For everyone living on planet Earth, you might want to start looking for a new place. Last year, Stephen Hawking told students at the Oxford University Union that it would be in the next 1,000 to 10,000 years for a disaster to hit our home planet and wipe out humanity.
The real crux of the statement comes from a push to take mankind to the stars and start inhabiting other planets. If there's any real danger to our home world, it never hurts to have a spare.
And by the way, Hawking just moved that timeline up to 100 years to start colonizing Mars. Now with even less time, we need to start looking for other answers to the problems facing us while we travel the stars.
Humans, as it turns out, are good at imagining worlds beyond the stars. We anticipate the obstacles and even some of the solutions to what we’ll face once we hit the dark void of space. Here are just some of the problems facing us as we try to extend our reach and if these ideas could even work in the real world.
Radiation and Microparticles
Just like the song says, it's the little things that kill. One of the significant problems about space travel comes from something we can’t even see. Microparticles come from rocks, comets, or even the equipment that we send out to space. It can be as powdery as sand, but traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, it can decimate anything in its path. Moving outside of the Earth’s atmosphere also means that astronauts will be helpless against cosmic radiation. Not only can the radiation create havoc on your electronics, but they can also cause cancer to our brave crew.
Fictional Solution: Shields up, Captain. Star Trek might have thrown up the shields as soon as the Bird of Prey de-cloaked in front of them, but they also kept their little bubble intact for regular voyages as well. Very little is known about the physics of the deflector shields other than being described as some sort of energy that can be used to repulse objects as well as radiation.
Real-Life Solution: Sort of. CERN scientist made a recent breakthrough in superconducting shielding to replicate Earth’s own the magnetic field while in the spacecraft. Others want to take it a step further since we’ll need protection not only in space but on planets without any atmosphere. NASA proposed earlier this year a way to protect all of Mars by creating a magnetic field above the planet’s surface. Think of it as a radiation umbrella that covers an entire world. As for Microparticles, we're still working on that.
Did you ever spend the weekend doing nothing but binging on various TV series and ordering in pizza? Stand up, and you'll feel your knees begin to buckle under the weight of your own inactivity. Now imagine days of running a rut into your couch. Zero gravity tears away at the body by turning your muscles to mush. We need a little pull to keep our muscles toned even if you're just keeping up your 'dad bod' physique.
Fictional Solution: Typically, we create some magical gravity machine and call it a day. But let me take you to the far-flung past looking at the distant future with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Watch it again, and you'll notice the ship spin on an axis. Crewmen float through the center sections and descend on ladders to walk, run, or devise a way to shut down their A.I. captor while on the circular ceiling.
Real-Life Solution: Possibly. If you've ever been on the Cyclotron at the amusement park, then you've already experienced a bit of this artificial gravity. Centripetal motion throws you out rather than pulling you back down to the center. The force becomes greater at the edges, allowing you to walk on the ceiling or glide through the middle of your ship. To make this work, you’ll need a big wheel to shoot up into space. Too small and you'll have to spin the whole ship quickly to keep the centripetal force going.
When Stuff/People Break
Sending an expedition to Mars comes with its own set of problems. One of them just so happens to be a lack of access to Amazon. There's not 'same-day delivery' on the red planet ... or anywhere in space, for that matter. If you want something, you better have it with you as well as a spare in case the first one breaks. But now you run into the problem with carrying too much stuff. You’ll need every drop of rocket fuel if you want to reach your destination.
Fictional Solution: 3D printing is for more than just making misshaped pieces for your D&D game. In The Fifth Element, they managed to put together Leeloo after a nasty accident. (It's not a spoiler. That happens at the beginning of the movie.) Re-watch the first moments again, and you’ll see that familiar arm move back and forth, laying down one layer of cells at a time. Actually, the idea of making your own organs from a machine isn’t that far off. But how is this slow and material-focused process going to help us in the future?
Real-Life Solution: You just send the robots to make it first. NASA is already looking to creating 3D habits for our astronauts on the moon and Mars. CNN talked to Behrokh Khoshnevis about not only using machines to print out structures for people to live in but to also be able to use the materials naturally found on the planet. Robots will be able to gather material, refine it, and start to create large structures before we send a single person there. The only problem will be making sure the robots can get there in one piece.
