Next Steps For Mankind: Earth 2.0, or In Our Solar System?
There is a dream, often explored in science fiction, where humanity inhabits not just one planet, but many.
While the dream is still centuries away, as is ‘Earth 2.0‘, the reality, working towards small outposts on Mars or the Moon or even beyond is overwhelming compelling and can provide many rewards.
Humanity may get ‘backup‘ outposts, but for centuries, will have no real second home, and over 99% of us will still need to live on our one finite planet.
Answer: No, ‘Earth 2.0’, discoveries do not provide extra places we could live!
Science fiction provides two types of vision of the future of humanity escaping the shackles of Earth. The first, A Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune and Interstellar future, where humans travel to habitable worlds throughout the galaxy, and the second, a Rendezvous With Rama and The Expanse, future where humans first colonize our own solar system long, before ever reaching ‘the stars’.
I have a page dedicated to examining the realities of colonizing an ‘Earth 2.0’, and the reality is, we evolved to live on a very specific planet, that had been totally transformed over billions of years, as plants created an oxygen atmosphere the planet did not have naturally. Finding another planter already transformed to the exact same recipe would be against all odds, and given the role life on that planet would have to have played in the transformation, it raises the question of whether we should invade if we did find a such a planet.
More realistically, we will almost certainly need to learn to transform our own planets to live on other planets. The next steps for humanity are already planned, such as space stations, more probes, colonizing Mars and perhaps the moon. These are the next steps for this century.
Space Stations: Home for Hundreds?
Mir, and predecessors.
Prior to Mir, Russia launched a number of earlier space stations, spending anywhere from weeks to 9 years in space.
Mir was a space station that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, operated by the Soviet Union and later by Russia. Mir was the first modular space station and was assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996. It had a greater mass than any previous spacecraft. At the time it was the largest artificial satellite in orbit, succeeded by the International Space Station (ISS) after Mir‘s orbit decayed. ,Wikipedia.
Beginning in 1986, the Soviet then Russian space station Mir hosted numerous long-duration missions during its 15 years of operation, extending the human spaceflight endurance record to 438 days, completed by cosmonaut Valeri V. Polyakov in March 1995. His 14-month spaceflight, long enough for a round-trip journey to Mars, remains the longest single space mission to date.NASA: Space station long missions., longest stay in space
ISS (International Space Station).
Following the Russian Mir and USA Skylab, five countries all collaborated on the ISS: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).
As of March 2020, ISS has hosted 170 long-duration crewmember flights of durations ranging from 48 to 340 days, with the majority in the five- to seven-month range.Longest ISS stay, just under one year.
Beyond the ISS.
The ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2030, with by that time, 5 private space stations expected to be operating, plus the Chinese Tiangong ‘Palace in the Sky’. The end of the ISS will mean the end of over 25 years of humans continually in space.
Very few (if any) of this new crop of space stations are populated full-time. Private space modules are built with automation in mind, fewer skilled repairs, and no orbital spacewalks. In fact, most run without anyone on board at all, keeping them ready for visitors or tending to long duration experiments. These space stations look similar. They each have prominent solar arrays, communication antenna, and emergency escape capsules. They are each smaller by far than ISS ever was, but are built for different purposes: Blue Origin’s station is a repurposed rocket, making for a long, slender station.Popular Mechanics: What Space Stations Will Look Like in 2030
Can humans live in a space station?
We have already had people living off Earth in the ISS for almost one year, and in Mir for almost two years. I would still say these are just visits or ‘missions’, and not really ‘life’ as time in space is limited by current space stations having no simulation of gravity. Until a person could exist in space for their entire life, we don’t truly have humans living ‘off planet’.
Despite being labelled space stations due to their ability to house people for short stays, everything planned so far is a step back from the ISS, which say humans always on board, to what are effectively much of the time unmanned satelites.
While we could technically build a space station humans where humans could live, and there are proposals, such as the Gateway Foundation, no plans are yet concrete.
Mars: Home for 1 million?
One of the first was ‘Mars One‘, from 2011 to 2021, an ambitious project to create a permanent settlement on Mars that ran out of funds in 2016.
