Friday, 1 May 2020

A Pandemic May End Our Civilisation

While very serious, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic virus that is currently sweeping across our planet will not end our civilisation. The vast majority of people infected will make full recoveries, and a vaccine will be developed . The economic damage from the lock-down of societies as governments attempt to stop the spread will take many years to recover from, but that recovery will happen. Communities will be stretched and challenged, but order will remain and normal life will eventually resume.

We have been lucky this time, but there is quite a strong possibility that a virus will emerge one day that will have a death rate so high that it will be a severe threat to our civilisation, and even the very survival of our species. Health care services will collapse, governments will cease to function, food supply chains will break, and utilities such as electricity and water will fail as those needed to run power and pumping stations succumb to the illness.

We must consider the current COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call and make sure we learn as much as we can from it on how to prevent viruses spreading, and how we can speed up the development of vaccines, in preparation for the time that we encounter something far more deadly.

All nations of our planet should be working together on the following:

Create a Parallel Rapid Response Pandemic Healthcare System

Implementation time: five years

Health services need to be ready to immediately react to the start of a potential pandemic event. Currently this would be hard to do as hospitals around the world are set up to cope with normal levels of healthcare issues. A parallel healthcare system needs to be on standby, one that is globally coordinated. This must include the ability to rapidly construct temporary hospitals in designated locations.

A modular hospital design (wards and private rooms section). Such pre-designed hospitals could be prefabricated at a factory and rapidly constructed anywhere.

Such a system could have purpose-built isolation wards in place within just a few days. If this is combined with social distancing and travel restriction measures then we would have a much better chance of containing even the most virulent diseases until a vaccine is developed.

Mandatory Pandemic Education

Implementation time: starting within a year

All nations need to properly educate their populations on how to act to help prevent and minimise the effects of a pandemic. Mandatory classes, held perhaps once year in all schools and regular public information broadcasts should be a requirement and cover everything from personal hygiene to self-isolation to maintaining mental health during such periods. Everyone should be aware how important it is to follow government advice. It should also be mandatory for people to keep a few weeks supply of certain items at all times, just in case.

Self-Sustaining Underground Sanctuaries

Implementation time: 50 years

Large underground sanctuaries capable of housing many millions of people should be constructed around the world. These sanctuaries must be self-sustaining and capable of remaining sealed off from the outside world for many years if necessary. They should be designed not only for survival but to allow scientific research and development of new technologies to continue so that our civilisation can maintain and advance its capabilities. That would be essential if those in the sanctuaries are to one day return to the outside and repopulate the surface.

Underground sanctuaries would be for very long term use and should be designed to maintain both the mental and physical health of those that live there

Such underground sanctuaries should be spacious and comfortable, and they should be designed to for to maintain the psychological as well as physical health of the occupants. Sanctuaries such as these would be effective refuges against other threats too. Read this article: 'Surviving the Next Doomsday Asteroid Impact' for a more detailed description of the ideal underground sanctuaries.

Self-Sustaining Colonies Away From Earth

Implementation time: first colony within a century

Ultimately we need to have self-sustaining human colonies away from Earth. These should be in a variety of locations from orbital habitats around Earth and other bodies in the Solar-System, to habitats on the Moon, Mars, and on the icy moons of Jupiter  such as Callisto. Saturn's moon Titan, with its thick atmosphere, and despite its frigid conditions, would provide an excellent location for a permanent colony (see my article: 'Human Colony on Titan').

Creating self-sustaining colonies away from Earth, wherever they are, is an immense challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Very large orbital habitats may well be the easiest with which to provide self-sustainability. If a large enough one was built and it was rotating to provide a simulated gravity similar to Earth on its inner surface, then a comfortable habitat with an Earth-like environment would be possible, with enough surface area for large-scale agricultural activity.

A massive space habitat many kilometres in diameter. This design is based on a Bernal sphere, which was first proposed as far back as 1929 by John Desmond Bernal, an Irish scientist. The habitat rotates along its axis to provide simulated gravity for the inhabitants that live on its inner surface.

The raw materials to build such enormous habitats are available in abundance in the asteroid belt, so the essential first step is to build up asteroid mining expertise.

If all of the above steps were taken our species and civilisation would be able to survive even the most extreme pandemics. Implementation should begin as soon as the current Covid-19 pandemic is under control.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Surviving the Next Doomsday Asteroid Impact

One day, as has happened many times before, a large asteroid thousands of metres in diameter will hit our planet.

The result of the impact will rain hot debris across the entire Earth, heating the atmosphere to an oven-like temperature and shrouding it in dust clouds. Fires will burn for years adding billions of tonnes of soot to the atmosphere, and then the global temperature will fall dramatically. Photosynthesis will grind to a halt. Almost all species of plants and animals will perish. The only survivors will be those lifeforms that are able to eat the remains of long dead life, such a cockroaches and deep sea creatures.

