerpts from (and a link to) a speculative PDF report on human population curves after escaping the hard resource limits of Gaia:

NASA studies (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) confirmed that it was technically possible to build large vista space habitats in free space, essentially anywhere in the solar system (out to the asteroid belt if only solar power were used) with up to about 4 million people in each. In O’Neill’s habitat model the space citizens would live on the inside surfaces of radiation shielded spheres, cylinders, or torus’s which would be rotated to provide Earth normal gravity. The prohibitive Earth launch costs for these massive structures could be off set by using lunar and asteroid materials. Construction of (Glaser, 1974) space solar power satellites by the space colonists would make the project economically viable. Economic break even for the O’Neill-Glaser model was calculated to be about 35 years after which very large profits would be incurred. The result would have been a solar powered Earth and millions of people living in space by the beginning of the twenty first century.

Recently the O’Neill-Glaser model was recalculated (Detweiler and Curreri, 2008) to find the financially optimum habitat size. For simplicity only the habitat size was changed and the financial costs of money and energy updated, while keeping the original 1975 technological assumptions. In order to make the model financially viable the workers must live in space, space resources must be utilized and the community must build Space Solar Power Satellites, SSPS. A net present value plot showing the original calculations (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) building 10,000 person torus habitats compared to calculations for the habitat size that optimizes costs. Starting the program with smaller habitats (64 – 2000 persons) results in peak costs that are reduced by about 75 percent and one third reduction in time for financial break even (year 25 for the optimized model).

Wildly speculative? Sure it is. So was putting a man into orbit, and not all that long ago.

Reasons not to commercialise space

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2010

1) Marx wouldn’t approve! And anyway, we can learn about our relationship to the wider cosmos just as effectively from the surface of the Earth:

So outer space technology can be used for tackling a number of immediate social and political issues. But these strategies do not add up to a philosophy toward outer space and the form humanization should take. Here again, the focus should be on the development of humanity as a whole, rather than sectional interests. First, outer space, its exploration and colonization, should be in the service of some general public good. Toward this end, the original intentions of the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty should be restored. Outer space should not be owned or controlled by any economic, social, and political vested interest. The cosmos should not, in other words, be treated as an extension of the global environment, one to be owned and exploited. We have seen enough of this attitude and its outcomes to know what the result would be. Spreading private ownership to outer space would only reproduce social and environmental crises on a cosmic scale.

I’d agree that space shouldn’t be owned or controlled by vested interests, but I rather suspect that it won’t be very amenable to such any control, by dint of its, well, space; territorial disputes are a function of limited room for expansion, and it’ll take us a long while to run out of lebensraum at the top of the gravity well. Why fight for territory when it’s less effort to strike out for an unclaimed patch? Indeed, I suspect conflicts in space are more likely to retain the ideological character of those currently popular on Earth’s surface… viz. Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series, Sterling’s Schismatrix. Is that a reason to avoid going there? I’m not so sure; I don’t think we’re any more likely to solve those problems by simply staying put.

Frankly, I’m right behind George Dvorsky on this one, who says “… I couldn’t help but think that Marxist analyses are growing increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic […] Economic determinism ain’t what it used to be.” Marxism is a useful critical framework when used alongside others (especially in literature), but on its own it seems hopelessly idealistic, ignorant of (or uncaring for) post-modern networked global culture, and soundly lodged in the craw of Victorian industrialisation. Cue brickbats from my more radical left-wing readers… but the world has changed a lot since Marx, while Marxism hasn’t changed at all. YMMV. 🙂

2) We can’t survive out there! We’re designed to be planet-dwellers!

What is of greatest concern here is that, unlike muscle loss which levels off with time, bone loss seems to continue at a steady rate of 1 to 2 per cent for every month of weightlessness. During a three-year mission to Mars, space travellers could lose around 50 per cent of their bone material, which would make it extremely difficult to return to Earth and its gravitational forces. Bone loss during space travel certainly brings home the maxim “use it or lose it”.


The impossibility of an escape to space is just one of many examples of how our bodies, and those of our fellow organisms, are inseparable from the environments in which we live. In our futuristic ambitions we should not forget that our minds and bodies are connected to Earth as by an umbilical cord.

Well, yes, but umbilical cords can be cut and tied off; indeed, to extend the metaphor, cutting the cord is an essential step toward independence from one’s mother. And if our bodies are inseparable from our environments, we can hack one or both of them; if Human1.0 with default settings can’t live in space, we can upgrade her and her environmental surroundings. The biological status quo is not a cage, it’s a room with a door whose lock requires dexterous but doable picking.

There are concepts in development for spacecraft with artificial gravity, but nobody even knows what gravitational force is needed to avoid the problems.