Eventually, Musk wrote, he envisions 1,000 or more ITS spaceships, each carrying 100 or more people, leaving Earth orbit during each of these Mars windows. The architecture could conceivably get 1 million people to Mars within the next 50 to 100 years, he has said.Scientific American 2017: Elon Musk Publishes Plans for Colonizing Mars
Elon Musk plans to create a colony on Mars, and in 2016, his target date to start was 2022. In his defence, some events between 2016 and now were not easy to predict, but Elon Musk still predicts a human will land on Mars by 2029.
In 2016, he said, “If things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024 with arrival in 2025.”Insider: Elon Musk has another prediction for when humans will land on Mars: 2029
In 2016, the prediction was “in 8 years”, now in 2022, the prediction is in 7 years.
China plans to send its first crewed mission to Mars in 2033, with regular follow-up flights, under a long-term plan to build a permanently inhabited base on the Red Planet and extract its resources.China plans for first manned mission to Mars in 2033
China plans to be not that far behind Elon Musk, and potentially ahead of NASA who have a plan of late 2030s or early 2040s.
Permanent Settlement on the Moon.
Beside its technological and financial challenges, colonization and particularly exploitation, like its realizations on Earth, has contemporarily been reflected on and criticized as inherently problematic colonialism, and its commercialization having been one of the most contended issues for national and international lunar regulation and laws (such as the Moon treaty).Wikipedia: Colonization of the moon.
The next locations are the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, and the major moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Reality Check: Home will remain as only one finite planet.
Not population overflow, but an emergency backup for 0.0125% of people.
1 million people, is 0.0125% of the Earths population, and that is the number Elon Musk is targeting to get to Mars this century.
While that is seen as a hugely ambitious plan, note that the global population, at the time of writing this section (July 2022), is increasing by over 80 million people every year. Unless we can send over 1 million people per week to Mars, the Mars exercise is not about catering for our growing population.
“Either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct,” he said. “An extinction event is inevitable and we’re increasingly doing ourselves in.”
Elon Musk sees having a colony on Mars as a second population in case the one here on Earth is wiped out. While the goal is a second planet, it is only a second planet for 0.0125% of the human population.Elon Musk Thinks Humans Need To Move To Mars To Avoid Extinction
Can we even get 1 million people to Mars this century?
This would require a “Battlestar Galactica”-like “Mars Colonial Fleet” of about 10,000 flights to Mars carrying 100 people per flight.
“But 10,000 flights is a lot of flights,” Musk said. “It will take a while to build up to 1,000 ships.”Business Insider. This is Elon Musk’s plan to begin colonizing Mars by 2022
In the most ambitious of all plans, by a very ambitious person who concedes he may fail, Elon Musk targeted perhaps 1 million people on Mars within 100 years back in 2016. However, recall that at that time he planned the first manned craft in 8 years time, and now 6 years later, he feels the target is still 7 years out. Yet despite the starting date moving back, Musk recently stated a goal of 1 million on Mars by 2050, which is more aggressive than ever.
Musk states that a colony of 1 million is the minimum viable colony on Mars.
Musk spoke of a herculean Battlestar Galactica-like effort to transport thousands of colonists to Mars with a thousand SpaceX Starship rockets. Musk’s vision remains aligned with a series of tweets from 2020, in which he articulated a plan to build 100 Starships each year over a 10-year period.
Departing in batches, each Starship would leave for Mars during key 30-day windows that open once every 26 months (the launch interval is to take advantage of the Earth-Mars alignment, when the two planets are closest to each other). Should launches begin in 2028, and assuming this intense launch cadence can be realized, Musk figures the Martian city of his dreams, with its million inhabitants, could come to fruition in just 22 years.
For Musk, the lofty figure of one million isn’t just a goal or a prediction—it’s a necessary requirement for sustaining a colony on Mars. The “critical threshold,” he told Anderson, “is if the ships from Earth stop coming for any reason,” which could decide the fate of the Martian colony and ultimately of humanity itself.Elon Musk’s Plan to Send a Million Colonists to Mars by 2050 Is Pure Delusion
Clearly, the 2050 target is ‘bold’ to say the least. The entire plan is based launching a project for 1 million people to go to Mars, without any trial runs or projects with small teams proving that key projects such as extracting water and minerals and growing food on Mars are even possible.