The collision of a large asteroid thousands of metres in diameter with our planet will almost certainly result in the extinction of most lifeforms. It is unlikely that humans would survive.

If such an impact happened now humans would not survive. The extinction of our species would be certain. Essentially, life on Earth would be reset to the point just after the last massive impact event 66 million years ago (the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that caused of the extinction of the dinosaurs).

By the next century we are likely to have permanently inhabited colonies on the Moon, Mars and possibly even beyond, but there will be a few hundred inhabitants at best. And most crucially those colonies will not be self-sufficient. If Earth is rendered uninhabitable and our civilisation destroyed then those colonies will die soon after. It will be a couple of centuries until self-sufficient colonies with tens of thousands (preferably millions) of people exist away from our planet. Until then we will need sanctuaries on Earth where a significant human population can survive should a massive asteroid impact occur. And by 'significant' I mean several million people at least.

The cost of building such underground sanctuaries would be extreme, and it would take decades or longer before they were ready for habitation. Hundreds of billions of dollars would be needed each year, and a workforce of millions. But it is actually affordable and achievable, if only the world's governments could be less paranoid and divert some of their defence spending to the project. The total spending each year by NATO members (29 European and North American countries) is more than one trillion dollars. If just a quarter of that budget could be redirected then the underground sanctuaries for North America and Europe could begin construction. If the likes of Russia, China, Japan and their neighbours did the same then sanctuaries in their region of the world could begin construction, too.

After a century of construction and expansion, the main chamber of a vast underground sanctuary, deep beneath mountains in Europe, is home to a thriving city of a million people. Powered by geothermal energy, the sanctuary is a self-sufficient haven for humans, one of several spread around the Earth. Even the impact of a large asteroid, such as the one that resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species, would not lead to human extinction if such facilities exist.

Each sanctuary would need to be hundreds of metres underground, with locations beneath mountains the most preferable. As well as hundreds of kilometres of tunnels and smaller chambers there would need to be huge areas for agriculture, and even larger caverns to create the feeling of space and distance we have evolved to need, if only to maintain the sanity of individuals. Power could be generated using geothermal technology.  Energy generation using geothermal power stations currently provides 30 percent of the electricity requirements of Iceland, with the Philippines not far behind that. It is a relatively clean and renewable source of energy and would be ideal for subterranean habitats. New power generation technology, such as nuclear fusion, will hopefully be perfected over the next decades, which could provide almost unlimited power capabilities.

One of the many farming chambers that surrounds the main city of each of the underground sanctuaries. Agricultural facilities such as this, powered by geothermal energy, or even fusion energy, provide food for millions for thousands of years in the event of a catastrophic incident up on the Earth's surface.

Once created the sanctuaries would need to be permanently occupied to a high capacity: at least 50 percent. This is necessary to ensure that the sanctuaries are fully functional and under constant maintenance. They should be regularly assessed to identify areas of improvement. They would need to be totally self-sufficient if the need for them arises. There would hopefully be many months, if not years, of notice before a large impact would occur, giving plenty of time for people to migrate into the sanctuaries.

There are ethical and moral issues with regards to who would be selected to migrate into the sanctuaries should an extinction level impact be confirmed. The choice of certain sections of the population is obvious: there needs to be specialists in all areas of science and technology (engineering, medical, computing, utilities, agriculture etc) and also educators; it will be essential that education levels are maintained for the generations that will live in the sanctuaries, so schools and universities would be required.  The majority of inhabitants, however, will be ordinary citizens with ordinary levels of education and skills. Whatever method is used to choose which of those individuals and families are chosen - a lottery, or genetics (to maintain the diversity of the gene pool) - there would be objections, protests and even wars fought no matter who is chosen (there would be nations of the world without any access to sanctuaries of their own). Great care would need to be taken to ensure that the security of the sanctuaries is maintained and the chance of sabotage is kept to a minimum.

The selection of who is to migrate to the sanctuaries, and how to prevent attacks on them as they travel there, will perhaps be a more troubled process than the construction of the actual sanctuaries themselves.

Of course, it would be best if a cataclysmic asteroid collision was prevented altogether. There are numerous proposals to deflect or destroy asteroids that are identified to be on an eventual collision course with Earth. None of them has yet been tried, and all of them required many years, or even decades, of warning. Research into such methods should be intensified and an effective asteroid defence system should be implemented as soon as possible. The underground sanctuaries would allow a small percentage of our human population to survive the aftermath, but they should be considered a last resort. The need for then should ideally never arise.

