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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Best Planet to Colonize in Case of an Apocalypse Is...Earth

All of those who regard the 2016 presidential election as one of the great disasters of modern times may take slight consolation in the thought that there are much bigger disasters we could have suffered. Our planet could have been hit by a comet or an asteroid. A solar flare could have caused an electromagnetic pulse effect that could have wiped out all our electricity. The Yellowstone Park super-volcano could have erupted, burying much of North America in ash. Or a nuclear war could have started.

There are some who argue along the following lines:

We're in a cosmic shooting gallery. A comet or an asteroid could hit us at any time. Then there's the threat of nuclear war, not in mention the eventual ruinous effects of global warming. How can we protect ourselves from the risk of extinction posed by such hazards? We must go to Mars! The sooner we get started on Mars colonization, the better.

But there are some reasons for doubting that Mars colonization is our best bet to avoid the threat of extinction. One problem is the risk of a Mars landing failing. This risk seems very large in light of the fact that the European space agency spent many millions on a Mars lander that recently crashed on Mars, resulting in a total loss of the mission. We never see movies with a plot like this:

An asteroid is discovered in space, heading for collision with our planet. The world rushes together a Mars spaceship. Heroic astronauts set out for the long voyage to Mars, which they hope to colonize. When they try to land, things don't go right, and their lander crashes and burns.

But such an outcome is a distinct possibility. And what about the radiation hazard, both on Mars and during the flight to Mars? Space is filled with deadly cosmic rays, and it is very hard to build a spaceship that fully protects against such radiation. By the time astronauts get to Mars, they might have damaged brains, with the disastrous effects described in my science fiction story Mars Peril. Another possibility is that by the time the astronauts got to Mars, the radiation during the voyage over may have caused harmful mutations. Such mutations might show up as birth defects in the first generation of children born on Mars.

Then there is the fact that once astronauts got to Mars, they might still suffer great hazard from radiation. This is because the very thin atmosphere of Mars does a poor job of shielding the surface from radiation.

If we are faced with an apocalyptic threat, it would seem there is a better option than rushing to colonize Mars. The better option is to stay right here on Earth, and build underground “Earth colonies” capable of surviving any type of disaster on the surface of our planet.

It's easy to imagine a type of structure that would work well and be fairly easy to build. The algorithm could go something like this:
  1. 1.Create a rectangular hole in the ground 30 meters deep and 20 meters wide, dumping all of the dug dirt on the sides of this hole.
  2. Drop at the bottom of this hole a steel structure about 20 meters wide.
  3. Add on top of the structure 1 or more excavation chutes allowing access to the surface.
  4. Add some solar panels that could work rather like the periscopes of submarines, capable of being withdrawn deep below the ground during times of surface upheaval, or pushed above the ground when the air above the shelter is relatively calm.
  5. Dump all of the excavated dirt on top of the steel structure.
  6. Then clear off some dirt corresponding to the top of the excavation chute and the top of the periscope-style solar panels.
If loaded with sufficient water and food, and oil and generators, such a structure could provide shelter for a decade or more, even on a planet that was being pulverized by a comet, an asteroid, or a nuclear war. The building of such structures could be facilitated by digging robots, relatively easy to make.

Of course, such structures would be too hard-to-make to save a large fraction of humanity in case of an apocalyptic event. But they would serve well to preserve a small fraction of the human race to ride out the years of environmental hell caused by the apocalypse .In most cases of apocalyptic events, the destructive surface events will only last several years before things start to slowly normalize.

Given the radiation problem on Mars, it might be necessary to build underground Mars bases to protect Martian colonists from cosmic rays. When you go to the wikipedia.com article on “Colonization of Mars,” you immediately see a drawing of a proposed Mars base that is largely underground. But if you're going to be building underground structures, why not just build them here on Earth? Don't answer, “Because you could use fancy hydroponic technology to grow crops underground,” because the same technology could be used in underground shelters on Earth. For the cost of one Mars mission moving 40 colonists to Mars, you could probably build underground shelters for 100,000 humans. 

You might think that people would go crazy living underground, but it is easy to imagine some tricks that could be used to make things tolerable. For example, we can imagine a large central room with a dome-shaped ceiling. Using projections, lighting tricks, and some vegetation, such a room could be made to simulate being outdoors during various times of day and various seasons, providing a somewhat outdoorsy ambiance to people sheltering underground.  

I'll admit that underground shelters on Earth have zero glamour, which makes them different from the high glamour of a Mars colonization mission. But in terms of bang-for-the-buck, terrestrial underground shelters beat shelters on Mars hands down.

Another idea for coping with an apocalypse (without going to Mars) is the idea of recolonization stations that I discuss here. This is the idea of putting up specially designed space stations intended to be occupied for a a decade or more, with the inhabitants of the station then returning back to our planet, using escape capsules built into the station. This would not be as cost-effective as underground shelters, but would probably still be much less expensive than trying to colonize Mars. 

A recolonization station