How many people can live ‘off Earth’ in the next few centuries?
In our solar system there are 8 planets. Of these, 4 are gas giants that do not even have a surface we could try to live on. That leaves the 4 rocky planets. Of the rocky planets, Mercury is too close to the Sun, and Venus is even hotter , with temperatures that can exceed 467°C ( 872°F), due to greenhouse effects.
Other than Mars, the only other places humans can live can only provide for a very small number of people.
Elon Musk plans 1 million for Mars. The reality is, the next choice of ‘the Moon’, cannot provide home to many people. If we could get 2 million people living ‘off planet’ in space before 2200, it would be an incredible achievement, but it would have almost zero impact on saving the environment here on Earth.
Assume for the moment that Earth can support 10 billion people. Earth has a surface area of 510,072,000 km2, and Mars has a surface Area of 144,370,000 km2 , so even we are able to totally reengineer Mars with yet undiscovered and untested technology, and if we could then manage the same population density as on Earth, that would enable 2.8 billion people on Mars, which is the difference between 8 billion today, and the 10.8 billion predicted for later this century.
Lessons From Sci-Fi: Predicting the future and shaping beliefs.
Accurate predictions of the future as a theme of Sci-Fi.
Authors as ‘Futurists’: Sometimes.
Much of science fiction could be classified as ‘future fiction’, with novels set in the real world, but in the future. This results in authors of Sci-Fi novels and screenplays spending time trying to predict the future, and a portion of people who keep practicing something become skilled at it, so it is logical that there have been science fiction writers who are considered ‘futurists’. If you spend much time contemplating the future, and want to both communicate your ideas, and make money, writing a science fiction is one of the few avenues available.
Not all science fiction is future fiction, and not all future fiction contains insights into our possible future world, but there have been enough ‘futurist’ authors with sound insights that it what occurs in fiction cannot be simply dismissed as just fiction.
Some authors become regarded as visionaries, including:
Arthur C Clark.
“Clarke was a science fiction writer, an avid populariser of space travel, and a futurist of a distinguished ability” (Wikipedia).
H. G. Wells:
In addition to his fame as a writer, he was prominent in his lifetime as a forward-looking, even prophetic social critic who devoted his literary talents to the development of a progressive vision on a global scale. A futurist, he wrote a number of utopian works and foresaw the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the World Wide Web. His science fiction imagined time travel, alien invasion, invisibility, and biological engineering. Brian Aldiss referred to Wells as the “Shakespeare of science fiction”, while Charles Fort referred to him as a “wild talent”.
Writing for the New York Times in August of 1964, the great sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov laid out some speculation for what the world would be like in 50 years.
He did it under the guise of an imagined visit to the World’s Fair of 2014… and that happens to be the year we’ve just entered.Insider: In 1964, The Brilliant Isaac Asimov Wrote Some Predictions For 2014 — Wait Until You See How Right He Was
Sci-Fi Predictions Shape Perceptions, but can create false expectations.
Many works contain technology predictions, and people often marvel at the accuracy of many predictions. Even in low budget video content, such as the original Star Trek, writers are able to make predictions of future technology with little practical constraints. Yes, flying cars have not become the reality often predicted, but technology predictions are a significant source of false expectations.
Predictions of other worlds.
In science fiction, it seems almost every planet not only supports life, but also supports human life. Most people are going to realise that this is simply convenient, but if science fiction is shaping perceptions at all, it could be raising false expectations of what to expect is out there in terms of alternate places for people to live. When I ask people “what do you imagine an Earth 2.0 would be like?”, it is surprising how many imagine the impossible uninhabited planet that could support human life.
Often the constraints in predicting other worlds are practical limitations. In science fiction, the galaxy is usually full of planets with the same gravity as Earth, and the same atmosphere as Earth, because simulating a different gravity is not easy, and filming everyone in a spacesuit all the time has little appeal.