Developing the ability to deflect or destroy asteroids on a collision course with Earth is essential to prevent the extinction of our species. A joint NASA and ESA mission in 2020-2021 will perform the first test of such technology.

If we construct several underground sanctuaries around the world, and deploy a system capable of destroying or deflecting asteroids, we stand an excellent chance of surviving as a species even if an object many tens of kilometres wide collides with our planet, and of eventually repopulating the surface once its ecosystem has recovered.

But, before the creation of the underground sanctuaries can happen we need to cultivate a will to change our thinking and work together for the greater good and the very preservation of our species and the wider ecosystem on which we depend. If we fail to do so we will fail all of humanity, and our extinction will be assured.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Preserving Earth Life

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen far north of the Arctic Circle, is the world's largest store of seeds. It was built as a way to preserve seeds from global catastrophes, and is a backup for the hundreds of other seed vaults around the world, some of which have already been lost due to war and natural disasters.

The modest entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. The actual vaults are deep within the mountain. The vault holds close to a million samples of seeds.

The seeds are stored in vaults deep in the permafrost, which helps to keep the seeds cold enough for preservation. But despite being built to protect seeds from potential disasters such as climate change, climate change is already threatening the vault itself. The Norwegian government is having to make modifications just a decade after it was built. This is an ominous sign that whatever we do to preserve life and all that we have achieved on our planet (the Arctic World Archive opened nearby in 2017 as a data and knowledge store) it is going to be a losing battle.

We need to think bigger if we are to protect life and our knowledge and achievements from oblivion.

The colder the better is the key to very long term preservation, and natural environments that offer such low temperatures for 'free' are highly abundant within our Solar-System.

Inner Solar-System Vaults

The Moon has areas of permanent shadow at its poles, and a NASA instrument on board India's Chandrayaan-1 probe confirmed the presence of water ice in those regions. Those areas, as well as being ideal locations for human colonies, would make excellent locations for preservation vaults. The close proximity to Earth would make the vaults relatively easy to access if/when Earth's climate causes major problems that require access.

A vault so close to Earth would also be vital if our current civilisation is wiped out by a catastrophic event, such as a nuclear war or an asteroid impact. It could take centuries, even millennia, for a new civilisation to advance to the point where space travel is possible.

On Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, there are also areas on the planet's surface that are in permanent shadow in craters at its north pole. The Messenger probe that orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015 discovered billions of tonnes of water ice in those areas. It proves that preservation vaults can be built on bodies very close to a star, providing there is no atmosphere to distribute heat to those areas of permanent shadow.

The planet Mercury. Despite being so close to the sun the planet still has a large amount of water ice on its surface. The ice is located in craters in areas of permanent shade. It would be possible to construct preservation vaults that would provide protection for life and knowledge for millions of years.

A vault on Mercury would only prove sensible if sizeable human colonies were to be established there, which is unlikely. Venturing so close to the sun is not something that I predict will happen for humans. Perhaps colonies in the clouds of Venus will be as as near as we will get.

Human colonisation of Mars is almost certain to happen this century. There is abundant ice on Mars, which will be heavily exploited by the colonists to provide water, oxygen and fuel. Those colonists should create preservation vaults as a matter of urgency. It should be one of their top priorities once the essential activities for their survival are established and running smoothly. Areas within the ice mines could be designated for such a purpose.

Outer Solar-System Vaults

There are many large bodies in the Kuiper Belt, such as ErisHaumea and Makemake, that would be worthy locations for preservation vaults, and there will be hundreds more waiting to be discovered. Those larger bodies are more useful that the millions of small bodies out there, if only because they provide at least a useful level of gravity, even if it is only around 5 percent that of Earth.

The best known example of a large object in that region is Pluto. The mountains and crevasses of that dwarf planet, which can rise over six kilometres in height, are examples of places in the outer Solar-System that would be ideal locations for such vaults.

The surface of the dwarf planet Pluto. The Al-Idrisi mountains shown consist almost entirely of water ice, and the plains are mostly nitrogen ice. With a mean surface temperature of -229 Celcius it would be an ideal place for preserving life and knowledge for many hundreds of millions of years at least.

Even on the surface of Pluto the temperature is low enough to provide an excellent level of preservation, but vaults should still be constructed deep into the ice to protect against meteorites, and eventually from theft. Building inside mountains means access to the vaults can be horizontal, which would ease construction. Several preservation vaults should be constructed, each on a different dwarf planet and on radically different orbits.

Interstellar Vaults

Ultimately the sun will flare up and expand, consuming the inner Solar-System vaults. The outer Solar-System will suffer too, with the extra heat threatening the stability of vaults in that region. A truly long-lasting vault, that could survive for billions of years, should not be in the Solar-System at all.

