How do we get from here (Earth, 2012) to there (Dust, 2512)? (Part I)

The challenge of setting any story in the future is establishing some reasonable progression of society and its technological capabilities.  Dust takes place some 500 years in the future, so I thought it would be fun to lay out a bit of a timeline of advancements needed and milestones achieved over that time.

Sometime this year or next, I expect the discovery of the first potentially habitable planet to be announced.  Exoplanet discoveries have steadily ramped up over the past year and that will only increase as more resources are devoted to deciphering data from research projects like the Kepler telescope.  The discovery of a habitable world will no doubt spark a small mention in the national conversation, but the stark reality is we will be limited in how much we will be able to learn about this world at this time.  So we will discover the world, we will no doubt listen to it and study its atmospheric composition, but beyond that there won’t be much more we can do.

On human exploration, I have to believe that at some point in the next 2 decades some man or woman will set foot on another world in our solar system.  Whether that person will be from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Germany, Italy, India, South Korea or any other space-faring nation is ultimately irrelevant.  What really matters is that someone will do it.  That person may set foot on that world for the noble goal of exploration, due to an attempt to instill national pride, or in some misguided cold-war-style space race, but it will be done.

When that happens, I want to believe that the final hurdle will be overcome and that the floodgates for exploration will be open.  This is naive, of course.  At a minimum, I hope we have learned lessons from the incredible accomplishments of Apollo and hopefully, we will be there for more than just a brief visit.  Of course, the real gate-opener for exploration and ultimately colonization will be to find a way to make it profitable whether it’s through mining, scientific advancement, or some other unforeseen reason.  Make it profitable and companies will come.

While this exploration of the solar system will ultimately result in advances in medicine and medical technology due to the obstacles overcome in that exploration, medical advances will continue to advance due to terrestrial research.  Within the next couple of decades, the developed world will start to have access to life-extending medications.  Even without these medications, the world population will continue to increase and the ability of the planet to support the ever-growing population will continue to be stressed.  Could the world population ever become so large that humanity is forced to try and expand to another world?  Possibly, but it’s more likely that some section of society would collapse before a solution like that would be pursued.

Eventually though, assuming there are enough well-to-do private enthusiasts and/or government funding, enough money will be poured into developing space exploration technologies that the cost-to-orbit will be lowered, advanced propulsion capabilities will be delivered, and the technical challenges related to establishing a colony on another world will be overcome.  Then finally, whether through necessity or curiosity, humanity take out an insurance policy on the Earth and begin living on another world.

Given the current rate and commitment to exploration, 50 years is probably too ambitious a time frame for this to happen.  This is where you have to recognize that even if the United States doesn’t do this, then some other country will.  With any luck, it’ll be a cooperative effort.

Once a foothold is established on another world, we will then begin the task of reforming that world into something more hospitable for us and turning it into a long-term home for our people.  Currently, these technologies and approaches are only theoretical, but we have plenty of time to turn those theories into reality.

Up next, the 22nd century…

What is the endgame in the search for Exoplanets?

Exoplanet illustration via Wired

One of the most interesting areas in Astronomy at the moment is the search for Extrasolar Planets, or Exoplanets.  These are planets that exist outside of the Solar System.  To date, 551 Exoplanets have been confirmed, with the possibility of over 1200 more recently announced by the NASA Kepler team.  Most exciting, a team of French Researchers announced yesterday that they have confirmed that the first exoplanet which could support life has been discovered.

Gliese 581d, first discovered in 2007 with seven times the mass of Earth and roughly twice its size, has a carbon dioxide atmosphere.  This is the first of what could be millions of potentially habitable planets in the galaxy.

Consider that to date, the majority of planets discovered are large gas giants as big or bigger than Jupiter.  It makes sense that as we first look for planets in the cosmos, that we will find the largest of them.  Consider also that several of the popular techniques for detecting planets favor finding planets that have short orbital periods (Kepler has yet to confirm a planet with an orbit longer than 40 days).  As we refine our techniques for planet detection, we will find more and more smaller, Earth-like planets.

The question becomes, then what?

Once a planet is found, we can analyze the light produced as it passes through that planet’s atmosphere to get a rough idea of the gases that make up that atmosphere.  We can tell if a planet has a nitrogen rich atmosphere.  We can also tell how far a planet is from its sun and whether or not it resides in its system’s habitable zone, where a planet can potentially maintain water on its surface.

So in a decade, we’ll have potentially discovered hundreds of planets that could maintain life.  This is where things really start to get interesting.  Once we know a planet could support life, the question becomes is there intelligent life?  Is there a developed society?  On the fringe of things are a couple of researchers who believe we should be able to detect the evidence of asteroid mining.  This would be a sign of a fairly advanced civilization, especially considering we don’t yet have the capability to do that, though I would argue hat’s mainly because we don’t put the money into it.  Once Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos figure out how to reap the profits from asteroid mining, I have no doubt we’ll be there, but that’s another post for another time.

Of course, another possible method of determining if there’s a civilization there will be through just listening.  SETI has been using radio telescopes for years to try to listen for signals from alien worlds.  We have been unintentionally sending signals to space since the dawn of radio.  SETI has been listening for years to see if it could pick up the those signals from another world.  They scan the sky without much guidance as to where to look.  With the discovery of potential life-supporting exoplanets, you now have the ability to do a more guided search.

So, we can discover planets.  We can tell if those planets could support water and whether or not they have an atmosphere.  We have a small chance of being able to tell if there’s an advanced civilization there.  What do we do after we suspect there’s life in them there planets?  Do we just say ‘hey, that’s pretty neat’ and stop there.  I have a hard time seeing that.

I imagine the next step will be what I’ll call the Hawking debate: do we risk alerting a potentially far superior alien civilization to our existence and the risk that they would wipe us out or do we trust that they will be benevolent in their intentions once we send them the “we are here” broadcast.  I do imagine there will be real scientific debate about this, but I think the desire to push the boundaries and explore the universe will win out.

This is where a planet like Gliese 581d becomes really interesting.  Gliese 581d is a relatively scant 20 light years away.  A signal in that direction would only take 20 years to get there and 20 years back.  40 years is a lifetime, but it’s certainly a plausible length of time for an experiment of this magnitude.  Many experiments last for decades or more.  Something like this would be low-cost and low overhead; we would just need to remember to keep listening at the right time.  So we could try to let that civilization know we are here.

So what do we do after that?  Do we send a probe a la the Voyager spacecraft?  Right now, the fastest spacecraft in existence, Helios 2, travels along at a snail’s pace of ~150,000 mph, which doesn’t quite match the 670,616,629 mph that light travels at.  So, without some substantial breakthroughs in the speed of spacecraft, sending any type of probe to Gliese 581d will take a really, really, really, really long time.  My question is, if we know there’s a civilization in this system, is that the impetus needed to devote research dollars to develop new propulsion systems?  Or to go really out there, lead to more research into wormholes, a theoretical mode of travel fairly common in science fiction.

Of course, the ultimate dream would be to actually send someone there, but that’ll have to come after the invention of the wormhole generator and interstellar travel.  So, the best bet for this option may be cryogenically freezing yourself and see how far technology has progressed in about say 300 years.  Maybe then we’ll be able to get a firsthand glimpse of Gliese 581d.  Sure, other science fiction hypotheses exist such as a generation ship, which families would theoretically live in for hundreds of years and cross the cosmos and a more traditional rate of speed, but I’m fairly confident we’re a ways off from that technology, too.

So, we won’t be visiting the alien worlds that are being discovered any time soon, but contact would definitely not be out of the question.  The question there is, should we?