Pushing Boundaries on the Final Frontier

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched mankind’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into space. With that monumental achievement, humanity found itself in the midst of the Space Age. A year earlier, the publisher of Missiles and Rockets wrote, “This is the age of astronautics. This is the beginning of the unfolding of the era of space flight. This is to be the most revealing and the most fascinating age since man first inhabited the Earth.” The possibilities seemed endless. Humanity could touch the stars! 

Today, it might seem that space exploration has slowed. Gone are the days of the space race: the exciting cultural frenzy of the early-to-mid ‘60s. However, on Oct. 26, NASA shared an important discovery that could revolutionize the future of space travel as we know it. 

NASA confirmed, for the first time, the presence of water on the sunlit surface of the moon. This opens up the possibility that water may be present across the entire lunar surface, instead of being limited to shadowy places. 

This news might not seem exciting, but if humanity ever hopes to create a society that stretches beyond Earth, it’s essential. Having water on the moon for astronauts to drink, refuel and even grow their own food, is the first step in many endeavors that once seemed to be safely within the domain of science fiction but are now within reach. 

Moon Base and Space Colonization

As part of a project called Artemis, NASA has plans to land humans, and specifically the first woman, on the moon in 2024. NASA doesn’t plan to stop there, however. A report titled “NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development,” submitted to President Donald Trump in April, lays out plans for developing a permanent presence on the lunar surface. NASA’s planned “Artemis Base Camp” is only supposed to be able to hold four astronauts at a time for about a week.  These first missions will be instrumental in laying the foundation for a permanent manned presence on the moon. 

According to New Space’s “Special Issue on a Near-Term, Low-Cost Base on the Moon,” space programs will experiment with using resources already available on the moon. For example, the exciting discovery of water, along with the already existing lunar ice, can be used to grow plants, create hydrogen fuel cells to store power, extend our stays and split the water into oxygen and hydrogen to create rocket fuel.

The water harvested from the moon could potentially supply a way station orbiting the moon, named “Gateway” by the April report. This orbiting Gateway could be a keystone to the rest of the solar system. Gateway could become a training facility for astronauts, safely housing them for months to mimic the duration of a journey to Mars. According to Brandon Murchison, an AP Physics teacher who worked for NASA as an undergraduate, “if we want to have any sort of sustainable habitat on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system, we want to make sure we can do it right first.” 

“There is tons of water on Mars. If they’re thinking, ‘Can we use that water, can we utilize that water for a sustainable habitat?’ the moon is a great place to explore that without sending astronauts on the three-month trip to Mars,” Mr. Murchison explained. 

Additionally, New Space suggests that this orbital station could be a refueling point for missions to Mars and even the outer solar system, which would allow the launch of lighter rockets from Earth.

For one, the station would have a self-sustaining supply of rocket fuel, harvested from the moon below. In addition, launching into moon orbit is far easier and cheaper than attempting to launch from Earth because of the Moon’s lower gravity. 

The moon base could even become self-sufficient. The moon is rich in precious metals like titanium, platinum, uranium and gold, deposited from meteor impacts. Extracting Helium-3 from the moon opens up possibilities for nuclear fusion reactors, per China’s lunar exploration program. This could even be exported back to Earth as a cheap and clean source of energy. New Space indicates that it’s hard to imagine the limits on economic activity on the moon. 

With the export of materials back to Earth and the creation of its own resources through cultivation of moon minerals and 3D printing, the moon base could turn into a moon colony, and even its own society. According to Mr. Murchison, it’s not hard to imagine that the parents of the first baby born on the moon are among us today — the first extraterrestrial baby. This could be the very beginning of permanent colonization, not only of the moon, but of other planets in our solar system and beyond. 

Asteroid Mining and Unlimited Resources 

Mining resources on Earth is incredibly harmful to our environment and causes massive amounts of human suffering, according to the American Geosciences Institute. However, there is an alternative. 

Asteroids are leftover chunks of ice, rock and metals from the formation of our solar system and are mostly concentrated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the Kuiper Belt past the outer orbit of Neptune. Asteroids are also full of resources instrumental for modern human society and space travel. Even the smaller asteroids are extremely valuable. According to Phys.org, “a single 30-meter asteroid, like the recently discovered 2012 DA14, is worth $20 trillion dollars.” Of course, the cost of getting to these asteroids totally outweighs the cost of mining them…or does it?

Assuming there already is a self-sufficient moon base or even a colony and that larger models of electrical rocket engines can be used, the cost of beginning to mine asteroids is reduced. Asteroid mining will likely start with near-Earth asteroids, in an effort to cut costs even more.  

Actually mining the asteroid is complicated but doable. The process begins with stopping the asteroid from spinning, so that a vessel can carefully aim the asteroid towards the Earth. If the math is done right, the thrusters can be fired once and the asteroid will be placed in orbit around the Earth. Once the asteroid has arrived in orbit, the mining process can begin, which involves boiling out the gas and grinding up the rock in order to obtain the invaluable elements inside. 

