by Jeff Cunningham
Ni hao, travellers! With the recent announcement that NASA has found evidence that water still flows on the red planet, and with the highly anticipated film The Martian hitting theaters in the United States, what better occasion can you ask for for the return of The Science of Firefly?
Today, we will indeed be looking towards Mars as a prototype for the very colonization and terraforming techniques that we’re told occurred on many planets and moons in Firefly‘s ‘verse to create the setting for the show and its follow-up film, Serenity.
For those of you just joining us, Take Back the Sky is a campaign by fans of the cult hit sci-fi show Firefly to write letters and sign petitions to SpaceX to name their first manned spacecraft– called the Dragon— after Serenity, the ship featured in the show. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has come to be known for being outspoken about his intent for the Dragon to be the key trailblazer, a 21st-century Mayflower, in a larger movement to found a permanent, independent colony. Scientists, futurists, politicians, and all manner of talking heads can’t “offer comment” loud or long enough– some saying it’s a brilliant plan, others naysaying and decrying the dangers involved (which don’t affect them, if you think about it. Just sayin’…).
In this installment of The Science of Firefly, we’ll tackle the ultimate question: Is it possible? Could human beings found a permanent settlement on another world within our lifetimes and eventually transform it to become like Earth, just like many a science-fiction novel or film? Or does the required technology and knowledge to achieve such a thing still elude us?
It’s a pretty tall order any way you look at it. The good news is, we can say that the short answer is “yes.” Here at Take Back the Sky, however, we refuse to leave matters like that, so you’ll also be getting the somewhat longer answer. To treat it properly, though, I propose we break the timeline down into three phases:
- How do we permanently settle another planet– like Mars– without needing re-supply from Earth?
- Won’t it cost too much?
- Isn’t it dangerous?
- How do we transition from “extreme campout” to a place you might actually want to live in?
- How do you terraform a planet? How long would it take?
After One Small Step
So, after we all get our nice “flags and footprints” and photographs for posterity, how do you survive on a planet so far from Earth? Don’t you have to bring the very air you breathe with you?
Not exactly, actually. At first, yes. As with any survival situation, it’s wise to start by examining what you have. Unlike our planet’s moon, Mars does indeed have an atmosphere– one that is primarily carbon dioxide. THIS IS REALLY GOOD NEWS, for several reasons. The first is obvious: We can grow plants, and even do it using native Martian soil (though we may or may not need to add fertilizer), which will create both oxygen and food.
The second reason that CO2 is a blessing on Mars is it allows us to work some magic tricks of chemistry. For one, we can bring just a small amount of hydrogen (H2), and combine it with the air on Mars with very little cost in energy to make methane. I can hear you snickering, go ahead and get it out of your system, because, yes, it actually does make for an effective rocket fuel–and that’s how we’re going to gas up vehicles heading to Earth, plus our rovers for getting around in an astronaut’s daily commute. Best of all, we only need a gas tank big enough to get there, then we can just refuel on the surface. But why stop there? Say we send a craft ahead of the astronauts to make the fuel before they leave. Thus, no matter what terrible mishap may befall them on the way home, the crew is virtually guaranteed a sure ride home.
As if it wasn’t cool enough that you can make rocket fuel from the very air over there, in the process– called the Sabatier reaction– you get water and carbon monoxide as by-products. Both of them can be split to get oxygen to breathe, and the hydrogen released from the water can be recycled to make more methane. This makes the whole undertaking far more economical. When systems engineer Robert Zubrin ran these numbers in what has since become known as the “Mars Direct” plan, he concluded that a sustained, ongoing program of such Mars expeditions could be carried out on a regular basis for less than what was spent on the shuttle just before it was mothballed.
So, once we set up the basics, we already have the staffs of life readily available to harvest from Mars. We’ll just have to bring a nicer, more comfortable camper with us than we did to the moon.
Sooner or later, living in the spartan accommodations of a million-dollar aluminum can gets old. Sooner or later, Martians will tire of living like astronauts, and want to start living like people. How can they do that? It turns out that there’s been some truly fascinating studies done by scientists, psychologists, and even interior home decorators about how we can feel truly “at home” on another planet, and not feel like lab mice.
See, science fiction movies tend to depict this more advanced stage of colonization as more of the same– even larger metal cans, or geodesic “hab domes” that only feel even more foreign and less home-like. The experts realized, though, that the homes we live in here on Earth are made from available local materials: wood, mud, stone, and occasionally, metal. Besides, on a planet where factories don’t yet exist and deliveries from Earth are few and far between, you’re better off making do with what you have.
The consensus reached by more than one panel of these scientists was that the optimal way to make a long-term home for permanent residents of the red planet is to use what’s already there: dirt, and lots of it. The cheapest, quickest way to construct barriers against the cold and the radiation that the thin atmosphere fails to block is to simply heap large mounds of Martian soil to either cover pre-constructed buildings or to burrow into a hillside. You read that right: the next “giant leap for mankind” and the way that a wild planet will be tamed into a new home that can sustain life will be to build a real-life Bag End. One of many things that Joss Whedon just might have “gotten right” is that future pioneers are less likely to live like the crew of the Enterprise than like Hobbits.
As silly as it sounds, it’s actually quite practical. Believe it or not, having an endless supply of heavy dirt to heave up on top means you can build a much larger pressure vessel– meaning the first Martians will have more spacious living quarters than many of us do.
From “Black Rock” to Core World
Luxurious hab modules are one thing, but how does one go from a barren world like Mars, to the barren-but-breathable world of Firefly and Serenity? How did they do it?
The answer may lie in a theoretical process called terraforming, a term for any number of ways to deliberately transform the climate of another world into one where Earth life (like us) can live more comfortably.
The good news is, Mars is an excellent candidate for terraforming, because it’s already a lot like Earth in many respects–it’s size, it’s chemical makeup, heck, as cold as it gets there, it’s still closer to Earth’s weather than any other planet in our Solar system. The atmosphere is also carbon dioxide, so we can get to planting trees, right?
Well, that’s the hangup– there’s just not enough of it. The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is just far too thin right now. There’s a good chance that there’re compounds embedded in the soil– such as, oh, I dunno, the liquid water NASA found— that, if baked out of the Martian soil (called “regolith”), could evaporate and add to the atmosphere of Mars (called “outgassing”). This, in turn, could help trap more of the sun’s heat, which would cause more outgassing, in a chain reaction until it stabilizes at a certain break-even point– where these processes are balanced out by the air being literally blown away by solar wind without a magnetic field like the Earth’s to prevent that.
So, where do we start? Well, remember that Sabatier reaction we used to use chemistry to siphon free fuel from Mars’ atmosphere? If you recall, one of the byproducts it creates is carbon monoxide— the textbook greenhouse gas. Bear in mind, this is all theoretical, but it’s entirely possible that by deliberately “polluting” Mars through industrial processes, we can actually terraform the planet. How much, you ask? Well, one optimistic study found that one “break-even point” could be reached in about 200 years– the air still would not be breathable, but the pressure would be high enough to where you and I could walk on the surface without a space suit, wearing only a simply oxygen mask like people climbing Mount Everest. Not bad for only two centuries of work.
From Earth-That-Was to the ‘Verse-to-Be
The science behind settling the many colonized worlds of Firefly and Serenity is perfectly sound. The timetable may not be concrete, but there’s absolutely no reason why other worlds now inhospitable can’t be made to bear life, starting with Mars– all it’ll take is good old-fashioned elbow grease and tenacity.