Readers reply: will we ever set up an outpost on another planet?

The long-running series in which readers answer other readers’ questions on subjects ranging from trivial flights of fancy to profound scientific and philosophical concepts

This week’s question: Will there ever be world government, and would we want it?

Will we ever set up an outpost on another planet? Finnley Clarkson, Sheffield

Send new questions to nq@theguardian.com.

Readers reply

Not happy with just ruining one planet? loudmouth

Tricky one, this. Wherever we go, there’s always the risk that we’ll find that the planet has already have been colonised by a starship-load of telephone sanitisers, hairdressers, public relations executives and management consultants escaping from a faraway planet that’s, as they’ve been told, in imminent danger of being eaten by a mutant star goat.

To check this out I think the safest course would be to first send, to Mars for example, an advance exploratory party consisting of shameless entitled people who, despite the lack of any qualifying attributes or relevant skills whatsoever, believe they’re born leaders destined to rule whatever planet they’re on, bending any inhabitants it might have to their every whim. They could include, let’s say for the sake of argument, oh … Boris Johnson, Elon Musk, Vladimir Putin, Jeremy Clarkson, Piers Morgan, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro – you get the idea. Every one of them would surely jump at the chance. Then – who knows – we might quite easily inadvertently neglect to provide any return transport for whichever of them, after the inevitable heated debate about who should be emperor, turns out to be last man standing. Unfortunate, but there we are. ThereisnoOwl

What’s an outpost? Some define it as a military position from which to observe the surrounding land – the various robot landers on Mars fit the bill for us already having done that. Others define it as a base from which to trade and interact with the existing local population, so we’d need to find another inhabited planet before we can do that. Randomusername222

It will happen and it will be difficult and it likely won’t last. Think of Antarctica or ISS, they need constant support, constant delivery of supplies as there aren’t any local supplies of what you need to exist (to varying degrees). Mars is our only shot and it’s pretty desolate (maybe some accessible water). But people, fuel, food, tools, almost everything will need to be delivered, at great cost, with constant demands (things wearing out) and with a huge time lag. Could we ever terraform it to be able to grow food? Unlikely. And imagine a genuine emergency … it would take about 10 to 12 months to get organised and get there. For the individuals, there would be high chances of never making it back. The film The Martian is a great (realistic) view on the difficulties kirkl66

Mercury: too small and much too hot.
Venus: too hot and a toxic atmosphere.
Our moon: no magnetic field and no protection from solar radiation. Too small to retain an atmosphere.
Mars: no magnetic field and no protection from solar radiation. Little or no oxygen.
Jupiter: gas, and gravity too high anyway.
Saturn: ditto.
Uranus: far too cold.
Neptune: even colder.
Pluto: colder still.
Any planet’s satellite: variations on the above.
The rest of the universe: too far. tortinwall

Science fiction has promised all sorts of things, almost none more exciting than the idea of a warp drive that brings the universe into realistic travel distance. All made up for TV and film, right? Not quite. There are some interesting theories that continue to develop around how we could travel faster than light, bringing the warp drive into reality.

We’re still in the realms of theory but it does start to feel like it could maybe, just maybe, be possible in the future. Sadly, I’d imagine we’ll all be long gone before science reaches that stage. Still, chapeau to all the scientists thinking this stuff up. If we ever get it working it feels inevitable that we’d then find another habitable planet and colonise it. WillDanceForChocolat

It’s only 40 and a bit years till the Vulcans make First Contact, so we should probably get cracking on the warp drive, and the nuclear war that preceded it. OhIAmSuchASadGit

No sensible planet would have us. Sarumbrother61

Whether Homo sapiens does or not depends on whether the “outpost” is run as a research station with temporary residents or is run as a colony with permanent residents.

The research station can be done in a manner similar to Antarctic research stations, with people coming and going. Nasa plans for a future staffed mission to the surface of Mars take the form of a research station with temporary residents. Most of the required technology exists and the rest is in development. Hence, if the “outpost” is a research station with temporary residents, the answer is: “Yes, one day”.

The colony with permanent residents requires breeding on the planet. As the female members of the species Homo sapiens have bodies adapted to gestation in Earth gravity, they can only have a healthy and successful pregnancy on a planet with a gravity close to Earth gravity. The only planet in the solar system with a gravity that comes close is Venus, with 91% Earth gravity, but the atmospheric conditions, 700C temperature and clouds of sulphuric acid render it uninhabitable. Mars, every billionaire’s favourite option, has only 38% Earth gravity, so pregnancies will not be healthy and successful. Hence, if the “outpost” is a colony with permanent residents and breeding, the answer is “No”.