This process is much more efficient than mining is on Earth. For example, a paper published at Caltech by Shane D. Ross estimates that we would be able to extract the metals at 187 parts per million. On Earth, the best mines churn out ore at concentrations around 6 parts per million.

The best part about asteroid mining is that as time goes on, the process gets cheaper and cheaper. If space infrastructure grows enough, nearly 100% of the process, building, launching and mining can take place in space. Mining on Earth, and the environmental destruction it causes, could be a thing of the past all while technology becomes cheaper and more advanced. Soon, even things that today seem like wild sci-fi dreams could become simple facts of life.

Dyson Sphere and Infinite Energy

The sun is the ultimate source of energy in our solar system. It emits the energy of one trillion nuclear bombs per second, according to astronomer David Reneke. And humanity could become the master of not just some of this energy, but all of it.

To do this, humanity would need to build a Dyson sphere, a megastructure that surrounds a star and captures its energy. The idea of a Dyson sphere was first dreamt up by science fiction author Olaf Stapledon and was later popularized by mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson, from whom the structure gets its name. 

The most feasible version of a Dyson sphere is a variant known as the Dyson swarm. In this model, large amounts of orbiting panels absorb the sun’s energy and direct it elsewhere. Successfully constructing a Dyson swarm would be a monumental task, a technological revolution akin to the first use of fire or the industrial revolution. 

Construction of a Dyson swarm would require an amount of materials equivalent to a small planet like Mercury, according to Space.com. This in and of itself would be a monumental achievement and not one easily accomplished. In fact, construction of a Dyson swarm is so difficult that when asked if he thought humanity could ever accomplish it, Mr. Murchison simply said, “No. Not at all.” 

However, if humanity was able to harvest the materials, likely from combined sources of asteroids, the moon and other planets, construction could begin on the panels, which would orbit the sun. According to Space.com, these panels will likely not be solar panels, which are delicate and require maintenance that would be impossible once the panels are in place. Instead, it’s likely the panels will be nothing more than simple mirrors or polished metal foil, which reflect the sun’s energy to collecting stations. 

Much like the process of asteroid mining, building a Dyson swarm gets easier as the process continues. As the satellites are launched, likely with the help of a method cheaper and more efficient than rockets like a rail gun, according to a paper published by Oxford University, the energy from the first panel can be used to build the second one. The more that is built, the more energy available to build more, creating a positive feedback loop. 

Even harvesting a small amount of the sun’s energy would outpace Earth’s possible consumption of it. This insane surplus of energy would allow us to perform feats like terraforming, easily creating more Dyson spheres, and more that we cannot even begin to imagine. 

Stellar Engines and Transportation of Solar Systems

One of the technological wonders that a Dyson swarm would enable is something called a stellar engine, a megastructure with the ability to move entire solar systems. This may sound like magic, but the physics behind it is fairly simple. Only the sun needs to move in order to move the entire solar system, since everything is connected to the sun by the forces of gravity. 

The simplest kind of stellar engine is called a Shkadov thruster, according to Popular Mechanics. A Shkadov thruster is essentially a giant mirror. If the mirror were placed on one side of the sun, the reflected photons that normally would have radiated in all directions are instead concentrated in a specific direction. This would act like the engines of a rocket, propelling the sun in the opposite direction, allowing the solar system to move about 100 light-years in 230 million years, according to a paper by Matthew Caplan published at Illinois State University.

Unfortunately, a Shkadov thruster must be placed at the poles of a star, so as not to reflect the sun’s energy directly at Earth as it rotates around the sun, which would have the unfortunate effect of potentially ending all life on Earth.  This means that the thruster would only be able to move the sun vertically in relation to the plane of the solar system. 

To move both faster and in any direction, the best option would be to build a Caplan thruster, proposed by Matthew Caplan in 2019. Powered by a Dyson swarm, the Caplan thruster is a large space station that performs nuclear fusion with matter collected from the sun. The matter contained in the solar wind is collected by our space station. This is aided by the energy collected by a Dyson swarm. The swarm redirects the sun’s energy back into a specific portion of the sun, super heating it and lifting billions of tons of matter off the sun. Once the matter has been separated, it can be used by the Caplan thruster. With a jet of hydrogen fired back towards the sun to keep our thruster from simply crashing into it, the thrust is transferred to our sun. 

The Caplan thruster is fast enough to move our solar system 50 light-years in only a million years. Humanity could colonize other solar systems by rotating backwards and simply dropping colonists off as the planets pass by.  Humanity might even be able to leave the Milky Way galaxy all together and create an intergalactic civilization, all without ever leaving our solar system.

All of these fantastical proposals are incredibly unlikely. To Mr. Murchison, that limitation is OK.

“Even within the solar system, there are so many unexplored, incredibly amazing things. We still haven’t landed a person on Mars. That’s something we could do,” he said.

Mr. Murchison is excited that one day humanity might explore subsurface oceans that occur on moons in our solar system like Europad or Enceladus. He thinks that those are our best chances to find evidence of life: “To find [life] within our own solar system, I think would be revolutionary. Probably the greatest discovery in all of space travel.”