Thursday, 27 June 2013

Colonies in Space - a proposed study project from the British Interplanetary Society

The British Interplanetary Society ran a presentation by Jerry Stone of Spaceflight UK on colonies in space last night and I was pleased to go along to find out more.  The British Interplanetary Society is the world's oldest space advocacy organisations and is exclusively aimed at promoting astronautics and space exploration.  Their headquarters are in London and finding them was made a lot easier for me by the bold lettering on the front of their building on South Lambeth Road. (Click on the images for a closer look.)

When I walked in I was met by a gentleman called Richard who made me feel very welcome and was good enough to make me a cup of coffee.  We had a chat about many space related activities and especially the Russian space programme.  A number of models of launchers and vehicles were to be found in the entrance room including a one twentieth model of HOTOL, the proposed British single stage to orbit spaceplane from the 1980s.

The Society has a wonderful display of photographs and pictures, many of which are signed by such legends as Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride and Bruce McCandless.  This included a print of a beautiful painting by Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the Moon.  They also have a large collection of commemorative medals and badges from the Soviet space programme.

Soon more attendees arrived and we were given access to the Society's impressively stocked library.  This seemed to have every book ever written on space travel and included many volumes of detailed technical information.

Then it was time for the presentation.  Jerry Stone is a freelance presenter on space exploration and astronomy and his talk was an exposition on the colonizing or settlement of space.  Drawing on the work of Gerard O'Neill, Jerry described in absorbing detail three different types of large space habitat.  He started with the Island One and set out some parameters for its construction which, very roughly, could cost around the same as the Apollo space programme and have a population of around ten or twenty thousand.  About five hundred metres across, no new and unknown materials would be needed to build it.  Its construction would use materials from either the Moon or near earth asteroids and could be completed in a little over six years.

Jerry moved onto describe the Stanford Torus, an alternative design for a large space habitat which uses large mirrors to direct energy from the sun.  A pleasant, almost idyllic sounding existence was described for the inhabitants who could engage in a range of new low gravity sports.  In his presentation, Jerry placed an interesting emphasis on the Skylon spaceplane (the successor to HOTOL) as the type of vehicle that would be of use in the construction process.  He also talked about the use of the mass driver, developed by Gerard O'Neill and his colleagues, as the means for transporting the large amount of material required in the habitats' construction. I was impressed with how powerful O'Neill's mass driver had become during his team's development work and how much potential such a technology might have.

The largest space habitat to feature from O'Neill's work, the Island Three, was looked at in some detail. This consists of two very large cylinder shaped habitats some four miles in diameter and twenty miles long although even larger habitats could be eventually constructed.  Their populations could be measured in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.  One of the main occupations of those living in such habitats would be the development of space based solar energy for Earth.

Ultimately the human population of the solar system could be counted in trillions rather than billions if such large scale habitats were constructed.

Jerry was keen to outline the advantages such a long term programme of the settlement of space could provide.  This included the following :

  • Moving polluting and destructive heavy industry off Earth and into space.
  • Allowing Earth's biosphere to recover from industrialization.
  • Greater political freedom for all as the habitats could allow new groups to set up independently.
  • A huge increase in human population without threatening Earth's biosphere.
  • Protecting civilization from existential threats such as asteroid impact on the Earth.
In conclusion, the presentation suggested such space colonies are a practical possibility albeit on a scale of the order of the Apollo space programme and that the advantages to the long term development of the human race are so great, it should be embraced as a concept for serious study.  

There were a number of interesting questions and points raised in the discussion afterwards. These included :
  • How would the inhabitants be protected from radiation? 
  • How would such space habitats be protected from asteroid impact? Jerry suggested that they would in fact generally be robust enough to withstand most impacts and normally there would be no danger to the occupants as long as repair work could be carried out reasonably promptly.
  • Space habitats of this sort generate a gravity like field for the occupants by rotating.  There was a discussion about whether a full 1g was required or whether it might be of help to both the inhabitants and the construction of the habitats to accept slightly less than 1g in return for the habitats rotating at a slower rate.
  • Points were made about the huge quantities of nitrogen that would be needed for the atmosphere inside the very large Island Three habitats.
  • Also, points were made about the projected population densities which might be rather more than the idyllic, rural setting the paintings from the seventies usually suggest.
  • Of particular concern were how such habitats would be governed and what laws would apply to their citizens.  The possibility that such potentially closed off and isolated communities might become pockets of tyranny was also mentioned.
In all it was a fascinating presentation and well worth the trip.  I signed up to take part in the proposed study project and hope this is put into effect and that I can make a contribution.


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