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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Charlie Stross: Space Colonization

This is part of a longer essay by Charlie Stross on the economics of space colonization:

The High Frontier, Redux, by Charlie Stross: ...I write SF for a living. Possibly because of this, folks seem to think I ought to be an enthusiastic proponent of space exploration and space colonization. Space exploration? Yep, ... I'm all in favour of advancing the scientific enterprise. But actual space colonisation is another matter entirely...

Historically, crossing oceans and setting up farmsteads on new lands conveniently stripped of indigenous inhabitants ... has been a cost-effective proposition. But the scale factor involved in space travel is strongly counter-intuitive. ...

[I]f we're looking for habitable real estate..., [w]hile exoplanets are apparently common as muck, terrestrial planets are harder to find; Gliese 581c, the first such to be detected (and it looks like a pretty weird one, at that), is roughly 20.4 light years away, or using our metaphor, about ten miles.

Try to get a handle on this: [using the metaphor] it takes us 2-5 years to travel two inches. But the proponents of interstellar travel are talking about journeys of ten miles. That's the first point I want to get across: that if the distances involved in interplanetary travel are enormous, and ... the distances and times involved in interstellar travel are mind-numbing.

This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you're not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money). ...

The long and the short of what I'm trying to get across is quite simply that, in the absence of technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, ... from today's perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics — interstellar travel for human beings is near-as-dammit a non-starter. And while I won't rule out the possibility of such seemingly-magical technology appearing at some time in the future, the conclusion I draw as a science fiction writer is that if interstellar colonization ever happens, it will not follow the pattern of historical colonization drives that are followed by mass emigration and trade between the colonies and the old home soil.

What about our own solar system?

After contemplating the vastness of interstellar space, our own solar system looks almost comfortingly accessible at first. Exploring our own solar system is a no-brainer: we can do it, we are doing it, and interplanetary exploration is probably going to be seen as one of the great scientific undertakings of the late 20th and early 21st century, when the history books get written.

But when we start examining the prospects for interplanetary colonization things turn gloomy again.

Bluntly, we're not going to get there by rocket ship.

Optimistic projects suggest that it should be possible ... to maintain a Lunar presence for a transportation cost ... to Moon Base One ... [of] not much more than a first-class return air fare from the UK to New Zealand ... except that such a price estimate is hogwash...

Whichever way you cut it, sending a single tourist to the moon is going to cost ..., for a mature reusable, cheap, rocket-based lunar transport cycle ... more like $1M. And that's before you factor in the price of bringing them back ...

If we want to go panning the (metaphorical) rivers for gold, we'd do better to send teleoperator-controlled robots... There probably are niches for human workers on a moon base, but ... Mission Control would be a lot happier with a pair of hands and a high-def camera that doesn't talk back and doesn't need to go to the toilet or take naps.

When we look at the rest of the solar system, the picture is even bleaker. Mars is ... in the same corner as "Gobi desert". As Bruce Sterling has puts it: "I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people settling the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach." In other words, going there to explore is fine and dandy — are robots are all over it already. But as a desirable residential neighbourhood it has some shortcomings, starting with the slight lack of breathable air and the sub-Antarctic nighttime temperatures and the Mach 0.5 dust storms, and working down from there.

Actually, there probably is a good reason for sending human explorers to Mars. And that's the distance: at up to 30 minutes, the speed of light delay means that remote control of robots on the Martian surface is extremely tedious. Either we need autonomous roots that can be assigned tasks and carry them out without direct human supervision, or we need astronauts in orbit or on the ground to boss the robot work gangs around.

On the other hand, Mars is a good way further away than the moon, and has a deeper gravity well. All of which drive up the cost per kilogram delivered to the Martian surface. Maybe FedEx could cut it as low as $20,000 per kilogram, but I'm not holding my breath.

Let me repeat myself: we are not going there with rockets. At least, not the conventional kind...

Again, as with interstellar colonization, there are other options. Space elevators, if we build them, will invalidate a lot of what I just said. Some analyses of the energy costs of space elevators suggest that a marginal cost of $350/kilogram to geosynchronous orbit should be achievable without waving any magic wands... And space elevators are attractive because they're a scalable technology... So, long term, space elevators may give us not-unreasonably priced access to space, including jaunts to the lunar surface for a price equivalent to less than $100,000 in today's money. At which point, settlement would begin to look economically feasible, except ...

We're human beings. We evolved to flourish in a very specific environment that covers perhaps 10% of our home planet's surface area... Space itself is a very poor environment for humans to live in. ... Cosmic radiation poses a serious risk ..., and unlike solar radiation ... the energies of the particles responsible make shielding astronauts extremely difficult. And finally, there's the travel time. Five and a half years to Jupiter system; six months to Mars.

Now, these problems are subject to a variety of approaches — including medical ones: does it matter if cosmic radiation causes ... cancers if we have advanced side-effect-free cancer treatments? Better still, if hydrogen sulphide-induced hibernation turns out to be a practical technique..., we may be able to sleep through the trip. But even so, when you get down to it, there's not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live their for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don't exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there's no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we'll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow... [T]he domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

    Posted by on Saturday, June 16, 2007 at 12:51 PM in Economics, Science, Technology | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (35)


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