Anyone who has watched cell phones change from huge brick-like blocks into sleek touchscreen smartphones knows that we are living in an era of massive, swift technological change. But bigger changes are coming.
Many scientists, technologists and futurists want to begin to colonize space. And there are many, many new projects underway to accomplish just that. Here are five of the best:
1. NASA will begin growing plants on the Moon in 2015
NASA recently announced a plan — the Lunar Plant Growth Habitat — to grow plants on the moon starting in 2015 for a project aimed at testing technology to improve humanity’s chances of colonizing space.
Scientists, contractors, and students are already working on a small metal-encased habitat containing seeds, soil, water, and fertilizer to send to the moon. NASA plans to deliver the habitat to the Moon in 2014 via the Moon Express lander, a commercial spacecraft enrolled in the Google Lunar X Prize.
According to NASA, after landing in late 2015, water will be added to the seeds in the module and their growth will be monitored for five to 10 days and compared to Earth-based controls. Seed varieties grown will include rock cress, basil, and turnips.
2. NASA is developing a 3D printer to print food in space
There’s a joke that says that the first thing that some people will want to print on their 3D printer is a 2D printer that works consistently, but this hasn’t deterred NASA from developing a 3D printer to print food from basic chemical elements in space.
Why? NASA says that because refrigeration and freezing requires a lot of energy, space foods consumed on current missions consist solely of individually prepackaged, shelf-stable foods that are processed with technologies that degrade the micronutrients in the foods. NASA argues that the current food system wouldn't meet the nutritional needs and five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars or other long duration missions. 3D printed food could be prepared freshly, on demand, and customized to suit an individual astronaut’s taste.
Such a thing might have applications down on Earth, too. A machine that can turn basic chemicals into a range of complex foods — with new recipes downloadable from the internet — would probably find a large market, so long as it was affordable.
3. Two companies will begin mining asteroids in 2016
In 2015, the first of Deep Space Industries’ (DSI) exploration satellites, the FireFly, will blast into space, and start analyzing asteroids to find rocks suitable for mining. In 2016, the company’s second and larger probe, the DragonFly, will launch on a mission to bring back a sample of up to 150 kg of material to Earth. The same year, another venture, Planetary Resources, expects to launch prospecting craft seeking suitable asteroids for mining with the aim of processing asteroidal material in space by 2020.
Why do companies want to mine resources out of asteroids? Well, in the short term, asteroids can provide hydrogen, oxygen, metals, and hydrocarbons that can be used for construction and fuels in space. Mining asteroids could provide a space-based source of fuel for satellites and other spacecraft. Lifting equipment from Earth and transporting it through space is still very costly; future colonies on the Moon or Mars would be far cheaper if they make use of local materials for construction, fuelling, and life support systems.
In the long term, we live on a world with finite resources, and asteroids offer massive payloads of materials. For example, a large asteroid called 16 Psyche, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is estimated to contain enough nickel-iron to satisfy mankind's current demand for those two industrial metals for millions of years.
4. A Japanese construction firm is planning to turn the Moon into a giant solar power plant
Tokyo-based Shimizu Corporation wants to lay a colossal belt of solar panels around the 6,835-mile equator of the Moon. This would result in a consistent supply of energy, as the Moon has no weather that can block out the Sun. To get the power down to the Earth, they intend to relay the energy to receiving stations on Earth by either laser or microwave transmission.
Shimizu calculates that the array would be capable of sending 13,000 terawatts of power to Earth. In 2011, the United States only generated 4,100 terawatts of power in total. This plan, successfully implemented, would provide huge quantities of clean accessible energy for the world.
Shimizu declined to put a price tag on the cost of construction at this early stage in the project, but wants to begin construction in 2035.
5. NASA is working on a faster-than-light warp drive
Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity established that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Unfortunately, our nearest star Alpha Centauri is four and a half light years away, meaning that a roundtrip even at the speed of light would take almost a decade. Travel at those speeds would mean that colonizing the galaxy would be an extremely slow and arduous process.
Fortunately, Miguel Alcubierra, a Mexican physicist, has thought of a way to dramatically reduce this. Instead of trying to travel faster than the speed of light, try bending space. In his 1994 paper entitled, "The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity," Alcubierre suggested a mechanism to generate a warp bubble of negative vacuum wave energy that moves spacetime around the space craft. This would mean that journeys that would take years or decades at the speed of light can be accomplished in weeks or months.
Alcubierre’s idea, however, was originally dismissed as too impractical. It was calculated that to create a warp bubble large enough to move a spacecraft would require ridiculously huge amounts of energy, equivalent to the mass of the planet Jupiter, or 317 times the mass of Earth.
However, NASA physicist Harold White continued playing with Alcubierre’s equations. By tweaking the shape of the warp drive from a belt shape to a donut shape, he managed to get the energy requirement down from the equivalent of Jupiter to just 1,600 pounds. White and his team at NASA are currently conducting experiments to prove the concept works in the real world.
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