Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Why of Terraformed Worlds

The idea of terraforming nearby planets (or more distant ones) is well established in modern culture. Moreso than I knew. The linked Wikipedia article on "Terraforming in Popular Culture" lists science fiction, movies, and video games that make reference to the idea. Some of the most important pioneering stories I was familiar with, including Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky and Isaac Asimov's The Martian Way (both of which I'd read). I had also heard about Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars). But I didn't know that there are at least 15 science fiction stories that feature terraforming, as well as at least 20 TV and movie references to it and over 30 video games in which terraforming is either a goal or a plot element.

Those used to easy travel to other worlds in a lot of popular science fiction (which are often really a part of the sub-genre "Space Opera"), such as in both Star Wars and Star Trek, may not see why human beings would bother to take the effort to make other planets in our Solar System inhabitable. Why? Why not just stick with good old Planet Earth? Or if we are to leave Earth, why not for other worlds around other stars that are virtually the same as Earth already?

The answer lies in the fact that there is no known way to do warp drive, hyper drive, jump to light speed, make wormholes, or take a jaunt in the TARDIS. If we are going to talk about what human beings are really going to do based on science we understand and therefore what we really are going to accomplish, star travel would seem to be limited to flying the way we know how to fly. Which means by traveling fast as we possibly can in normal space.

"As fast as we possibly can" is actually a lot harder to attain than you might think, as I discussed in a post on "Nanite Space Weapons" from several years back. Suffice it to say takes roughly as much antimatter in tonnage as the weight of a spacecraft to get up near to light speed--which is still awfully slow for any voyages beyond the closest of stars. And please note that flying anywhere near the speed of light would be deadly to human life as I noted in my post on "Interstellar Fortresses and Starship Combat." Doing more than that may become possible based on yet-future discoveries. But the distances involved and forces required are truly mind-boggling.

So--realistic science fiction travel to the stars would have say it would take generations to get there. It's true that sci fi writers don't have to stick to realism. But our travel situation in the Solar System is quite different from interstellar travel. Relatively well-understood things like fusion-reactor driven spaceships or anti-matter driven ships or even good fission drives (and more) would effectively open up the Solar System to regular and easy travel, especially for everything inside, say, the orbit of Jupiter. Or even as far out as Saturn. (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and beyond likely will always be long hauls...)

So since travel to Mercury, Venus, the moon, Mars, the asteroids, and Jupiter's moons is not unrealistic at all, it becomes pretty clear that transforming all of these places so that human beings could live there constitutes a really good idea. Even though transforming an entire planet or moon to make it Earthlike is likely to take hundreds of years at best.

This focus on terraforming forms the backdrop of the Medieval Mars stories I've been recently working on. Though terraforming would also be in the backdrop for other story ideas I've had (such as the Kaiser's Interplanetary Cold War). (The world map of my fictional terraformed Medieval Mars is below:)

Terraforming in short makes sense. Therefore science fiction can't really afford to ignore it. Science fiction writers who read this post should be thinking about it. :)

For my next post, I'll look at the HOW of terraforming. How is it an uninhabited world could be made livable? Until then...


Monday, July 20, 2015

Asteroid Mining Wars

As per the linked Forbes article concerning an asteroid with a platinum core that space entrepreneurs would love to mine (how it is known the asteroid has a platinum core is unmentioned in the article, but another source says it's from spectrometer readings), there are a number of asteroids that fly relatively near the Planet Earth which have an estimated value far above what it would cost to travel into space to capture them and bring them back to Earth. The object just referenced, Asteroid 2011 UW158, has an estimated value between $300 billion and $5.6 trillion dollars. That would be 5600000000000 US dollars at estimated most.  

Planet Earth has limited amounts of certain rare metals like platinum. Though of course gaining a massive new supply of platinum from outer space would tend to flood the platinum market and reduce the overall selling price of this precious metal. This flooding effect would also be true from diamonds or other items obtained from outer space, at least to a degree. Still, it is nevertheless true that there is real treasure to be gained in outer space and that some of it passes close enough to Earth that recovering it would be of a similar technical difficulty to sending a man to the moon.

In other words, the technology required to mine near-Earth asteroids isn't anything new or exotic; it lies firmly with the realm of things that either have already been accomplished or are well-understood. And it could be hugely profitable.

And it happens to be the case that whenever an activity is hugely profitable, it's something human beings will fight over. Perhaps the fight would take the form of the corporate competition struggle, with Earth-based companies fiercely trying (in a metaphorical sense) to outfox one another to be the first to capture asteroids like these and bring them home.

Perhaps, if we imagine Earth having a somewhat different history than it has had (or a somewhat unexpected future) asteroid minding would be something space-exploring nations would fight over. Imagine the Soviet Union had not collapsed and NASA had sill received Apollo era funding. It's easy enough to see these two space powers competing over very valuable near-Earth asteroids. Under some circumstances, such competition could degenerate into a shooting war.

Perhaps the most interesting take on stories set in stiff competition for the resources represented by these asteroids would start with having corporations lead the way. But then adjust the setting so that even though the corporations are guided by international law in their behavior on Planet Earth, out in outer space, on asteroids in which it would be possible to jam outbound communications, where no one on Earth can see what is really going on, corporate methodology would rely on actual fighting, shooting competitors on sight or sabotaging them in dangerous ways, companies fiercely trying (in the non-metaphorical sense) to outdo one another in order to capture these asteroids. While all of them would try to keep the fighting a secret the inhabitants of the Earth would know nothing about...