We know from the list of exoplanets discovered so far, that almost none have the same mass as Earth, so they will not have the same gravity. To have an oxygen atmosphere, you need plants, and they can only convert CO2 into oxygen at a rate that keeps temperature constant as the temperature of their star rises. This means that the only way to have a similar amount of oxygen, is to have similar sized star.
Clearly, only a very small percentage of planets can possibly be very similar to Earth. Plus, remember that even Earth during most of its life was not a planet we could exist on without a space suit.
But seeing the message over an over that almost all planets can all seemingly allow humans to just walk around does set perceptions.
Predictions of Space Travel.
The next area is space travel.
Science fiction depictions of space travel range from realistic with improved implementations of technology we have now, through to spacecraft that can almost magically jump through the galaxy. I do wonder what a survey would if asking the question “when do you feel humans will have technology that makes interstellar travel practical?”. I would think most people see it as part of our future, and wonder how many feel this could be achieved in the next century.
Sci-Fi Fiction: A Selection of futures?
Star Wars is a galaxy far away, and long ago, so there is no attempt at a prediction on when humans will achieve life off Earth.
Dune is set more than 13,000 years in the future, and whether humans colonized the solar system is not to my knowledge explored.
In Star Trek, Starfleet has “General Order Number One”, or “The Prime Directive”, where Starfleet “will not interfere in the natural evolution of a species or culture”, which should very much rules out any Earth 2.0 style expansion, as any planet with oxygen must have had billions of years of life and evolution. It seems humans met aliens before any expansion either within the solar system or outside.
As first mentioned in Star Trek: The Original Series, and further established by the events of Star Trek: First Contact, Cochrane is the first human to create a warp drive system, and in 2063, his successful warp speed flight draws the attention of the Vulcans, leading to humanity’s first official contact with an alien race.Wikipedia: Zefram Cochrane
In Interstellar, humans manage to travel to even another galaxy through a portal in very much the current time frame.
Further, it seems remarkably common to find planets where humans can breath, and gravity is the similar to on Earth.
Rendezvous with Rama.
The actor Morgan Freeman has declared he is determined to produce a movie based on the novel ‘Rendevous with Rama’ by Arthur C Clarke. Great Sci-Fi writers like Clarke are renown for their insights in to the possible future and this novel is no exception. After again reading this novel I realised the insights into possible future with regard to the human population is extremely thought provoking.
The bottom line is that the full analysis is that this solar system does cannot offer a lot of accommodation for human beings beyond earth.
There are four rocky planets. Earth is already occupied, Venus is a superheated hell completely and it is beyond even Clarke’s imagination that it could be made habitable. In the universe of ‘Rama’ a 100,000 humans can live on a the small most hospitable area of Mercury but really Mars is the best possibility. Without Earth’s magnetic shield the Radiation the radiation is a killer, average surface temperatures on even in summer at the equator have a daily minimum of -70 degrees, there is no oxygen and at Mars atmospheric pressure water boils at only 10 degrees above freezing.
That leaves moons. Arthur C Clark has people living on the larger moons from Earth’s moon all the way out to Triton (a moon of Neptune). Still, even in the wildest dreams of science fiction, all these colonies combined have a population insignificant compared to Earth.
During the 20th century, the population of Earth more than tripled. There is simple nothing even close to the equivalent of even one more Earth of space in this solar system in our wildest dreams. The scope to repeat the 20th century is a far greater challenge.
The lesson here is that to find real room for expansion, humans will either have to construct their own planets, or live inside planets/moons, or that ultimate dream, travel to planets around other stars. All of these bring many complex questions, but the clear fact is that finding significantly more real room for expansion in term of where we can live, is very far in the future.
In the next century, on the most ambitious prediction, it is possible that as many as one million humans could live ‘off Earth’. The goal, is not to increase ‘carrying capacity’ of the human environment and provide for a larger number of humans, but to have a second colony that could survive if the Earth meets catastrophe. But overall, for 99.9% of humanity, we have only one planet for the foreseeable future.
- 2022 July 26: Rewrite to update on progress of colonising the solar system.
- 2016 May 31: Initial publication as “Lessons from Sci-Fi on future expansion”