The interstellar void between stars is the coldest and most benign area in the galaxy. It is not completely empty, with rogue planets and smaller bodies drifting for aeons out there in the frigid darkness. Finding one is not easy, but such a world is an ideal place to build a safe and secure preservation vault (and surprisingly, it would also be suitable for an interstellar human colony).

Instead of hunting for interstellar objects on which to construct the vaults it would be easier to create our own. By redirecting some of the smaller Oort cloud objects away from the Solar-System (or even constructing our own purpose-built station for the vault) we would have easily available bodies on which to preserve whatever we wish. Ideally there should be human colonies nearby.

Although in the Kuiper Belt, Arrokoth (pictured here) is a good example of the kind of small object we can find in the Oort Cloud. At just under 20 kilometres in diameter, a body like this could host a preservation vault and be redirected onto an interstellar course to hide between the stars.

It may sound almost impossible, and undesirable, for a human colony to be located away from the obvious benefits of a star, but it is not so. My 2018 article 'Secret Colonies Between the Stars' explains why not, and gives reasons why such colonies would actually be an essential part of our colonisation efforts, and even on which the ultimate survival of our species could well depend.

Where ever we humans go, from the inner and outer Solar-System to interstellar space and other star-systems, we should construct life and knowledge vaults to preserve as much of what has been achieved on Earth as possible. It should be an essential part of colony building wherever that may be. In billions of years time it will then be possible for our very distant descendants to benefit from our endeavours, even if it is just to know where all that they take for granted actually comes from.

Hopefully they'll be able to enjoy bread just as we do today.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Intelligent Life on Earth 56 Million Years Ago

Almost 56 million years ago the Earth's climate suffered a fast and significant warming. It's quite possible that an ancient industrial civilisation was intensely active at that time.

The warming, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, was due primarily to a rapid rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The event may have happened over a very short period of time, possibly as short as 1,500 years, and the number of species that went extinct rose to several times that of normal levels.

During that period the average temperature was already several degrees higher than today, meaning there were no polar icecaps, but nevertheless sea levels rose due to thermal expansion. If a civilisation existed at that time it would have had to deal with relatively rapid changes to its coastal habitats and to weather patterns.

The parallels with what is happening to our climate right now are eerily obvious.

If the warming was due to the activities of an advanced civilisation it is likely that the rapid climate change was responsible for its demise. Finding out exactly what happened could give us valuable information that may help save our own civilisation.

A city on Earth, more than 56 million years ago. During that time the climate warmed rapidly. The civilisation that existed at that time would have found its existence increasingly threatened as a result of its unsustainable use of the planet's resources. We are facing the same threats. We must find a way to avoid making the same mistakes that that were made by previous advanced civilisations on our planet.

Finding the evidence of a civilisation that existed 56 million years ago is extremely difficult. Over such a timescale geological processes (plate tectonics, weathering and erosion) would wipe the Earth's surface clean of almost all traces of buildings, technology and transport infrastructure. For example, if our civilisation ended now, within a few million years there would be nothing left of any artefacts we created, or of our urbanisation which only covers about one percent of the surface of the planet. The only signs would be spikes of metals and possible traces of plastics, and certain radioactive isotopes in sedimentary deposits (if we destroy ourselves with a global nuclear war the evidence would be readily detectable millions of years in the future). Such chemical signatures would be the only evidence that we could reasonably hope to find, and even these would be very hard to find if the civilisation was only industrially active for a few hundred years.

If the civilisation had developed space flight capability then that would offer more hope. The best place to find evidence of its existence would be away from Earth. There may well be ancient space probes orbiting within our Solar-System, and on the surface of its airless worlds, that have been preserved quite well. Of course, the vastness of space would mean finding them will still be a challenge, but as we map the surfaces of many of the Solar-System's planets and moons in ever greater detail we may soon find something.

A previous industrial civilisation on Earth millions of years ago may have developed spaceflight capabilities. Evidence of their activities away from our planet would be the best way to prove their existence. Spaceships such as this one may have been built to enable the colonisation of our Solar-System and beyond as an attempt to survive the warming event that their activities on Earth inadvertently caused.

I discussed the possibility of finding evidence of ancient mining activity in the asteroid belt in my earlier article titled 'Pre-Human Technology in the Asteroid Belt'. If such evidence is found then it is possible that the civilisation felt the need to construct interstellar ships to colonise planets around other stars, probably as a way to preserve at least some of their knowledge and culture as the Earth rapidly became hostile to them. Right now there could be one or more Earth-like planets in nearby star systems that are thriving with the descendants of Earth life. The civilisation that populated those worlds may still exist, or another may have since risen to take its place. Perhaps they even returned millions of years later and influenced the rise of human civilisation on Earth.

