by Adam Frank
humans must save Earth
and then venture beyond it...
That future is the solar
system, and if we get things right, that's where we're headed.
Earth's air, water, rock, and life were in a stable state that was mostly warm and mostly moist (with not too much ice).
Now, human activity has
driven Earth out of
the Holocene and into a new epoch
the Anthropocene, a planetary
change in which humanity now dominates how the planet's systems
That view is flawed...
The understanding we've gained from those journeys shows us that the Anthropocene is a predictable transition. It's a change that inevitably occurs when any species builds a world-spanning, energy-intensive civilization like ours.
From an astronomical point of view, the Anthropocene is a kind of planetary adolescence.
You can't stop your kids from becoming teenagers. Instead, you can only hope they come out the other side with maturity, wisdom, and compassion.
In a similar way, to
climate change, we need to grow
into new kind of cooperative relationship with the rest of the
biosphere and the rest of the planet.
From rocket billionaires
to robot asteroid explorers, a new scenario for the future is
emerging. The next few hundred years don't have to be a grind down
to extinction. Instead, they may become a grand drama played out on
the many stages of many new worlds.
By the end of the space
shuttle program, in 2011, NASA was hitching rides for its astronauts
on Russian rockets.
Branson has kept his
focus on space tourism, while Bezos and Musk are developing new
classes of reusable rockets for space exploration and commerce.
Last year alone, space
companies received $3.9 billion in private investment.
represents another frontier, with companies like
Made in Space already exploring
3D-printing techniques for zero gravity.
If humanity's long-term future is to be interplanetary,
Figuring out how to make
it in space may be a turning point in helping us understand how to
make it on Earth.
Our robot spaceships have targeted every kind of solar system body:
What we've learned from
these missions is that the solar system is a whole lot more
interesting than Apollo-era scientists ever gave it credit for. And
most important, our explorations have shown us that
the solar system is very, very wet...
Many of the bigger moons of Jupiter and Saturn host subsurface oceans. And while Mars is a dry desert now, scientists have firm evidence that it was once a blue world with vast lakes or oceans where hip-deep torrents rushed across its surface.
At least some water remains on the red planet in the form of ice at its poles and below its surface.
Just last year, evidence
revealed a liquid subsurface Martian lake spanning more than 10
Even a small asteroid
orbiting the sun can contain as much as $50 billion in rare metals
like platinum. That's why interest remains high in investigating
technologies that may one day form the backbone of a robust
This is a project that will without a doubt take generations.
Building a human civilization beyond Earth will require more than machines. To thrive in artificial environments, we need to probe what exactly an environment is.
Giant domed cities on Mars that populate the imaginations of science fiction writers and Elon Musk will need their own ecosystems:
How do life, air, water,
and rock function together to maintain stable conditions?
In other words, figuring
out how to make it in space may be a turning point in helping us
understand how to make it on Earth.
We tend to imagine warp-drive engines taking us to the stars à la Star Trek or Star Wars.
But if we take the laws of (actual) physics 'seriously', then the finite speed of light and the vast distances between stars may make interstellar civilization unlikely.
Even with the best
(actual) technologies we can imagine today, it would still take at
least 100 years to cross between the stars. Barring a scientific
miracle, the next 1,000 years will 'probably' not involve humanity
building an interstellar empire.
If we can make it through the Anthropocene transformation, then the solar system could be where the drama of human culture's next millennia plays out.
All the planets, moons,
asteroids, and comets could become our stage, Earth included.