The British philosopher C.E.M. Joad had predicted that some day this planet will become too cold to support life. While this may actually come about only after a very long time, a realisation that our energy resources are being fast depleted due to depredation of animal and plant life for food, domestication, entertainment, sport and poaching, lays upon us, an enormous responsibility. It is felt that we must find new worlds in space, for relocating mankind, and providing them with new resources of energy, and food supplies.
Three possibilities have seemed attractive and practicable (even though they may appear too daunting at present) to scientists – space cities, restructuring of planets, and terraforming. All the three are interconnected.
Before I commence the discussion, it may be mentioned that throughout the evolution of science, discoveries and inventions of a particular period, must have appeared the stuff of science fiction to people a century or two earlier. If in the eighteenth century, some imaginative scientists had prophesied that, man would within a century or two fly in the sky like a bird to distant lands, speak on devices called cell-phones to people thousands of miles away, do every task a million times faster than any human could, with a marvel of technology called the computer, no one would have believed them. Scientists today are exactly in the same position when they talk of space cities, restructuring of planets and terraforming.
The idea of redesigning the solar system itself by blasting one of the bigger planets and forming space cities by exploiting the energy from the sun to the fullest extent possible may appear very bizarre.But it is a concept that is engaging the attention of some of the most brilliant scientists of our age.
At some distant date in the future our overcrowded planet will no longer be in a position to support its inhabitants having exhausted all available fuel resources. It is known that only an extremely tiny fraction of the sun’s energy reaches the Earth and that the rest escapes into space. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary that some advanced technology must be evolved to utilise every bit of that energy if one has to meet the requirements of this over populated planet in the future.
Scientists have come out with an ingenious plan to solve this problem – reorganising the solar system itself. They have proposed three alternatives, each of which seems bizarre and incredible
(i) There could be a sphere with a radius of 148 million kilometres with the sun at its centre. In this world of eternal noon no solar energy would be wasted and gravity would be artificially generated
(ii) There could be a Ferris-wheel-like ring world which would be a huge loop surrounding the sun and spinning at 1200 Kilometres per second. It would depend on a circle of mountains 1600 Kilometres high to prevent its atmosphere from escaping;
(iii) There could be a vast thin disc resembling a gigantic pizza pie with the sun at its centre and human inhabitants dotting both sides.
It is hoped that the building materials for all three would come from the same stellar source – the planet Jupiter whose structure would have to be radically altered for this specific purpose.
Till the end of his life, the physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute of Advance Studies, Princeton had been propagating his view that Jupiter must be dismantled in order to create raw materials for such new sun worlds. Jupiter completes one full rotation every 10 hours although its cloudy layers rotate at different speeds. According to Dyson if the rotation is speeded up by sending massive jolts of solar-generated electricity through gigantic metal grids circling the planet, the centrifugal force would pull the gaseous planet apart without interfering with the orbits of the other planets. Some astrophysicists feel between the year 2300, and 2500 years) mankind will have developed a nuclear bomb capable of blasting Jupiter apart in a few hours.
The idea of reorganising the solar system to utilise the sun’s energy more efficiently which had been postulated first by a Russian scientist, attracted the attention of Desmond Bernal, British Physicist, one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography. Bernal predicted in the last century, that some day people would live on the sun’s dissipated energy in hollow asteroid “globes” that would be circling our star. Dyson, had come out with the design of his famous Dyson sphere. Dyson had begun to wonder as to what an extraterrestrial civilisation living in a solar system similar to ours and with a galloping population might do to transform their world on a technologically immense scale. He argued that in an attempt to extract every speck of energy from their sun, they would most probably rearrange their planets into artificial “space cities” going round the sun in such large numbers, that they create a thin spherical shell around it. Such a dense “artificial biosphere” would use up almost all of the sun’s radiant energy. Most of the visible light of the sun would be completely blocked, but the orbiting objects would however emit infrared rays.
The shells of artificial habitats moving in orbit in a Dyson sphere would be so densely packed that they would prevent the sun’s energy from passing into space as infrared rays. The solar energy would be captured by photoelectric cells or perhaps green plants lining the inside of the habitats. Inside the Dyson sphere people would live on earth-like planets and asteroids or on thousands of smaller artificial colonies made out of the materials from Jupiter. They would be in circular orbit about one Earth orbit away from the sun. Since there would be no gravity within the Dyson sphere, the force would have to be artificially generated.