Colonists from a pre-human Earth civilisation walk upon their new world. Their civilisation's activities on Earth millions of years ago damaged the climate to such an extent that their species faced extinction. Colonising an Earth-like planet orbiting another star seemed to be the only way for their species to survive. Perhaps one day, when we are able to visit other star-systems, we will discover life descended from Earth life.

The rapid climate change 56 million years ago is not the only time a possible industrial civilisation existed before our current one. There has been speculation that there could well have been a dinosaur civilisation, possibly created by a descendent of a Troodon, that would certainly have ended when the Cretaceous-Palegene extinction event occurred 66 million years ago. And extinction events such as the Toarcian turnover 183 million years ago could also be related to yet another industrial civilisation abusing the Earth's resources.

Discovering proof of the existence of pre-human industrial civilisations on Earth is quite an intoxicating prospect. Life has existed on our planet for at least 3.5 billion years, and life with very complex brains, and consciousness, has existed for hundreds of million of years. There has been ample time for multiple civilisations to rise and fall. The chances are that at least one of them would have developed to an industrial and even highly technological level.

With the right kind of research we will be able to find strong evidence of the existence of such a civilisation. Paleontological and geological expeditions with the sole purpose of uncovering that evidence should begin at the earliest opportunity, and all space missions, past and future, should have their data examined to see if evidence of an ancient technological civilisation is present in our Solar-System. It is exciting to think that there may well be evidence hidden within the vast amount of data already collected by NASA and other space agencies.

If evidence of an ancient pre-human industrial civilisation on Earth is discovered it would have profound implications. It would mean that intelligence, at least to our own level, is a natural and relatively common evolutionary occurrence. And it would mean that industrial civilisations on other life-bearing planets should be common, too.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Living Inside Asteroids

For humans to live long-term in space we would need a healthy environment. This would mean somewhere spacious, with plenty of the comforts we find on Earth. And most importantly, we would need gravity, or at least a simulation of it.

Large space stations could be built with all of the above. With a large enough diameter they could be spun at less than two revolutions per minute, which would eliminate the uncomfortable symptoms of the Coriolis effect that would be experienced at the higher revolutions of a small rotating space station. Due to the huge amounts of material needed for construction of such stations, and the immense cost of launching it from Earth, the materials to construct the space stations would realistically have to be mined from asteroids.

A large diameter space station under construction in the Asteroid Belt. A single large asteroid will provide more than enough material for the construction of the station. Concept by Deep Space Industries.

Asteroid mining will not only provide the huge amount of construction material necessary for space habitats. If the asteroids are mined in a certain way, making large cylindrical chambers through the asteroid's centre of rotation, we could then convert the chambers into living spaces. Once mining is concluded the rotation of the asteroid could be altered until a high-enough centrifugal force provides enough artificial gravity comfortable for humans on the chambers' outer walls.

Such chambers, several kilometres in diameter, could well provide what may become the safest and most comfortable human living spaces away from the Earth.

Of course, the idea of hollowing out space inside an asteroid is not a new one.

This image was created in the 1960s by Roy Scarfo when the exploration and colonisation of the asteroid belt was being researched by Dandridge M Cole.

In the 1960s Dandridge M Cole, an aerospace engineer and futurist, was one of the first to propose hollowing out an asteroid and spinning it on its long axis to simulate gravity. Illustrated above, he envisaged a large single void within the asteroid with fields, lakes and villages. Sunlight would be reflected into the interior using mirrors. It would be a spacious and comfortable environment.

It's an impressive concept, but there are numerous problems with it, and not least the idea of a single huge chamber and relatively thin wall. It would make the asteroid habitat vulnerable to complete decompression if the wall was compromised in some way. If the rotation provided one gee of gravity the forces on the wall, especially at the asteroid's equator, would cause it to fly apart as soon as any cracks or flaws developed.

The very green and pleasant interior of Dandridge's asteroid habitat concept

It would be far better to cut several cylindrical voids, and have the outer walls very thick - several kilometres at least, depending on the overall size of the asteroid. Each chamber would be connected to the next, but with the ability to quickly seal off a particular chamber if it was compromised and at risk of decompression, or indeed some other dangerous event. Those living in the effected chamber could easily be evacuated to another chamber, making such asteroid habitats safe and with plenty of redundancy.

Once the chambers have been excavated the asteroid's speed of rotation can be increased slowly, until the right level of simulated gravity is reached. To generate an equivalent of one gee (the same as what we experience on Earth) the rotation speed would be quite substantial, and it would mean that, at the very least, loose boulders and dust would be thrown off the surface of the asteroid. It would also put considerable stress on the outer surface, which would rule out low density asteroids due to the high risk of instability.

