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The Cosmos is my environment

I’m overcoming Gravity

It’s easy when you’re sad like me.

“Music is my Aeroplane” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers

It is sad to see human encroachment decimating the ecosystems of the Earth and how people mistreat others. But this story is about our larger environment. The Earth’s natural resources are a small chip of all the similar resources spread around the solar system. We rely on energy from the Sun to maintain living conditions here on Earth. And there are lots and lots of more examples of how we depend not only on Earth but also the entire Universe to keep our living situation hospitable. We are all made of stardust.

“All the elements in your body were forged millions of years ago in the heart of a faraway star that exploded and died. The explosion scattered those elements across the desolations of deep space where they came together to form new stars. These also exploded and died, and on and on it went. The elements coming together and bursting apart forming shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings! Until finally the elements came together to make you, you are unique in the Universe. There is only one of you, and there will never be another.”

That telling by Doctor Who is a poetic lesson on the actual formation of the necessary chemical elements which make up the living things on Earth, and presumably life everywhere. Over the past fifteen years or so we have confirmed that a large portion of the stars we see out in space have a variety of planetary systems around them. But to find living things out there, it is too soon to tell.

Those of us wealthy enough to possess internet access no longer have the excuse of not knowing. If you are overwhelmed with all the petty misinformation and trivia, you can find clearer learning paths by trying free online classes. EdX.org and Coursera.org both contain huge varieties of free, self-paced online college classes by the most respected names in education. These courses have reached a high quality where anyone can get out of them according to what they put in.

From all the evidence we can gather, life should form and develop on many other planets similar to the way it has on Earth. Without direct evidence though we are left to speculate on how common or rare life is in the Cosmos. If life out there is common, we should in the near future become technologically capable of finding it. If life in the Universe is exceedingly rare, we should learn to appreciate how precious our lives on Earth really are. Either way, it is clear and self-evident that lives on Earth are of profound value and should be deemed cherishable—all life; not just those that benefit me directly.

The Earth is not a closed system. Sunlight floods down on us during daylight hours, while on the night side, excess heat radiates back into space. This cycle is the energy basis for all plants and hence the entire ecosystem of the Earth. When we study ecology, it is erroneous to confine thinking only to things we observe on the surface. Hot gases evaporate off into space across the outer reaches of our upper atmosphere. All the while dust and debris pummel those upper atmospheric realms and filter down as dust and sometimes large rocks. The amount of water on Earth is not constant, some evaporates away and some comet stuff rains down on us.

There are millions of more details where the state of the Universe sets the stage for all our daily activities. The background temperature of deep space is 2.73 degrees  Centigrade above absolute zero. If that temperature were 200 degrees, then the nighttime Earth could not radiate heat so efficiently. In the early history of life on Earth that background temperature was higher. But how much higher was it? What was the impact of that?

Gravity and momentum working in harmony with magnetic fields and nuclear forces built up this wonderful planet we live on. And this same operation is happening again and again all over the Milky Way and across the Universe. Courageous explorers today have billions of times more possibilities than those of yore who discovered continents. Humans have been to the Moon and back and found it deserted. The tourism potential is astronomical but so is the financial overhead. As for Mars, the possibilities are staggering.

The Mars One mission design current schedule begins placing hardware and supplies on the surface of Mars beginning in 2024. “In a thousand years everyone will still remember those who were first on Mars.” the website claims. The Planetary Society foresees humans orbiting Mars by 2033 and landing on Mars by 2039. Bas Lansdorp, the chief of Mars One is striving for sooner, NASA is figuring much later. Would we allow our leadership position to slip away so quickly? The space program is not destroying the environment; indeed, many people at NASA are helping to spearhead conservation.

Back on Earth, we watch as the Moon and Sun cause the tides to flow to and fro. The crust of the Earth as well, rises and sinks just a little as locations come and go from under the Moon and Sun. A subtle influence from the Moon aids in building the continents and mountain ranges. The intricacies of how this affects volcanic activity and earthquakes are little known. But the tides are a part of our ecology, this is certain.

If our solar system were closer to the center of the galaxy, neighboring stars would have greater impact on our daily lives. The nighttime sky would be more crowded with stars and they would move by more closely and frequently. Outer space would therefore be warmer and orbits a bit less stable. If, on the other hand, we were further out in the galaxy, we could have a better vista of the cosmic landscape. Where we are now, much of our view of deep space is obscured by the gas and dust of the Milky Way.

Star systems in both inner and outer regions of the galaxy may be visited by humans very far in the future. The other stars orbit the galaxy along their own curves. Then, colonies out there will drift away slowly and improvements in space travel technology would need to occur more quickly. It is probably easier to see how exploration of our own solar system should advance.

The Planetary Society is suggesting solar light sailing as a preferred means to travel around the nearby regions of the solar system. A reflecting Mylar sail, if large enough can push small spacecraft around at the leisurely pace which sailors should enjoy. Suppose we can aim the sail so that reflected light can be used to power solar collectors on the dark side of the moon. We could be sailing in space and helping our lunar neighbors (the Lunies) at the same time.

Designs for potential rescue operations in space, asteroid and comet mining, as well as home world defense from meteors, and space trash clean up makes reliable space travel lucrative and a necessity. Rocket scientists of today remind me of the old inventors tampering with the first steam locomotives, a sort of modern day early stage development. We don’t need to devastate the environment to facilitate a transportation industry. We can do things intelligently this time. That is if environmental scientists have the foresight to work together with entrepreneurs like the SpaceX leader, Elon Musk. SpaceX is an employee owned company after all, with an engineering facility in Seattle.

Mars is a fantastic location for first attempts at terraforming. The planet is distant, small, cold, dry and possesses a thin atmosphere. Now, if a number of comets could be diverted to collide with Mars in the right direction things would change. The collision could very subtly nudge Mars’ orbit a tiny bit closer-in, making travel time slightly less. The comet’s mass would be added to Mars making its surface gravity a slight bit more like Earth’s. Comets have a high content of water ice so the surface of Mars would become a good deal wetter. Becoming a bit more massive, Mars would hold onto a thicker atmosphere, making the surface warmer (and the air eventually breathable). We would hope these comets collided onto the surface in parts very distant to human settlements.

Mars settlement may be clumsy at first, like the popular movie, “The Martian” is illustrating. But the excitement of getting an operation like that correctly done should outshine all previous human achievements put together. The surface of Mars is as large as all the combined continents of Earth, equal in real-estate. Let’s give it a try.

Until then, Earth remains our cozy home. It is a home full of day to day struggles to be sure. Yes, the great social justice battles in our midst are of profound importance. Keep a perspective, because the Universe is so vast that everything we know is a miniscule fraction. Our job is to make this fraction worthy of lasting into the future. The future may still be brighter than we think.

Rus lives in Olympia and is our WIPster science geek.

 

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