It is not difficult to imagine the concept of a Dyson sphere. One could think of present day satellites and planetary probes equipped with solar panels as the earliest examples of space stations that have been designed to use the sun’s energy more efficiently. In other words these are the first steps towards a larger plan of the creation of a Dyson sphere on a bigger scale.
Yet another ambitious, optimistic and bizarre concept is “terraforming”, the restructuring and reshaping of distant planets for the benefit of future generations. This new concept envisages fantastic feats of engineering on a galactic scale carried out at astronomical distances from the earth. It contemplates creation of new rivers and seas on other worlds and “lassoing” asteroids in order to tap their vast mineral wealth. It even involves the disintegration, relocation and reintegration of entire plant. With such feats of engineering of the space age, we might some day rearrange extra terrestrial objects changing their movements and radiation balances breaking them up and pushing them together again. The purpose of the whole exercise will be to create Earth—like planets capable of sustaining all life originating on Earth, including the human race.
One of the first major references to planetary engineering is found in the novel “Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapleton. His theme was that man must one day leave this Earth. To do this, either man’s nature must be redesigned to suit another planet, or conditions altered upon another planet to suit man’s nature. In this novel the author gives an account of the adventures of immigrants from earth to Venus and the destruction of the Earth itself.
The word “terraforming” itself was coined by a science fiction writer in a series of stories published by him in the 40s. He conceived of the idea of “spatial engineers” who used “paragravity generators” to terraform the Moon, Mars, Venus, the satellites of Jupiter and many asteroids.
Another science fiction novelist described the problems and adventures of settlers on a rebuilt Ganymede, one of the big moons of Jupiter. The change in scale from Stapleton’s eons and galaxies to this novelist’s story coincides with a drastic change in attitude towards planetary engineering. Once it was sheer fantasy for the unimaginable future; then it was conceivable for the very near future.
The idea of terraforming began to transcend the bounds of fiction. In the last century, a galaxy specialist in the United States, opined that in the wake of the realisation of large scale nuclear fusion, there will no doubt follow plans for making interplanetary bodies habitable by changing them intrinsically and by changing their positions also relative to the sun.
What would real terraforming be like? Suppose you wanted to surround the moon with an oxygen-bearing atmosphere. According to one scientist if you wanted to create an artificial lunar atmosphere, gases could be obtained by vaporisation of the lunar soil. An efficient mechanism for gas generation would be subsurface mining with nuclear explosives.
It is believed that if one wanted to relocate an asteroid so as to mine its mineral and vaporise its ice, three techniques are potentially applicable.
- In the first, light (or solar) sails propelled by the sun would tow objects on long strong lines.
- In the second, there would be mass drivers which are essentially electromagnetic catapults using mechanisms that fling hunks of material backward, thus producing a forward thrust affecting the whole structure. The hunks of propelling material would be dug out of the asteroid itself. Up to 60 per cent of the asteroids might thus be used up on a long journey.
- Finally, a nuclear blast could be used to knock the asteroid onto a desired course.
Beyond Earth there lie numerous planets even more numerous moons and innumerable asteroids, comets and meteor-swarms. Some of these bodies consist of rocky and metallic material while others are formed of volatile gases and ices. There are various gradations of mixtures. All are lit and heated by the nuclear fires of the sun. Some have their own internal heat sources as well.
The major players in this solar system reconstruction project will be the large planets upon which we will try to create habitable environments. Mars and Venus are first choices with the Moon and Mercury coming along later. Satellites of a large planet like Jupiter will have to be individually considered.
Terraforming may thus appear to look like the stuff of science fiction, but given the appropriate energy, resources and time, many of the now sterile worlds of the solar systems can be rebuilt into new Earths, someday in the distant future.
Thus in the not too distant future, between (maybe between three and five hundred years from now) our Moon and the moons of Jupiter would be ingeniously re-sculpted. Venus would be stored away safely or dispersed into space, and Mercury shielded from the sun’s blistering rays, supplied with water and ready to serve as a home for human beings.
The depths of space would team with artificial settlements carrying millions of our descendants. The Jovian gas giants would be distilled down for their essences, their rocks to form new earths and their gases to power even 25th century machines.
Lastly the Earth would be transformed from the narrow prison world it now is into the paradise people have always sought but which has existed only in the imagination of poets and scientists. I end this essay on a positive note signifying man’s ingenuity by quoting Tennyson’s powerful lines
“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;”
– Tennyson in Locksley Hall.