So what would it really take to build and inhabit a space colony?

// September 25th, 2012 // Science

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Fantasizing about space colonization

Self sufficient space colonyMost geeks have fantasized about living in a space colony.  What would it be like?  Would you grow bored?  What would you eat, where would you sleep, what would living in such close quarters with fellow colonists be like?  Even NASA has pondered space colonization and in fact, it’s likely their ultimate goal.  NASA administrator Michael Griffin said this:

.. the goal isn’t just scientific exploration … it’s also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time … In the long run a single-planet species will not survive … If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we must ultimately populate other planets.

What would it require to live in a space colony?

But what exactly would it take to colonize a planet or orbital space structure, so that they could be self-sufficient while surviving the possibly hostile extraterrestrial environment?

Transportation

Space colonies may rotate to simulate gravityThere would be several transportation requirements.  The first question of course, would be “how do we get there?”   Near Earth Objects, or NEO’s) would be the primary target and firstly we would need a cheap means of transportation, one that would allow multiple trips at a reasonable cost.  Proposed solutions to date include hypersonic spaceplanes, space elevators, mass drivers, launch loops, and StarTrams.

In addition to the means to arrive at the destination, a space colony would require material transport, likely for transporting materials and supplies from a nearby planet, moon, or asteroid.  The method of transporting the materials would need to be cost efficient.  Technologies such as tether propulsion, VASIMR, mass drivers, ion drives, solar thermal rockets, space elevators, solar sails, magnetic sails, and nuclear thermal propulsion can all potentially help solve the problems of high transport cost once in space.

And finally, you would require local transportation services similar to our current rovers but with protective environments for human transportation.

 

Communication

Once in a space colony, you would require a communications infrastructure.  Our current communications technologies would likely suffice for local communication but communication at greater differences would require new technologies.  Even communications between Earth and Mars, our nearest neighbor, take between 7 and 45 minutes to reach one location to the other which makes real-time communication impractical.  Voice messaging, email, and other “save and send” techniques could suffice though.

 

Materials

Materials such as fuel, food, and water would be required.  Unless the planet’s environment was similar to our own or the space colony itself was large enough to support food production, it is possible that food would need to be transported to the space colony.  Even on the surface of our planet Earth, the majority of our food requirements are shipped from other, far away locations.  This would be a major disadvantage as the cost and time to export food continuously may not be maintainable in the long term.

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Still, lightweight reflective surfaces could be used to reflect the light needed to enable photosynthesis and grow crops.  In a space colony where there are likely no natural, Earth-like conditions, food could be grown in controlled environments which could allow for huge crop yields.

It’s a toss up whether fuel and water requirements could be met and those requirements would likely be high priorities when considering where the space colony would be located.  Water is likely present on many of the astronomical bodies.  Even the Moon and Mars likely have water resources available.  Fuel requirements may be a bit more difficult unless we possessed technologies which allowed for a wide range (and variable)  fuel sources.  For instance, the moon is deficient in helium, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen but quantities of oxygen, silicon, iron, aluminum, and titanium are available for use.

 

Energy

It is likely that Solar energy will be the energy source of choice for space colonizers.   In space, Solar energy is ever present (and is used to power satellites today).  In the weightless conditions of space, large solar ovens made of lightweight metals can generate thousands of degrees of heat.  Still, nuclear energy could be utilized and as strange as it sounds, energy could be exported from Earth using wireless power transmitters or microwave beams to send power from Earth into space.

 

Life Support

Space colonies may rotate to simulate gravityEarth recycles its resources on a grand scale.  In a space colony, life support systems would need recycle wastes in a space colony habitat.  Oxygen, water, and such can be recycled and in fact, nuclear submarines already use this sort of cyclical process.  A typical nuclear submarine can stay underwater for months at a time, extracting oxygen from the water and recycling waste materials.  But a open looped system such as a nuclear submarine operates in, is only one option.  In fact, there are three ways an organism can relate and coexist in its habitat:

  1. Organisms and their habitat fully isolated from the environment (e.g. artificial biosphere, Biosphere 2, life support system)
  2. Changing the environment to become a life-friendly habitat, a process called terraforming.
  3. Changing organisms to become more compatible with the environment.

In addition, simulated gravity may be required at least for the first generations of inhabitants, in order to maintain proper body functions and bone density (and other benefits of gravity that we are not currently aware of).

 

Protection from the environment

Solar flares and cosmic rays emit lethal doses in a space environment.  There are a few ways the colonizers could be protected from dangerous radiation.  Massive shields could be used to construct the outer shells of shelters or to enclose a larger living area.  In addition, magnetic or plasma radiation shields could be utilized.

 

Self-replication

For an environment to be truly self sufficient, it must replace not only its material requirements, but its inhabitants too.  Self-replication, the replacement of space settlers through mating rather than transporting replacements from Earth, would be a requirement for a colony to survive, succeed, and expand.  A population of around 175 people would allow normal reproduction for 60 to 80 generations (or about 2,000 years).  To survive for a longer period of time would require up to 500 initial colonizers.  As an alternative, human embroys or sperm banks could be carried to the space colony to further diversify the population and prevent excessive inbreeding.

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