Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Space Colonies Study Project meeting

On Saturday I attended the first of a series of meetings at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society in Vauxhall, London for the new study project on space colonization.  It was great to meet some of the others in the project especially after the skype discussions.  We talked about a lot of different aspects of the colonization of space (along with a whole lot of other things) and we made a great deal of progress.

The meeting was chaired by the leader of the project, space advocate Jerry Stone.  Jerry was particularly excited about the then forthcoming launch of MAVEN, the latest NASA mission to Mars.  As we know, the launch went well and so at last Jerry really can call himself an interplanetary poet as his haiku about Mars as a destination for human exploration is on its way!

We talked about companies and other organisations we could contact to see if they have any interest in supporting or being involved in the project and this is an early goal for the project to look into.

The differing use of plant life on board the colony was looked at and its differing roles in not only providing sustenance but also the psychological well being of the colonists.  A broad selection for biodiversity was considered but initially fast growing species such as pine and fir trees might be used to ensure an ecosystem could get hold.  We decided it would be useful to discuss these points with ecologists and the use of modelling ecosystems in the colony in simulations was discussed.

It was noted that it could be difficult to produce plastics in a space colony and the use of carbonaceous asteroids or plants as a source or substitute was considered.  It might be useful to look at Deep Space Industries or Planetary Resources and if they are doing any work in this field. 

One of the themes of the day to me was the goal of the colonization of space and its importance. The group concluded that the settlement of space by human civilization was an end in itself especially as it is virtually to be certain to be accompanied by an array of other life from Earth.  The aim was to develop the solar system as an area for human habitation. This was taken as a given and the utility of space colonization in achieving other, hopefully profit bearing, activities was looked at as a way of initiating such a project.

Early on, one such idea put forward was the use of a space colony as a venue for experimental synthetic biology.  Synthetic biology, it was suggested, is a growth industry for the twenty first century yet at the same time, there are many alarmed by the possible dangers it presents.  An area within a space colony could be an ideal experimental arena for this industry with the possibility of it being totally isolated. 

The author at BIS headquarters
The possible need to add nutrients to the lunar soil used in the colony’s construction as soil for growing was discussed and also the need for possible extraction of any toxins.  The lack of good experimental data on the coriolis effect and implications it might have for colonists was noted.

We also examined the general modes of construction of a space colony and the need for the worker’s habitats to be built first of all.  The potential use of foam concrete and foam metal was looked at in the construction of the of the colony.  The use of a mass driver to propel construction material from the moon to L5, the site of the colony, was also discussed and concerns were raised about how accurate one would be.  An alternative of moving an asteroid in to position first of all was suggested.

The Robonaut on the International Space Station was referred to in our discussion of the colony’s construction and also in the context of the building of Space Solar Power Satellites. The generation of solar power from space using satellites was another of the primary uses put forward for a space colony.  Here, satellites constructed by workers from the colony would beam solar power down to Earth for a price.  The group considered that whilst robotics and automation had greatly increased in sophistication since the original studies from the seventies, it was not yet at the stage of a general “construction droid” although there was nothing to suggest this might not be possible in the future.  Such droids might work in a group or swarm.

The generation of energy using solar power from space has always been the main practical aim given for the initial settlement of space and the group felt more should be done to communicate this idea to the public. 

We then discussed the possible government and administration of a space colony and ideas included a full, digitally based democracy.  I gave the group a short presentation on the legal aspects of space colonies and in particular the use of extraterrestrial resources such as lunar material.  A discussion of the Moon Treaty from 1979 in particular lead to concerns that whilst the treaty had not been given sufficient standing by the international community it might still be used to challenge attempts by governments or organisations seeking to exploit lunar or asteroid resources.

It was a great day with a real sense of achievement and I am looking forward to further meet ups as the project continues.  We were even treated to some tasty treats including a cake decorated with the project’s logo!

The study project's logo bearing cake, courtesy of Jerry

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