(Or Why Space Advocates and Environmentalists Should Work Together)
by Les Johnson
Those reading this are likely from the most prosperous civilization that the world has ever experienced. You are likely not wondering if you will be able to eat today. You likely have access to clean water, sanitation, and a warm shelter for the coming cold winter nights. You are literate and have access to further education. You have entertainment options literally at your fingertips – on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, or at most it is a quick car or subway ride away. There are about a billion of you living in North America, Europe, Japan and a few other countries.
There are another 2 -3 billion people on Earth who lack many, or all, of these things, but they are on their way to obtaining them. China, India, and Brazil are but three examples of countries with a growing affluence and middle class. They see that what those of us in the First World have and they will soon have it too.
There are then another 3 billion people who see what their formerly destitute neighbors in China and India are now achieving and want it also. They are working diligently to improve their standards of living and will soon join the affluence club.
Can the planet sustain 7+ billion people consuming and polluting at the same rate that we in the First World do? There are two frequent answers:
- “No. The Earth cannot sustain such prosperity. We must reduce consumption, recycle, reuse, increase efficiency and lower our standard of living to save the planet.” That"s great for the billion of us in the First World but what about the other 6 billion people on the planet? They have a right to seek better health care, education for themselves and their children, food, shelter and generally a better life. Achieving this will require more resources than they currently consume. Telling them they must remain poor, forever, for the good the planet is immoral and unacceptable. Anyone who believes this should immediately trade places with someone living in a Third World slum and see how long they maintain that view.
- “Yes. Malthus, the Club of Rome, and all the other doomsayers have been wrong before and they are wrong now. The Earth is huge and resilient; we can just keep going and rely on our innovations to keep us ahead of the mythical and hypothetical disasters that are constantly being thrown around.” This group is also wrong. The Earth contains finite resources and we can never recycle or reuse them with 100% efficiency. The laws of nature and realistic engineering practices simply make that impossible. We will eventually run out of places to put our trash, mine our raw materials and build our homes. I don"t know when that point will be reached, but it will be reached – I believe sooner than later.
Both of these answers are morally indefensible. Is there another way out of this mess?
Yes. We can potentially address this problem in a way to provides affluence to Earth"s billions of inhabitants, protects the environment and perhaps even allows us to restore much of the environment that has already been damaged. We can do this by looking up and taking advantage of the practically limitless energy and raw materials in space. Nature has provided us with everything we need to prosper and live ecologically sound lives – simultaneously. We just have to take advantage of it.
Before continuing, there are some key points to be made:
The universe is hostile to life – NASA discovered this in the 1960s as it sent people ever further into space, culminating with astronauts walking on the Moon. The vacuum of deep space is far better than anything we can create on Earth, and without air, life as we know it cannot thrive. (True, some forms of life can survive in deep space without air, but they are hardly multiplying and "thriving.") The Sun bathes the solar system not only with life-giving visible light, but also with life-sterilizing ultraviolet light and a continuous stream of radiation called the solar wind, punctuated often by intense bursts of hard radiation during Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). One of the Apollo missions to the Moon barely missed a large CME that would have killed the entire crew. Fortunately, they weren"t in space at the time and all were safe. The surfaces of most planets and moons aren"t much better. The Earth"s moon is a lifeless desert; during the day it is baked by sunlight to temperatures greater than boiling water and cooled at night to temperatures below 300 degrees Fahrenheit. And it"s in vacuum, bathed by the solar wind and frequently pummeled by meteorites. Venus has a surface temperature high enough to melt lead and, yes, it rains sulfuric acid there as well. Mars" surface is bone dry and its pitifully thin atmosphere allows most of the solar radiation discussed above to reach its surface, likely killing any life the might try to take hold there.
There are no environments in space. An environment is a place that harbors life and, as far we know, there are few, if any, environments beyond planet Earth. Admittedly, there may be forms of life of which we are unaware and that remain undiscovered out there. The ocean covering Jupiter"s moon, Europa, comes immediately to mind. Within the inner solar system that is readily accessible by humans, there appears to be no life other than our own.
Earth has never been a paradise. True, a cursory glance will show the Earth to be a beautiful blue ball filled with abundant life. From the fish and algae in the oceans, to the rainforests and jungles in the tropics and the tundra in the north, our planet seems to flourish with life. From the vantage points of our crowded cities and burgeoning suburbs, it"s easy to romanticize about the "good old days" in which our ancestors lived more within the natural world and less apart from it. Hogwash. Life on earth, including human life, has always been one of eat or be eaten. Within the oft serene ocean, fish eat plants and are in turn eaten by bigger fish. In the tropics, animals prey upon each other continuously as one form of life serves as the food source for another. (Those who believe Earth was a paradise before modern humans ruined it should remove all their clothes, leave all their belongings at home and attempt to live for year in the woods of a nearby national forest. If they survive, then we can talk.)
