Space Travel, 101: Preserving Life Through Other Planets

Recent space discoveries make me think of the 1990 film Total Recall. It’s not exactly Schwarzenegger’s best, but the idea of humans on Mars makes us wonder – could people colonize other planets someday, and if so, how would we get there? Furthermore, what supplies could other worlds offer to help us survive?

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60 new planets were just discovered near stars hovering in and around Earth’s solar system. That means they’re close… Very close. Right under our noses actually, and yet we’ve been unaware of them until now. Needless to say, it’ll be a while before the universe becomes our “galactic plaything,” but that does not say it can’t be done at all.

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The earth is a warming haven for environmental troubles. Between climate change, rising sea levels, coral bleaching and the depletion of national resources, one can’t help but feel a little concerned about the future, and the fact that our population will near 10 billion by 2050 is kind of scary.

How will we house everyone? What will we feed them? Droughts like those that occurred in Southern California proved resilient and difficult to tackle. Rain eventually picked up and filled our reserves past the flooding point, and many scientists now label the drought as over or near over, but if similar conditions were to ever strike again, the sentiment remains that they’re bound to be even harsher.

We need to be prepared

Naturally, we want to be prepared. In case things go haywire in the coming decades, humans want to make sure they have somewhere to go. The 70s introduced the term environmental refugee to our vocabulary. If things continue their present course, it’s possible we’ll all become “planetary refugees” before long.

So that means seeking out terrain that offers life-giving resources. It also means ensuring a safe voyage for those open to travel. So what’s the first thing scientists are seeking out? The one element every living creature needs… Water.

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Water is a bit of a mystery. Though scarce, it’s still so desperately needed. Whoever says the universe doesn’t have a twisted sense of humor isn’t paying attention. One source mentions that water covers over 70 percent of the planet’s surface, yet still classifies it as a rare substance.

Even more disturbing is the fact that Earth has lost about a quarter of its water since it first formed. Sure, Earth is billions of years old, but current data paints the future with a hint of black. It tells us that water is, for certain, disappearing, so what kind of shortages can we expect to face in 50 years? What about 100? 200?

Is there any good news?

It’s frightening, for sure, but scientists aren’t looking for a shoulder to cry on. They’re out in the field, eager to bring back some good news. The widespread cliché is that humans will eventually colonize Mars, but that scenario seems a bit far-fetched at this time. Mars did house water at one point, but it’s nickname “The Red Planet” has never been more fitting than it is today.

Water is non-existent on Mars’ surface; its dry, barren terrain was the subject of what researchers call a “catastrophic event” nearly four billion years ago, leaving a hazardous atmosphere in its stead and land riddled with dark craters. Its air is flooded with elements like carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Sounds a lot like Earth, actually, with one little problem… Current levels on Mars pretty much make the air unbreathable.

Dr. Chris Webster at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California states, “As Mars became a planet and its magma solidified, catastrophic outgassing occurred while volatiles were delivered by impact of comets and other small bodies. Our… measurements are – for the first time – accurate enough to make direct comparisons with measurements done on Earth on meteorites using sophisticated large instrumentation that gives high accuracy results.”

For some time, scientists believed Mars lost its water in increments, but a recent study through the University of Colorado, Boulder suggests otherwise. A team of researchers says the planet’s changing seasons and temperatures (already warmer than Earth’s) may have helped hydrogen molecules dissipate at an alarming rate, and that Mars’ barren environment is older than many of us think.

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Unfortunately, this isn’t great news. It suggests that other planets aren’t prone to behaving like Earth, which puts their abilities to support life in serious doubt. Mars also suffers from the same climatic issues as Earth. Though ice clouds and polar ice caps exist directly on its surface, sources frequently melt due to rapid winds and dust storms, both of which are major problems on Mars.

But scientists aren’t giving up that easily. After all, it’s one of the galaxy’s brightest planets, and can be viewed easily from Earth through the use of a vast telescope. With their latest designs completed, NASA has announced it will be sending its newest rover, the Mars 2020, to visit the Red Planet in the summer of, you guessed it, 2020. We got about three years to go, but it’s probably worth the wait.

2020’s purpose is to visit three pre-determined drill sites and search for signs of past life. NASA researchers believe they can find ways to sustain human missions and eventually life on the planet if they’re able to understand past and present resources.

One of the sites, the Jezero Crater, previously housed a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe. This body was attached to a river that fed liquid into the sediment. Though barren in appearance, the crater flowed heavily with signs of life in the distant past, and scientists believe remnants could still be fooling around somewhere.

“Mars has resources needed to help sustain life, which can reduce the amount of supplies that human missions will need to carry,” says NASA associate director William Gerstenmaier. “Better understanding the Martian dust and weather will be valuable data for planning human Mars missions. Testing ways to extract these resources and understand the environment will help make the pioneering of Mars feasible.”

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What about the moon?

Of course, Mars isn’t our only galactic neighbor. One of our closest residents, the moon, was discovered to contain water in 2010. Evidence also suggests the presence of water on Saturn’s moons. This got scientists to start looking above and beyond and broaden their searches to include seeking out hydrous minerals called phyllosilicates.

Phyllosilicates are produced through gas and dust-based disks called protoplanetary disks, which form around stars during the early stages of their development. Astronomy and physics professor at Missouri State University Melissa Morris says evidence of phyllosilicates usually suggests water is nearby.

“I’m a huge advocate for looking for water in our own solar system,” she explains.

Efforts to find water on other terrestrial bodies proved worthwhile again in 2013 when signs were uncovered through the Hubble telescope on five distant planets. All five worlds are scorching hot, according to NASA officials; though their chances at housing life are slim to none, the presence of water is indeed a positive sign.

“We’re very confident we see a water signature for multiple planets,” says Avi Mandell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “This work really opens the door for comparing how much water is present in atmospheres on different kinds of exoplanets – for example, hotter versus cooler ones.”

So now we know there are things beyond our world humans can utilize. The next step involves actually getting to them. Will we look for ways to bring the water back, or will WE go to the water?

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The answer to this question is probably light years away, especially since space travel seems a little dangerous for the time being.

Black holes, for example, are strong enough to swallow stars and each other. One was recently caught “cannibalizing” its next-door neighbor, while a separate hole, dubbed XJ1500 0154, has been witnessed eating the body of a nearby star for over ten years…

And it’s still not done!

Earth won’t get sucked into a blackhole anytime soon

The good news is that Earth’s closest black hole is still too far away to be reached by any rocket ship. At the same time, there’s no telling what we’ll build in the future, and black holes can easily form without the slightest bit of warning.

Black holes emerge when stars run out of fuel and die. This is called a nova. When a neutron star becomes a Supernova, the energy literally tears a hole in space, thereby creating a strong gravitational pull.

Granted a spaceship did get close enough, it would likely encounter massive difficulties with the black hole’s activity. Movies like Event Horizon don’t seem so far-fetched, anymore.

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And… then there’s the space junk

Space is also loaded with junk, and so far, attempts to clean it have failed. The amount of debris orbiting Earth stretches far beyond anything we could imagine. Consisting of things like metal from rockets, abandoned equipment and bits of retired satellites, the mass is big enough to damage anything that crosses its path, making space travel virtually impossible at the present time.

So let’s consider: could humans ever travel to or colonize other planets? The answer is, “It’s possible with time.” Eons and eons of time… We’re an innovative species that’s often strived to do the impossible, but will this happen during our lifetimes?

The day may come when humans find themselves lounging by the pool inside a Mars crater, but who will live to experience it is an entirely different story.

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