Thursday, 4 July 2013

Island One - A habitat in Space

Imagine a future in which life has spread from our Earth into space.  A future in which life, people, animals and plants, are no longer confined to the one world.  Over population and the degradation of Earth’s natural environments are no longer a threat.  Where men and women live, work and play in space and even raise children there.  A future in which the enormous resources to be found in space are put to use for everyone’s benefit to make life better for all of humankind.

The first steps to make imagination a reality would recapture the old tales of the pioneer, the explorer and the settler.  The people who were brave enough to go beyond the edge of what was thought possible, beyond the edge of the map that everyone else used.  It has only been such people who have lead civilization to the heights it has reached today.  It will only be such people who take civilization onward and outward from our island home of Earth into the vast ocean of space.

This may seem a dream but there are very real, detailed plans to make it happen.   In 1929 the British scientist John Desmond Bernal proposed a new idea for a long term habitat for people to live in space, called the Bernal Sphere.  During the seventies, a series of studies at Stanford University for permanent space settlements proposed a design referred to as Island One which was very similar to the Bernal Sphere.  This, according to the plan, was the first phase in building large scale habitats in space. 

The scientist most associated with these ideas is Gerard O’Neill and his book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space is a well known exposition of how people might live in space.  In it he shows how they can be built with today’s technology and how they will benefit Earth’s population as a whole.

A principal thesis of The High Frontier is that the onward progress of the human race will encompass the use of the enormous resources the settlement of space will put at our disposal.  No more shackled to just what our beautiful home planet can provide, we, our children and future generations can lead richer, better lives without spoiling the Earth as we have done. 

The initial impetus to settle space and build colonies such as the Bernal Sphere will be to have direct access to the effectively unlimited power of the Sun.  Solar power directly beamed from stations in near Earth space could help our civilization overcome its addiction to fossil fuels and free us from the environmental and geo-political issues involved.  The outer solar system contains enormous amounts of ice which of course can provide water for a growing human presence spreading out from Earth.

Perhaps the settlement of space might have other less direct advantages.  Freeing ourselves from the Earth and our historical and cultural boundaries we may see ourselves more as members of an inclusive human family of all peoples.  The minds of humans might be liberated to contemplate novel ways of life, new philosophies fitted to take us into an exciting future of extraordinary opportunity.   

The smaller version of the Bernal Sphere proposed by Gerard O’Neill is around 500 metres in diameter and would be able to provide living and recreational space for a population of around ten thousand people, a huge increase on the space habitats that have been built to date.  Away from the central sphere, the outer rings contain the layered agricultural areas used for growing plant and animal food.  Mirrors placed around the habitation sphere reflect the sun’s energy inside, both for natural sunlight and for providing energy.  Panels at either end radiate away any excess energy and the units at either end provide for large workshops in which the settlement’s industrial activity takes place and also for docking stations for transport to and from the settlement.

Although it might seem a fantastic enterprise to construct such a settlement in space, far larger than anything built to date, it does not require any new exotic materials to be created.  Although a diameter of 500 metres is large, it must be remembered that the International Space Station, the largest space habitat constructed to date is itself roughly 100 metres across.  Much of the material used to build the Island One could be transferred from the surface of the Moon or alternatively from near Earth objects and asteroids.  This material would also be used as shielding for the habitat area from cosmic rays.

The inhabitants of the Island One settlement live very much like people on Earth do, waking up in the morning, going to work and spending time with friends and family.  The whole settlement rotates at a little under two revolutions per minute.  The rotation provides a force that acts as a substitute for gravity and at the equator of the spherical inhabited volume, the force derived from the rotation is the same as that experienced on the Earth’s surface.  Away from the equator, this force tapers off so that around the poles it will be possible for the residents of the sphere to enjoy micro-gravity sports and even human powered flight.

Constructed in space, the Island One settlement would be placed possibly in Earth orbit or alternatively at one of several points near the Earth and Moon where gravity is effectively balanced out by the competing pull of each neighbouring object.  The advantage would be that less energy would be needed to keep the settlement in place if it was positioned in one of these libration points in the Earth Moon system.

Establishing a large settlement like this in space would be a resounding confirmation that life from Earth was no longer restricted to just the one world.  Like the Apollo moon landings it would be an extraordinary and ambitious leap into a new world of thoughts and feelings about our place in the universe.  Instead of being limited to our narrow, parochial concerns we will, like the great thinkers, explorers and scientists of the past, be reaching out to new horizons, to break free of the gravity of our old perceptions and preconceptions.

More practically, the human population of Earth is still growing and by the middle of the twenty first century is projected to be around nine billion. The majority of people in what we call the developing world, which will by then be far and away the largest segment of humanity, will want and demand a way of life similar to the developed world and all the riches a Western consumer lifestyle that entails. 

Life on our home planet is already threatened by our burgeoning numbers – the great increase in human population in the coming years will surely make that worse. Instead, the enormous resources to be found in space can be put to use for the benefit of humanity to give everyone the chance to enjoy a good life and ensure the natural beauty of Earth can continue to inspire and delight generations to come.

The Island One space settlement is a first step towards the large scale radiation of life from the Earth into space. With humanity no longer confined to one world, we are much less likely to be vulnerable to catastrophes, whether they be natural or of human origin, such as a nuclear war. We may well assure life some security in the cosmos that it did not have before. 

This early space settlement would hopefully be only the start of the settlement of space. The resources available in space include an enormous amount of water in the form of ice to be found in the asteroid belt. This could allow for an extraordinary expansion of the human population from the billions of today ultimately to trillions spread throughout the solar system.

After this beginning, life may one day spread to the stars and we would be responsible for it. The human race would be bringing life to an otherwise seemingly dead cosmos, a wonderful role for us to play in the continuing evolution of the universe.

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