Funnily enough, all the people who make the most noise about Homo sapiens colonising other planets, especially Mars, are men. Bammy_McBampot

Why is Earth gravity so important to a healthy pregnancy? Have animal experiments been done in microgravity? I can understand the mother not coping with a high g pregnancy, but low g? Isn’t low g equivalent to resting all day in terms of a pregnancy? I’m thinking of a mother told to lie down all day due to pregnancy issues. Could it just mean that the offspring would be less able to cope with a return to Earth from Martian gravity due to issues with bone density? jebjew

If it happens, my money’s on Airbnb getting there before Nasa. Mobilepope

Well, never is a long time, so the answer has to be yes, unless we go extinct in the near future. I can imagine it happening in the next 50 years if the will is there. A concerted joint effort could probably develop the necessary technology in a decade or so. RoyJersey

The only possibility in next 50 years is to set up on Mars, and that is a very hostile environment, assuming always that someone will be prepared to fund such a venture. george999

Yes we will. Because quite a lot of the technical problems have already been solved, or solutions are already in development.

Look at all the problems which were once considered impossible to solve and are now routinely solved. It was once said that chest surgery and brain surgery would be impossible. It was said that humans could never travel faster than 30 mph – then the train was invented. It was said that heavier-than-air machines would never fly – just eight years before the Wright brothers showed otherwise. Videophones were once the stuff of science fiction. One could easily find other “impossible” things that have been done.

There are problems of course – shielding from the sun, having to transport what you need to the planet until it can be made locally, the lower gravity and its effect on the body … But base stations/research stations/outposts are already being planned. And longterm residence will follow. Mark_MK

Better send some seed potatoes and a botanist if The Martian has any relation to truth. LMCollis

Yes of course we will. Humans are extremely bad at predicting the far future. Could a Spanish sailor in 1492 have predicted the existence of New York City 500 years later?

For a permanent colony in this solar system to exist we need three things – people willing to go, sufficiently advanced technology and sufficient spare resources to fund it. I doubt that finding people who want to live on another planet will be a problem. There are a lot of people. We are nearly there with spaceship technology, and after a few decades of practice it seems likely that we will be able to develop the technology needed to allow a colony to survive and grow on the moon, Mars or perhaps one of the satellites of Jupiter or Saturn. The interesting question is: “When will we be able to afford to do this?”

The Apollo program, which ran from 1963 to 1973, cost about $25bn, equivalent to about $260bn in today’s money. In 1969 US GDP was about $1tn. Today it is about $23tn. In other words, the Apollo program cost about 2% of US GDP in the late 60s, but 50 years later, a similar expenditure would be about 1% of US GDP. Moreover, doing what Apollo did wouldn’t today cost anything like $260bn. The new SLS rocket, which right now is on its way to the moon, costs about $4bn a launch, so you could go six times (like Apollo) for about $25bn – much less if the SpaceX Starship rocket works as advertised.

At some point, founding a permanent settlement on another world becomes something that governments and companies could just plan, finance and do, because they want to, or because they see a financial return in so doing.

Things look bleak right now, but in 100 years’ time, on a planet with a shrinking population, where energy is cheap thanks to renewables and fusion reactors, and where carbon is being pulled out of the atmosphere faster than it is emitted, I think there would be no reason for humans not to try living somewhere else too. SemiFunctional

What are you going to do about getting the mix of microbes right? Dargyva

The key to a lunar colony is water – to drink, grow plants and from which to make oxygen and hydrogen, which would be the basis for fuel for a Mars mission. To take off from Earth takes huge rockets but the moon has 1/6 of the Earth’s gravity. Getting materials, water, fuel and oxygen from the moon to space is vastly easier than hauling everything out of Earth’s enormous gravity well. No air resistance on the moon, either.

It would be much cheaper to make rocket fuel on the moon than send it from Earth. So when future lunar explorers want to return to Earth, or travel on to other destinations, they could turn the water into the hydrogen and oxygen commonly used to power space vehicles.

Refuelling at the moon could therefore bring down the cost of space travel and make a lunar base more affordable.

You would send unmanned ships to Mars, the fuel would be made on mars; only when all this was done, would you send people. Other autonomous systems would look for and then extract water. So before you even left Earth, fuel and water – and so oxygen etc –would be already be on Mars, waiting for you. You would only send people when everything was ready for them.

Anywhere water exists, a human colony becomes far more viable, sending it continuously from Earth would never work. For a colony water/ice is the first requirement – no water, no colony. MartinSilenus

Perhaps we need to find solutions to our problems on planet Earth first. thatoldbloke


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