A natural habitat for Earth life, many kilometres in diameter, created inside a hollowed out cylindrical chamber within an asteroid. Typically there would be a few such chambers. All would be linked but each could be sealed off should a disaster occur, which would protect the other chambers.
A supporting series of collars around the equatorial region of of the asteroid would negate many of the issues that such a high centripetal force would cause. It would be a huge construction task to build such collars, but no more than the excavation of the chambers themselves. Of course, the excavated material would provide everything required to build the collars, each of which could be many kilometres in width. They would be held in place by deep supports.

Visiting spacecraft would using large docking areas at the poles of the asteroid, situated at each end of the axis of rotation. People and cargo would then be transported through the asteroid along the axis of rotation. Essentially there would be zero gravity in this area. When the destination chamber is reached the visitors and cargo would be delivered to the surface using elevators. People descending in these would experience a steadily increasing sensation of weight as they approached the surface.

A diagram showing how the interior of a rotating asteroid colony could be divided up into separate chambers. This would provide higher levels of safety (colonists could be evacuated to another chamber if their own is compromised), and more structural integrity than a single large chamber.

It's likely that people arriving at the asteroid will have spent many months travelling in zero gravity so acclimatisation areas at the regular points down to the surface should be built to allow people to adapt gently to the full gravity of the facility.

As well as fairly static colonies inside asteroids in the Asteroid Belt, or in the Trojans, asteroids that are on highly elliptical orbits - that head in to the inner Solar-System and then out beyond the orbits of Neptune and Uranus - would make very useful passenger ships. As the asteroid gets close to Earth (and the probable large colonies on the Moon and Mars) passengers who need to travel to the outer Solar-System could rendezvous with it. They could then spend the next couple of years living in comfort in relatively Earth-like conditions as the asteroid's orbit takes them closer to their destination.

Ultimately, such asteroids could become our first interstellar star ships. They would make voyages lasting thousands of years, with a hundred generations or more of humans living out their lives in comfort until the asteroid is captured by the target star system. With the right energy generation technology such as nuclear fusion that could provide light and warmth during the interstellar period of the voyage, humans would have a relatively good chance of reaching their destination.

Converting asteroids into large human habitats, and then into interplanetary and interstellar spacecraft, seems to be a logical and necessary step as humans embark on colonisation beyond Earth, and it is likely to be an essential step towards securing the future of our species.

The vast resources and protection that such objects can provide must be utilised at the earliest opportunity.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Next Mass Extinction Has Begun

There have been five major mass extinction events in Earth's past. During each one more than 70 percent of all species were wiped out.  One of them, the Permian-Triassic event 252 million tears ago, actually killed off about 96 percent of all species.

Most of the events were caused by a significant climate change brought on by a combination of volcanic activity, asteroid impacts, sea level changes and drops in oxygen levels. The most recent mass extinction - the Cretaceous-Paleogene event 66 million years ago - is thought to have been almost entirely due to a massive asteroid strike known as the Chicxulub Impact, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It has become the most well-known of all extinction events, primarily because it caused the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. The dust cloud created by the impact reduced global temperatures by several degrees for decades. After that there was a period of rapid warming due the huge increase in carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. For up to 100,000 years the global temperature was an average of five degrees higher. There was little time for most species to adapt.

An artist's impression of the Chucxulub impact crater a few hundred years after the asteroid hit. The crater is about 150 kilometres in diameter, and up to 20 kilometres deep.

There will be another mass extinction event - a sixth massive reduction in the number of species living on this planet. That extinction event, known as the Holocene extinction, is already under way, and its cause seems to be exclusively linked to human activity.

Humans have been responsible for extinctions for many thousands of years. The mammoth, which had been in decline as a species since the end of the last ice age more than 11,000 years ago, is one of the first examples. It was finally hunted to extinction 5,000 years ago. This was the start of our destruction of our planet's ecosystem.

Over the last century our rapid advance into a global technological civilisation, and our massive population growth, has lead to extremes of habitat destruction, over hunting, pollution and subsequent climate change. Without a drastic change to our activities most species will be extinct within a few centuries. Humans will have caused the fastest and most extreme mass extinction ever known on this planet. And it is more than possible that our own species will be one of those driven to extinction as the ecosystem we rely on collapses.

To survive as a species we need to do two things. And we need to do them now.

1. Halt our Destruction of Earth's Ecosystem

An extreme level of cooperation between the governments of the world's nations is required if we are to stop, or even just slow down, the climate change caused by our activities. And that cooperation needs to start this year. Unfortunately, as always, governments seem preoccupied with political, economic and territorial disputes. Climate change, and its effect on our very survival as a species, seem to be far down the list of priorities.

