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Moon, mankind's next survival sphere

Moon, mankindMoon, mankind’s next survival sphere
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So, what does the next millennium hold in store for mankind in the direction of inhibiting outer space? One thing is clear. Post Einstein's Theory of...

So, what does the next millennium hold in store for mankind in the direction of inhibiting outer space? One thing is clear. Post Einstein's Theory of Relativity, it is realised that travelling at a speed beyond that of light is prohibited by the laws of physics. Nature, in other words, has imposed upon us an absolute speed limit.

Unless of course, one takes seriously concepts such as wormholes and quantum tunneling which, at least theoretically, make short cuts possible in space-time. Therefore, even the best technologies available today do not indicate that interstellar travel, within even the next hundred years, is a viable option; and the actual building of habitations in space will probably not happen in this millennium.

Thus, the solar system appears to be the best candidate as the arena for the drama of extraterrestrial colonisation to unfold over the next several centuries, provided, of course, humanity has been able successfully to negotiate the challenges of climate change and the Anthropocene transformation referred to last week.

And the planets, their moons, the asteroids and the comets could all become the stage upon which that celestial spectacle could unfold. The successful launches in recent times of several missions by various countries would suggest that the curtain has already risen over the first act of that great drama.

In fact, only last year, the 100 Starship Symposium has commenced work on building a spacecraft that can undertake interstellar travel. It will take a long time for all this to happen. Meanwhile humanity is fast approaching the stage where the planet will reach the tipping point when the integrity of its ecosystems will be compromised beyond repair, on account of various factors including the bludgeoning population.

Therefore, alternatives with shorter gestation periods need to be looked at. The most promising among those is the building of large spaceships for people to live in large numbers, much like a city on earth. That is not to suggest that building a space city is all that easy.

In fact there would be many hurdles to overcome, including the challenges of undertaking construction in space, creating an atmosphere conducive to human existence, producing artificial gravity, transporting food and other materials, recycling of waste and last, but not the least, the task of persuading would-be dwellers that the entire effort is worth the while.

All these challenges notwithstanding, governments of countries, as well as other stakeholders concerned, by the worrisome issue of a planet outgrowing its ability to sustain its population, would surely find the idea very appealing.

At least in theory, there is the definite possibility of creating space habitats with the capacity to house literally billions of people. Simultaneously it would be possible for humankind to expand in numbers without imposing an undue strain on the supporting systems as is happening now.

New vistas of opportunity would also open up, in terms of access to energy and other resources which, as we have already noted, are available in abundance in the solar system and beyond. Energy derived from sunlight, in particular, would be so plentiful that they will be there in the solar system would become very much more viable.

Gerard K O'Neill, a lecturer at Princeton University, founded the Space Studies Institute. He proposed the design of what is known as the O'Neill Cylinder which consists of two cylinders rotating in opposite directions on a bearing to mitigate the gyroscopic effect.

The cylinder would provide the artificial gravity needed for stability as well as the precise ratio of gases similar to those found on Earth, in order to create an atmosphere similar to ours. It will also have provisions which enable the habitat to control its own micro – climate using an arrangement of mirrors to alter the ratio of gases.

And, with the habitat situated in a vacuum in space, the cylinders turn into huge a thermos flask like body. That is dealt with by the installation of mirrors in the windows which reflect light in such a manner as to create the artificial feeling of day and night by turning one way or the other. Exciting as it sounds the idea, however, remains quite far from being ready for practical application.

At a time when climate change, economic slowdown and narrow political rivalries are creating major challenges for humanity, colonisation of space today would appear to beckon us all to enter realm of peace and prosperity.

Among factors which make the near future promising as an era colonisation of space are that new technologies are available, and costs of missions rapidly falling, together with the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs all fired up to take full advantage of those opportunities.

Things which took hundreds of billions of dollars can now be done at less than a tenth of that. The increasing viability of space travel will also mean considerably more enthusiasm on the part of the corporate sector to enter a new domain that has largely remained confined to governments thus far.

More and more, space will appear like an extension of Earth, a theatre where private investment can express itself in terms of bold and exciting creativity, especially in the areas of commerce, tourism and entertainment etc., For all this to happen, however, there clearly needs to be put in place a regime of governance with laws that ensure orderly and equitable enterprise.

A good beginning was made when the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 declared space to be "the province of all mankind", setting the stage for eliminating the possibilities of future claims of sovereignty by superpowers, and also for ensuring the rule of law in the new realm to be inhabited by humankind.

Further measures will have to be put in place, because many issues would need to be dealt with and resolved, such as permitting private investment in the development of space–based resources, ensuring the preservation of the integrity of the environments surrounding colonised planets, dealing with accidents in space, in terms of liability and accountability and settling rival claims upon the use of the resources available in different colonised planets.

The lure of colonisation, it must be noted, carries with it the dangers and risks of the strife between nations being extended to outer space, especially by the superpowers which have already developed substantial strike power through weapon and anti- weapon carrying satellites.

And, should confrontations arise in space, there are, at least at this stage, no rules of engagement whatsoever- no treaties, no pacts or conventions. To expect that they will be put in place would appear rather idle, if not outrightly absurd, in the face of the considerable difficulty countries today experience in agreeing with each other even in matters such as commerce in condiments, cosmetics or footwear!

In the ultimate analysis, it cannot be gainsaid that humankind will do well to concentrate on preserving, protecting and defending the integrity of Earth's ecosystems, and on learning the art of living in an atmosphere of peace and cooperation. Colonization of outer space would not only appear unnecessary at this stage but can also create more problems than it solves.

The lure of colonization, it must be noted, carries with it the dangers and risks of the strife between nations being extended to outer space, especially by the superpowers which have already developed substantial strike power through weapon and anti- weapon carrying satellites. And, should confrontations arise in space, there are, at least at this stage, no rules of engagement whatsoever- no treaties, no pacts or conventions.

(Concluded)

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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