Oh, I’d have guessed something approaching 10m/s² would do it… call it intuition. Anyway, Karl Schroeder’s done a better job than I can of deflating the long-standing “it’s too dangerous!” hand-wringing about space travel; of course there are challenges, but they’re far from insurmountable. Where there’s a will, and all that.

And as a wee bonus, here’s a new twist on an old fandom favourite:

So far, boneless creatures such as jellyfish are much more likely than people to be able to return safely to Earth after multi-year space trips.

Intelligent jellyfish in spaaaaaaaace… why should squid get all the glory, eh? 🙂

Elon Musk dreams of Martian retirement condos

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2010

The Astronomer Royal may think manned spaceflight is a pipedream, but Elon Musk – the fantastically-moniker’d founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, as well as private space company SpaceX – begs to differ. In fact, he seems to be taking Stephen Hawking’s eggs-in-the-basket metaphor to heart, and wants save the human species from the existential threats that come from living on the surface of a planet with a history of having large space rocks smash into it.

Wearing my cynic’s hat for a moment, I suspect Musk’s stated desire to move to Mars when he retires is at least as much about giving good soundbite as it is a genuine statement of intent — all the highest-flying entrepreneurs have a bit of the P T Barnum about them, after all. But with SpaceX he’s at least putting his money where his mouth is, and this Guardian pen-portrait paints him as being quite removed from the flamboyant Ben Gunn stereotype of spaceflight boosterism; apparently, SpaceX isn’t about making Musk another fortune.

…he is risking his fortune to start a company in a field most people said could not support a project like SpaceX. Again and again, he returns to the themes that keep him going. He sees what SpaceX is doing as part of humanity’s destiny. “I think life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems… It’s got to be something inspiring even if it is vicarious. When the US landed on the moon it was for all humanity. We count that as a human achievement. Anyone who could get near a TV got near a TV. If there was one TV in an African village and you had to walk 50 miles to get there, you’d do it,” he says.

And through it all is the desire to colonise Mars. Musk insists that his most powerful Falcon 9 rockets could already launch missions to Mars if assembled in Earth’s orbit. He wants SpaceX to help humanity spread into space, just like the first European explorers setting out for the New World. “One of the long-term goals of SpaceX is, ultimately, to get the price of transporting people and product to Mars to be low enough and with a high enough reliability that if somebody wanted to sell all their belongings and move to a new planet and forge a new civilisation they could do so.”

There’s something about the way he candidly admits to a long-term mission that everyone else in the business considers impossible (or impractical, or just plain laughable) that makes me want to believe he’s telling the truth. It’s a tough time for dreamers right now — hell, it’s a tough time for everyone — but perhaps adversity will be the heat in the forge.

That said, the analogy to the European colonisation of the New World is an uneasy one; even if there are no natives on Mars to exploit or extinguish (that we know of, at any rate), the earliest transAtlantic colonists had a rough old time of it, and they were sustained by the promise of bounteous resources rather than bijou retirement villas. Life beyond the gravity well won’t be a picnic until long after we’ve managed to get ourselves there… and Charlie Stross has a pretty solid set of arguments that suggest the analogy of space colonisation to the Westward expansion in the US is equally (if not more) flawed.

Even so… if you’re reading, Mister Musk, I’d like to put a small downpayment on a condo sited on the lower slopes of Olympus Mons; sea views a bonus.

Oh yeah, and you should totally hire Jason Stoddard as your head of PR. I’m not even kidding about that bit, either.


Paul Raven @ 02-11-2009

Almost every short fiction venue worth its salt will have some sort of guidelines as to what sort of material they’re looking for… but I suspect almost every editor will confess that, when the story is good enough, the guidelines can flex a little to allow it through.

That’s exactly what happened with “Spider’s Moon” by globe-trotting star-ascendant Lavie Tidhar, which is set in a slightly deeper future than we usually deal with here at Futurismic. But its core concerns are closer to home, and it’s a strong tale well told – so we’re proud to be publishing it for you to read. Enjoy!

Spider’s Moon

By Lavie Tidhar

Night, a full spider’s moon in the sky; hundreds of lanterns hung along the river, and the smell of saffron and garlic and dried lemongrass filled the air; a warm night, candles burning on street corners with offerings of rum and cooked rice, the hum of electric motorbikes, the murmur of a sugarcane machine as it crushed stalks to make the juice.

Ice tinkling in glasses; on small plastic chairs people sat by the river, drinking, talking. A hushed reverie, yet festive. Hoi An under the spider’s moon, French backpackers singing, badly but with enthusiasm, while one of their number played a guitar.

Save me from the raven and the frog, and show me safely to the river’s mouth, O Naga, he thought. Frogs had never been his favourites. Green and slimy, and always too loud. Like rats, almost. Like green, belligerent rats. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: SPIDER’S MOON by Lavie Tidhar”

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