Is It Time to Colonize Another Planet?

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent

By now there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate climate change has the potential to wreak havoc on our planet, and irrevocably change the way we live our lives. Low lying pacific island nations are already seeing the effects first hand and are being confronted with the question of whether to move to another country. The potential consequences for other nations is not as clear but there are some signs emerging. The question of colonising other planets has been thrust into the public debate because of comments made by Stephen Hawking recently. However, there are many challenges surrounding the practical aspects of colonising other planets and this article will explore some of them.

As mentioned, the idea of colonising other planets has once again emerged as a result of comments made by Stephen Hawking, who suggested that this course of action was the only way mankind could avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change. To many critics this sounds like a far fetched idea, and others claim the potential effects of climate change are being grossly overstated. But we do not need to look far or think too hard to realise that climate change is not a vague threat that sits somewhere in the distant future. Weather events (a wonderfully euphemistic term) such as Hurricane Katrina, record breaking floods in Australia and other examples in Europe show that climate change is affecting us now. Clearly, severe events like these as well as droughts show how dramatically our climate is changing and how much it will affect us. If events are this severe now what can we expect in another 20 or 30 years. What kind of planet are our children and their children likely to inherit? More importantly, in the continuing absence of real political will, what will we do about it?

I agree with Hawking that we should consider colonising another planet, and begin planning as a matter of urgency. We may only have 30 to 50 years in which to succeed in this task. This sounds like a herculean task but in many respects it is well under way. Indeed a BBC article includes a prediction that humans may visit Mars in the 2030’s. In any case scientists, and amateur astronomers alike, have spent many years looking for planets that may be able to support human life. And a Guardian article written recently provides even further cause for optimism. It discusses a NASA commissioned report that claims private firms could be sending astronauts to live on the moon by 2020. Obviously these scientists would only live there briefly but it is a big step in the right direction. The involvement of private corporations is also critical. Governments are increasingly keen to cut back on spending and if space travel is going to move ahead, it is the motivations of big business that will have to fill the financial gap. In the context of colonising another planet businesses would need a commercial incentive. Governments would also be expected to contribute funding as it would be incredibly expensive. But if it means ensuring the survival of our species then every dollar is worth it.

One of the main practical challenges mankind is likely to face if we attempt to colonise another planet is that of crop production. This is an area that is being examined and there is reason for optimism here as well. Two researchers from the University of Palermo in Italy recently published a study that claims the surfaces of Venus, Mars, and the moon could be suitable for agriculture. Scientists who studied the soil collected by the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008 discovered that Martian soil was likely to be far more conducive to crop growth than previously thought. This encouraging discovery also highlights the need for further analysis.

Given that as a species mankind is failing to confront the challenges posed by climate change by paying little more than lip service to the problem we must face a future that involves colonising another planet. We do not have much time but fortunately the human need to explore means that space exploration has given us a good headstart. In this article it has emerged that the moon or Mars are possible contenders. The harsh environment of the latter is well publicised but we do not have the time, technology or know how to realistically consider colonising planets further afield in our solar system, let alone ones in other galaxies. I believe that as Government funding is likely to be limited, commercial partners will be required if we are to have any realistic chance of succeeding. Surely the colonisation and exploration of Mars or the moon could be valuable in a commercial sense to an entrepreneur who is enough of a visionary. It is not unlikely that such an individual will emerge. After all Sir Richard Branson has already launched a space tourism company called Virgin Galactic that will offer people the chance to enjoy sub-orbital flights. Test flights are currently in an advanced stage and an article on reports that Branson hopes to begin commercial operation is 2015. We can be confident that the colonisation of another planet is definitely possible, and more likely to occur than not. Many people are becoming more confident when they say the question is not if, but when?

References and Further Reading (This link discusses the possibility of growing crops on other planets and provides many interesting details.) (This link refers to a very interesting blog post about a challenge posed by a NASA scientist in which people were asked to collaborate in writing software for a game called Moonville. The challenge was to create a strategy game where the players would simulate the beginnings of industry in the solar system. This was a fascinating project that used ‘crowdsourcing’ to bring software developers from 44 countries together.)

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