Invaders from Earth
More than a few of you will probably want to pack some heavy ammo before leaving Earth's orbit. While some dream of peaceful meetings, others want to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And because of the weight limitations of our ship, we're not bringing any bubble gum. Hold on to your propane tanks for a moment. Some of the most hostile lifeforms you'll find come from our own terraferma.
Fictional Solution: Cowboy Bebop managed to create their own version of Aliens with spoiled food in the fridge. The crew starved as their last meal terrorized them, ducking in and out of air vents. The episode ends in a similar fashion with Spike taking a flamethrower to the invader and jettisoning the fridge that one housed the monstrosity. And what was left behind after the battle was devoured by one of the hungry crew members,
How Probable: For the last time, we can't just eat our way out of this situation. The fungus we're facing won’t leap out at you from the shadows but instead will hide in the walls while releasing potentially dangerous spores. The International Space Station is already dealing with an outbreak of unknown spores. While none of this contains the same drama of a gnashing creature coming at you from above, the fungi and bacteria brought on by astronauts provide a real concern for the inhabitants. Better preventative measures may be the only solution for now.
Surviving Long Trips
More than just trying to keep yourself busy for months, spending time doing anything in your craft means consuming precious resources like food, water, and air. Even a quick trip to our neighboring planet, Mars, takes six months to a year to get there. As we mentioned before, you're not going to have a box of air from Amazon waiting for you once you get there.
Fictional Solution: You probably already know where we’re going with this one – Cryostasis. From Futurama to Aliens, putting people on ice seems to be the optimal solution when it comes to keeping your crew out of the way and alive at the same time.
How Probable: Getting there. We can slow but not stop the human metabolism. Scientist refers to the process as therapeutic hypothermia, and it's not nearly as terrifying as it sounds. So far, researchers have managed to put people under for a few days. By sending everyone to dreamland, there will be more resources for the end of the trip and less space spent on creating living conditions. Every ounce counts when you carry everything in one trip.
Losing Your Cool in Space
They say in space, no one can hear you scream – except for everyone on board your tiny spaceship. When you start to have problems with your fellow crewmates, it's not like you can take a walk to the local coffee shop just to get away from them. Living in tight quarters for long periods of time will mentally take its toll on anyone up there. What do you do when you don't even have enough room to put someone in isolation?
Fictional Solution: If you're Bruce Willis, you tie them to a chair until they can pull themselves together. Armageddon might have been a movie about a big rock hurtling towards Earth, but it was also about dealing with the pressures of outer space. When one of their own starts to get overwhelmed by the stress, the team pulls out the duct tape and secures him to a chair. It's not the most elegant of solutions, but in the movie, it works.
How Probable: Sometimes it's the uncomplicated solutions that work the best. Understand that astronauts go through intense psychological screenings and they talk to a psychologist on a regular basis. But if push comes to shove, NASA has instructed the crew to bind anyone with duct tape and bungee cords to a chair until the episode is over. Fortunately, it has never come to this, but imagine what could happen as commercial flights start. We're going to need more duct tape.
Lack of Water
What covers three-fifths of our planet and makes up sixty percent of the human body may be one of the most difficult things to bring into space. It's tough to transport, and you can't just leave it behind. The crew won't survive the trip without a little liquid to keep them going. While we might find a way to pack them with enough supplies, finding a source of water by the time you get to your location may be nearly impossible.
Fictional Solution: Just make it. In The Martian, our intrepid hero manages to create water from combusting hydrogen gas that he gets from Hydrazine, a common monopropellant used for maneuvering spacecraft. Sure, it's a bit of a stretch to get what you need, but when it comes to water, you'll do anything to get there.
How Probable: That's mostly how it works. From the use of rocket fuel to condensing the water vapor, Andy Weir managed to do his homework except for the heat equation. In an AMA, Andy remarked that the heat it would take to make water would have burned down the shelter. Astronauts heading to the big red planet will be better off putting all that heat to better use by cooking the soil. Mars already has water stored on the surface. You won't need your swim trucks for this trip, but applying the right amount of heat will be able to separate the moisture from the soil.