For humanity, there has never been a better time to be alive. Two years ago, I received a tick bite that sent me to the doctor where I received a likely diagnosis of Lyme Disease. I received a prescription for an antibiotic that I took for two weeks and I am now disease free. The cost? $1.25 (after insurance). If I had been the President of the United States 100 years ago, the Lyme Disease diagnosis would have been debilitating. Our ancestors had many more children than we do today (thank modern birth control) and they needed to have them because many were subsistence farmers who needed the extra farm hands to help keep everyone fed. And, oh yes, about half of these additional children would never live long enough to reach adulthood due to disease. Forget the modern amenities like cell phones and television that many claim they could live without for "the simpler life" and think about dental care, vaccinations against smallpox, and clean water. I assert that there has never been a better time in human history to be alive than today.
The most common steps used to solve a problem are to recognize it; seek to understand it; develop possible solutions, and compare the alternatives; identify the most promising solutions and implement them. Currently, space technology has helped us with the first few problem solving steps outlined above – recognize and understand. It is now time to consider the use of space resources as possible solutions to our energy and environmental problems.
Space satellites and technologies are globally monitoring weather patterns, atmospheric, surface and ocean conditions, crop health, economic development patterns, and resource locating. For example, satellite imagery shows us how rainfall and development patterns are affecting our environment (Figure 2).
Figure 3: Shows the changing face of the tropics. On the left is a satellite image of the rainforest in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil taken in 1973. On the right is the same region as seen from space in 2003. Immediately apparent is the loss of forest in Paraguay, but not in Argentina. At first glance, this would seem to be a victory for Argentina in preserving their natural resources and a loss for Paraguay. But is it? More than likely, the forests in Paraguay were cut by poor farmers seeking land to farm so they can provide better lives for their families. Should anyone deny them this “for the good of the planet”?
In addition to helping us monitor the planet, space can help us solve some very real problems as well. Consider our insatiable need to for energy.
Fossil fuels are like junk food. We know they are ultimately bad for us, not necessarily a problem now (pass the fries) but in the long term, we certainly need to stop using them (or, “hello cardiovascular disease”). We all know the dilemma. We get the vast majority of our energy from fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas and the supplies of each are finite. After all, the Earth is only so big and can only contain only so much. Thanks to innovative technologies like hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the United States recently became the world"s largest oil producer. In addition to the finite supply problem, burning fossil fuels does pollute the environment and contribute to the atmospheric carbon dioxide problem. [Author"s note: For this article, can we all agree that pumping billions of tons of waste products into the Earth"s environment should be avoided if we are being good stewards, regardless of individual opinions on the validity of anthropengic climate change?]
The problem is that there are few possible alternatives to fossil fuels and even fewer viable ones. All have their limitations:
- Solar power is great, if you live in an area with plentiful sunlight and lots of available open space to build solar power stations. We don"t yet have good energy storage and that"s a problem at high latitudes when the long winter nights set in. Solar power can supplement the power grid, but it isn"t going to replace oil, coal and gas for base load power.
- Hydro power is good if you live near abundant flowing or falling water. But we"ve learned that damming rivers to produce power destroys ecosystems and the developed world is actually taking dams down to restore watersheds and river systems.
- Wind power is taking off in many parts of the world, but it, too, is somewhat limited in what geographic areas have continuous wind suitable for sustained power generation. This resource is important and should continue to be implemented, but it will also remain a supplement to the grid, rather than a replacement source.
- Geothermal power will work if you live near active volcanoes. Iceland produces nearly 100% of its electrical power from geothermal energy which is great for its approximately 300,000 inhabitants. But it won"t help many of the world"s remaining 6-7 billion.
- Nuclear power is the one alternative, high-energy-density power source that could replace fossil fuels for power generation. It is carbon neutral and relatively "clean," until you look closely. What about the waste products that will be dangerous for millennia? Consider the effect of natural disasters like Fukishima and then decide if you want thousands of new nuclear power stations being built near major cities which are mostly also along coastlines. And do we really want all the countries in the developing world running nuclear power stations? I think not – consider nuclear proliferation…
It"s time to relook at obtaining continuous solar power from space. Placing square miles of lightweight, efficient solar arrays in space, generating power and beaming it back to Earth by laser or microwave is one alternative that should receive serious consideration. From geosynchronous Earth orbit, the sun (almost) always shines, allowing the power station to produce plentiful electrical power both day and night. The passage of a microwave beam through the atmosphere to the ground has a very limited impact on the local environment and could potentially allow us to dismantle one or more fossil fuel power generating plants for each solar power station placed in space. Japan is taking this seriously and, since they are a resource-poor island now dependent on unstable geopolitical partners for their electrical power, it will provide them with a clean, energy-independent future. Yes, the up-front costs will be high, but the long-term payoff of having a network of such power stations providing clean, efficient power are too positive to ignore.
Space might also enable that most elusive power source of the future, nuclear fusion, to become a practical reality. The Sun produces its energy by combining hydrogen into helium in a process called fusion. The problem is that the Sun fuses hydrogen by its mass – gravity essentially squeezes the hydrogen atoms together until they fuse and become helium and give off energy in the process. This isn"t easily done without the massive pressures experienced at the center of the Sun. Enter an interesting isotope of helium called Helium-3. (This is a helium atom with one fewer neutron in its nucleus; it has one less neutron than the average helium atom.) Helium-3 allows the fusion reaction to occur under much-easier-to-create conditions than are present at the center of the Sun. The Earth"s supply of helium-3, deposited here by the solar wind over millennia, has mostly leaked away into space out of the upper atmosphere. But it is thought that there is an ample supply embedded in the surface of the Moon. By going there and mining for it, we might usher in a new age of clean nuclear power on Earth –without all the nasty byproducts of today"s fission reactors.