Radical policies are needed, with developed countries pushing for the complete replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy generation within a decade. Nuclear energy, despite its controversial nature, is very clean compared to coal and gas burning. In fact, nuclear energy generation produces zero emissions, and very little waste due to the density of nuclear fuel. The land required for a 1,000 megawatt nuclear energy generator is only about one square mile, compared to 75 square miles for the equivalent solar power plant. As well as building many more nuclear power stations, solar and wind power generators should, of course, be expanded rapidly, too. This will accelerate the closure of coal and gas power stations.

The massive and ever increasing human population on Earth needs to be ethically controlled. Developing countries in particular need immediate help to remove the need for people to have more than two children. If population growth is not controlled it is predicted that there will be almost ten billion people living on this planet by 2050 (up from 7.6 billion now). The demand on resources is already unsustainable. With such an increase we are condemning billions to starvation.

2. Build Self-Sufficient Colonies Away From Earth

The creation of self-sustaining colonies away from Earth should have started decades ago, but at least there seems to have been some recent minor progress towards such colonies. NASA have brought forward plans to get humans back to the Moon. It will create a sustainable human presence on the Moon by the middle of the next decade, and the Gateway, a space station in orbit around the Moon, will be a staging post for crewed missions to Mars.

NASA's space station orbiting the Moon. Construction is expected to start as early as 2022. It will be used as a staging post for Moon landings, and as a stepping stone to Mars.
While NASA does not seem to have much of a timeline beyond for the crewed missions to Mars (other than 'sometime in the 2030s') the plans for the Moon seem to be quite well defined, and impressively ambitious. The resources of the Moon can and will be used to manufacture the fuel for future missions to Mars.

This relatively sudden new momentum is encouraging, and must continue.

As soon as a permanent settlement is established on the Moon the missions to build one on Mars must begin immediately. No time can be wasted. And as the Mars colony grows in the 2030s there must then be a push to establish colonies further afield, such as on Jupiter's moon, Callisto (which orbits outside of Jupiter's harsh radiation belt - see 'Humans on Callisto within 15 Years'), and on Saturn's moon, Titan. Despite the extreme cold Titan is particularly suitable for a very large human colony - see my article, 'Human Colony on Titan' for more on that subject. In fact, it seems to be one of the best places to create a very long term human presence.

There must also be space-born colonies: vast habitats that do not rely on a planetary body and that can exist in their own independent orbits around stars and in interstellar space. They would obtain all the resources they need from small asteroids and comets, found abundantly for example in the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud.

Will this century be the last time we'll be able to look down on Earth from space? Is the damage to the environment and climate caused by human activity already beyond recovery? If so, our technological civilisation will soon end.

If we do nothing to limit the effects of the current extinction event then we certainly deserve our fate. If our species becomes extinct then at least our destructive activities will cease. Earth will begin a slow recovery and a new climate equilibrium will allow a host of new species to flourish. Over many millions of years the Earth will become a thriving and lush haven for life, at least until another highly intelligent species starts to dominate and abuse its environment.

Is it possible that some of the many smaller spikes of extinction and climate change in Earth's past were caused by a dominant intelligent species that brought about their own demise? We could simply be continuing a natural cycle of events that has already played out on this world and millions of others. That cycle needs to be broken right now, before we doom yet another of Earth's civilisations to oblivion.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Nuclear War - Our Biggest Immediate Threat

Climate change is considered the main threat to our civilisation. Over the life time of the human generation being born right now our planet will almost certainly experience a significant detrimental effect from the amount of greenhouse gases that have been pumped into the atmosphere by our  activities. The increase in the number of forest fires in North America, flooding in Asia, and longer and more intense heatwaves in Europe is just the beginning.

It is not impossible to slow down or even halt such effects, but the huge political, economic and social changes necessary make it very unlikely that the nations of the world can come to any sustainable agreement on what to do.

As the effects of climate change intensify over the next few decades there will be severe pressure on the countries worst effected. Ultimately wars will break out as failing harvests, flooding and desertification force desperate nations to fight for the resources that other less effected nations are holding.

An artist's impression of how Miami would look with the relatively small sea level rise expected with a 1.5 - 2.0 Celcius temperature increase. It is now expected that a 3 Celcius increase is likely by the end of the century without drastic action. Such a sea level rise will displace hundreds of millions of people from coastal areas and leave major cities abandoned. Wars are inevitable.

The recent report by an Australian think-tank that civilisation is likely to end by 2050 is not at all far-fetched, but civilisation is likely to end much sooner if the political situation in many leading countries continues to radicalise. There will be little attention given to climate change by the leaders of such countries, which will be disastrous as some of them are the very ones with the ability to actually do the things necessary to limit the effects of such change. There is an ever-increasing chance of a major war between those nations. And such a war is likely to quickly escalate out of control. There could well be an exchange of nuclear weapons, which will have an immediate and devastating effect on our climate, far and above that of the climate change expected from our normal activities. Even the use of just a few low yield nuclear weapons would have a worldwide effect.

