It is often said that we are destined for the stars. We have explored the Earth and walked on the Moon, it seems that the next step is to colonize new planets and explore distant solar systems. We imagine great ships carrying hundreds of pioneering humans who will settle new worlds like the explorers of the past. I have a different vision of exploration 50-100 years in the future that I think is much more likely.
Rather than sending enormous spaceships full of people to explore space, we will send small but very sophisticated probes. These probes will be sent at the greatest fraction of c (the speed of light) that we can manage and they will be sent out by the thousands, even millions, in every conceivable direction. Some probes will be put into orbit around stars, but most will land on alien planets. Upon reaching the surface the probes will release their cargo of nanobots [microscopic self replicating robots that manipulate matter on the molecular level] which will use the matter on the planet’s surface to replicate themselves, build communication structures, and so on.
Due to energy limitations the probes will send only vital information back to Earth upon landing. However the nanobots will quickly get to work disassembling their mother probe, stripping its existing solar material and converting it, along with the no longer needed extra material, into a large solar array. With energy in constant supply the nanobots will take a few minutes to self-replicate into the trillions, and then start construction of a high powered communication antenna.
As soon as our new pioneer outpost is up and running, with solid energy supply, powerful communication system, and a multitude of sensors, a high bandwidth connection will be established with Earth. We will suddenly be able to see everything with lifelike clarity — as if we were standing right there.
Soon after the initial connection is made (a high priority task), the nanobots will build specialized scouting drones which will map the surface of the planet. These will likely be small bug-like robots that fly, swim, crawl etc. They will take soil/air/water samples, measure temperature, search for microbes and other signs of life, but they will also contribute data which will be used (back on Earth) to build a highly detailed, highly realistic 3D representation of the entire planet. Imagine Google Earth but with Matrix-like realism.
[If the planet is 5 light years away there will still be a 5 year trip, and 10 year round trip, for any communication. For this reason a person would not be able to actually pilot a rover or android built on the planet. This is one reason for the 3D virtual model rather than the real thing.]
Let’s compare manned space exploration with robotic space exploration.
Manned space travel:
- Space is big and mostly empty. Travel to other stars would take dozens, hundreds, thousands or millions of years. If humans go along they have to sit/float there, or sleep in cryo-sleep for the duration. They leave behind their friends and family as well as their home, and Earth loses some bright people.
- There are far more stars than people. Even if we sent millions of people into space; each small group heading for a different star, we would only explore a few thousand systems.
- Space is dangerous. Humans need air, water, food, narrow temperature range, and minimal amounts of radiation to survive. Even in cryo-sleep we would need life support systems as well as the necessary supplies to keep us alive when we land (all of this stuff means a very, very heavy ship. Heavy means slow and very energy expensive). If anything goes wrong along the way, that’s it. There is no help, no rescue. If the brave explorers survive, they face the challenge of not dying shortly thereafter. An alien planet could be hostile in a million different ways.
- Worst of all, humans are human. We make mistakes constantly. We misread, misjudge, and misunderestimate. We would likely give all important responsibilities to the ship computer (like HAL in 2001), but even then we rather easily get bored/lonely/crazy/homicidal/suicidal especially if stuck in a ship, or on a barren planet for the rest of eternity.
Robotic space travel:
- Space is still big, it will still take a long time for a probe to get anywhere, but since a probe does not have to support human life it can be much, much smaller. Since they are much smaller and have less jobs to do (life support etc.) they can be made more quickly, with less energy cost, less material cost, and no human potential cost. We will be able to send probes as quickly as they can be produced. We could send billions.
- Space is not nearly as dangerous for robots. The probe would be covered in solar cells, but as long as it has the right trajectory it can go to sleep and drift for millennia until it reaches its destination. Some probes would be lost due to micrometeoroids collisions etc. but there would be no loss of human life.
- This is the best part. The people on Earth will be able to go on with their lives just like normal while the probes spend many years travelling to their targets. As the probes start to reach their planets and map the surface the planet will come online for all of mankind to explore. You would be able to eat breakfast in your kitchen, then go sit in the Matrix jack-in chair, or whatever we use, and explore this planet that is many light years away. Even though it is just a simulation it looks, sounds, and feels exactly as it would if you were really there (besides the deadly radiation and zero atmosphere). You could explore without a spacesuit, without worrying about any mortal danger of any kind, without years of travel, without leaving your family behind, without any (or very little) cost to you, and best of all you could come back for dinner before checking out another planet 300 light years in the other direction.
To be continued… In part 2!
I am not against manned space travel nor do I think we will absolutely never colonize other planets, I just think the scenario above will be far more common and practical. There will no doubt be some fearless explorers who volunteer to go wherever we can.
A few popular arguments in favor of manned space travel as a necessity for survival and some counterpoints:
‘The Earth is running out of resources!
The Earth is running out of easily accessible resources that we are currently dependent on. Even if we nuked the entire surface of the Earth and poured all of our remaining oil into the ocean, it would still be easier to live here than on Mars, for example. As far as other, more temperate planets go, the situation is no better. Long before we have the technology to travel the immense distances to other planets in other systems, we will be able to clean up Earth good as new. There will never be a time when it is easier to relocate the entire human race, than to just clean up Earth. [See Abundance by Peter Diamandis for more info]
‘But we are becoming over populated!
Again, we are over-populated based on the way we currently do things. Technology is the ultimate resource liberator. There is way, way more water than we actually need, we just can’t clean it or distribute it very well yet. Food (a huge percentage of which is currently thrown away rather than eaten) can be grown on massive scales using vertical farms that use a fraction of the land/water/energy. The energy from the Sun alone can power our entire civilization many times over as soon as we can properly harness it. There is plenty of space on Earth, it is just very crowded in certain places. Also, by some observations population growth is nearing a plateau. [Again see Abundance by Peter Diamandis]
‘What if an asteroid hits Earth!’
This is the most serious concern. It could very well happen that an asteroid hits us in the next few years and wipes out the whole planet. Currently there is nothing we could do to stop an Earth-killer but I think in the future we will be able to solve this problem with more ease than relocating and making livable a brand new planet. Something like a gamma-ray burst is the kind of thing we would need a new planet for, so I do support colonization for that contingency.
***These 3 points being oft repeated they may deserve more elaboration. Please comment for more detail/sources!