Studies show that many of the elements we use in our everyday lives could be gone within the next half century: antimony, copper, gold, indium, lead, phosphorus, tin, and zinc are in short supply. [See Earth"s Natural Wealth: An Audit in Further Reading] The rapid industrialization of China, India and other countries is causing a rapid rise in the price of raw materials. Chinese companies in particular have been aggressively buying mineral rights in many African countries to feed their seemingly insatiable industries. How many open pit mines do we want dotting the landscape to supply us with the materials upon which our modern civilization depends?
I grew up in Eastern Kentucky where coal is king. I"ve seen the effects of mountaintop removal and deep mining. The land will take centuries to recover. The First World has done an admirable job regulating our companies to preserve the environment after extracting resources. But we"ve also simply exported this dirty work to developing countries where the environmental regulations are not as strict; essentially exporting our pollution and environmental degradation in addition to jobs. We need not do this. Let"s take mining to a place where no local life will be impacted: the asteroids.
In space near the Earth are thousands of Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), meaning that there are multitudes of asteroids that orbit the Sun with essentially the same orbital parameters as the Earth. This makes them relatively easy to access. And they are made from the same "stuff" from which the Earth is made. They contain the same raw materials that we"re digging from the Earth to feed our industry and they are out there, in space, ready to be used. All we have to do is figure out how to go and get the resources from them affordably.
There are three types of asteroids:
Carbonaceous chondrites, or C-type asteroids, don"t contain much metal, but they do have hydrated minerals. This makes them perhaps the most valuable asteroids for future mining operations – “hydrated” means water and water is the key ingredient for future space exploration and development. It can be used for the obvious purposes by human explorers (drinking, bathing, cleaning, etc.) and it can also be easily turned into rocket fuel by splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen with sunlight-produced electricity. These asteroids may become the refueling stations of the inner solar system.
S-type asteroids are "stony" asteroids, and are primarily composed of silicates (rocks). M-type asteroids are where we will go for metals to feed our industries. Once the raw materials are mined, they can easily be nudged into an orbit that will direct them into the Earth"s atmosphere to drop in the desert where they can be retrieved and processed. A typical 1 kilometer-long asteroid has a mass of about two billion tons, containing approximately 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of cobalt, and 7500 tons of platinum – and there may be as many as one million asteroids of this size in the solar system. Dazzling wealth that is, quite literally, just over our heads!
There is no technical or engineering reason we cannot do this today. It all boils down to money. It is currently far less expensive to continue digging these resources from the Earth than it is to bring them back from space. But this is changing. The price of these raw materials is increasing as demand grows and supply dwindles. The cost of getting to space is decreasing as more private companies enter the marketplace and more people and machines are flying there. Soon the price point will be crossed that makes space resources an attractive alternative to strip mining planet Earth. There are several companies looking into this: Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are two that are taking the first steps toward space industrialization and resource development.
If the direst predictions resulting from anthropogenic climate change are real and the planet"s temperature begins to rise catastrophically, then space technology may provide a way to mitigate the problem. Kennedy, Roy and Fields [see Dyson Dots: Changing the solar constant to a variable with photovoltaic lightsails in Further Reading] propose an idea that would reduce the amount of energy from the sun into the Earth"s biosphere, reducing global temperatures in the process. They suggest placing large solar sails in space between the Earth and the sun to reduce the incident energy by 0.25%. This would reduce the global average temperature by about 2 degrees; an offset to global warming. And, should the technology have an unintended consequence once implemented, it can easily be turned off by simply flying the large sail, or sails, away and into deep space. The schematic in Figure 5 shows the concept as presented in Harvesting Space for a Greener Earth. [See Further Reading for a comprehensive explanation of the detail presented.]
Space development is not being advocated here as a panacea. It should, as a minimum, be considered by policy makers, politicians, scientists and engineers as we face the challenges of becoming a truly planet-wide industrial civilization. Environmentalists and space advocates should work together to make life on Earth tomorrow better than today for all of Earth"s inhabitants – not just industrialized humanity. We can be pro-environment, pro-technology and pro-economic growth at the same time. Many believe that space development is a means for humanity to leave Earth and find another (pristine) home. I believe we can use space development to support the elevation of billions of people out of poverty to allow them to lead more productive and far richer lives, undo much of the environmental damage we"ve already done to the planet, and sustain us as we migrate throughout the solar system and eventually to another star.
Copyright © 2014 by Les Johnson
Les Johnson is a Baen science fiction author, popular science writer, and NASA technologist. His most recent science fiction novel, Rescue Mode, coauthored with Ben Bova, was published by Baen in June 2014. To learn more about how space technology can help solve our very real energy and environmental problems here on Earth, check out his nonfiction book on this topic from Springer Books, Harvesting Space for a Greener Earth.