One likely scenario is between India and Pakistan: both nuclear powers. Pakistan, one of the most 'water stressed' nations on Earth, relies on water flowing from India. If India diverts that water (which it has already threatened to do in part, in response to a terrorist attack in Kashmir) and Pakistan suffers droughts then it may become desperate enough to destroy India's dams. India would retaliate. And then Pakistan, desperate and pushed to the brink as its citizens protest and riot, may feel it has no choice but to launch a nuclear attack. India will certainly respond in kind.

A long range nuclear missile launching

As well as destroying large parts of both countries and killing hundreds of thousands almost immediately, the effects of such a regional nuclear conflict would be felt across the world. Even conservative estimates predict that five million tonnes of smoke would be released into the atmosphere and trigger a nuclear winter of two to three decades, reducing global temperatures by two to four degrees and decimating the protective ozone layer (removing most of our natural protection from UV radiation). There would be widespread famine as food production is significantly reduced. Skin cancer would become common place.

Of course, the threat of a major nuclear war has been present since the 1950s, but since the end of the cold war the strict controls and mutual understanding and respect of the nations with nuclear weapons seems to have eroded. The threat of such a war breaking out is increasing day by day, and the rhetoric and threats of the major nuclear powers recently does nothing but exacerbate the situation. Russia has recently exited the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty following the exit of the USA a few months earlier. Nuclear arsenals are being modernised and upgraded., and a new type of missile that can travel at hypersonic speeds (greater than Mach 5) is in rapid development by Russia, China and the USA (and France recently became the first European country to announce a desire for such a weapon).

A hypersonic missile seconds after launch. It would only take it a few minutes to travel hundreds of kilometres, and it would be unstoppable with current defences. It is in development by the major world powers and is a highly destabilising weapon. 

Hypersonic missiles, against which there is currently no effective defence, can hit a target in minutes at an incredible speed. They are designed primarily to carry conventional weapons (but could carry small nuclear warheads if required), and one White House official has even dubbed them 'instant leader-killers'. This suggests one use for them: a means to assassinate the leader of a nation virtually without warning and with almost no risk of the missile being intercepted. Such an ability is incredibly destabilising.

The amount of money spent on military defence around the world is staggering. In 2018 the world's governments spent more than $1.8 trillion. The USA alone accounted for just over a third of that. We are spending about 28 times more on military hardware and development that we are on tackling climate change. To put it simply: we seem to be more concerned with securing our self-inflicted annihilation than securing our survival. Imagine what could be achieved if we could divert even just ten percent of that spending from defence to renewable energy production, for example?

One of the most chilling explanations of the Fermi Paradox (which refers to the contradiction of the lack of evidence for intelligent extra-terrestrial life when observations suggest it should be quite common) is that civilisations destroy themselves soon after developing radio or spaceflight technology (and with it the technology to wreak mass destruction). We now have that capability. It is quite likely that a nuclear war will end our technological civilisation, and the subsequent immediate climate change will almost certainly result in our near or actual extinction. And if we manage to avoid such a war, it seems that we may well be too late in trying to tackle the climate change that is happening now.

As I've discussed before, our survival instinct, which has served us well up until now, continues to ensure that we will develop more and more powerful weapons to defend ourselves, and allow us to forcefully take what we need to survive. Ironically this instinct now seems to be taking us closer to extinction. Our natural instinct to be suspicious of others seems almost impossible to overcome. We are unlikely as nations, and even as individuals, to cooperate enough, and to put aside our differences, to work together and sacrifice some of our comforts in order to stop climate change or the risk of a nuclear war.

If we can survive the next few decades, and work together instead of feeling the need to build ever more destructive weapons with which to destroy each other, our civilisation will be well on the way to expanding beyond Earth and creating colonies on and around other planets. Pictured here is the impressively conceived Venus cloud colony.

If it's true that almost all the intelligent civilisations in our galaxy destroyed themselves soon after they developed the ability to do so, then it is likely that we will too if there is not a radical change in our behaviour. We must strive to be one of the exceptions. We need to grow beyond our blind sprint towards our own destruction. It is the only way we can avoid an eventual nuclear war. And it is the only way we can tackle climate change and save our planet. If, against all odds, we manage that then we will be well on the way to expanding our civilisation beyond the Earth. Our long term survival as a species will then be assured, and we will take our place among the select few civilisations that overcame their self-destructive tendencies.

There is still time. There is still hope. But both are dwindling fast.