Who can imagine the power of the Sun?
We look up into the sky, but know if we stare into that star, it will blind us. If we stray naked in its glare too long, it will burn us. Our star is the energy source of all life on Earth over the past 3.5 billion years and the energy that became transmuted into all the fossil fuel we burn for power and transport. There is no hydroelectricity or wind power without the Sun and naturally, all solar power draws on the energy of our star.
The Sun is not the same as it was, nor is it the same as it will become. Our star is now 35 per cent hotter than it was when first formed at the birth of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago and is progressing through a cycle that will turn it into a red giant over the next 5 billion years. We look at the Sun rising at dawn and know that a tongue of flame can reach us with a solar flare that can melt power grids and, if strong enough, could cripple human civilization. Who can imagine that, as a red giant, that bright shining orb will grow in size to the orbit of the Earth, totally consuming Mercury and Venus and burning our beautiful planet to a glowing hot cinder?
The Earth will become uninhabitable for life long before then, as the temperature continues to rise in the coming millions of years and, if human civilization continues, the day will come when we will have to move on, simply to survive. We know that the risks to life on a planet are great. Whether from a monster asteroid, like the one that sent the dinosaurs into extinction 65 million years ago, or when too much carbon in the biosphere resulted in the loss of most of the life on Earth 252 million years ago at the end of the Permian era, an event also called the Great Dying. In that event, it is now widely believed that giant algal blooms in dying oceans released toxic hydrogen sulphide gas that killed life on land and destroyed the ozone layer, allowing solar and cosmic radiation to reach the Earth's surface.
At the present time humanity has a choice. We have developed the means to go into space and if we became serious about this option, we could build a sustainable survival presence beyond Earth. This would also place us in a confident survival position to deal with and solve any problem on Earth. There are times in this dangerous old Universe of ours, when we may only get one crack at the cookie barrel. Ask the dinosaurs.
Most of our leaders and scientists seem to imagine that we can work all our environmental and socio-economic strife out on Earth alone, almost as an article of faith. The renowned palaeontologist and science writer, Tim Flannery, is one of the few conservationists to consider a future that includes space development, but like a great many academics, he argues strongly that we must work our problems out on Earth first. In a cosmos where expansion is the primary modus operandi, I wonder if this belief in containment is a real threat to our survival.
In the early 1970s, Professor Gerard K. O'Neill of Princeton spoke prophetically when he claimed that we could keep a safe Earth by reaching to the Sun for energy and build solar power stations in space. "If this development comes to pass, we will find ourselves here on Earth with a clean energy source, and we will further improve our environment by saving, each year, over a billion tons of fossil fuels,” he said then. O'Neill appreciated that burning too much fossil fuel would lead to an increase in heat in the biosphere, that there would be global warming.
James Lovelock, who once worked for NASA on the Viking missions to Mars, where his theory of Gaia began, has strongly warned us that our treatment of the Earth can lead to sudden changes in the Earth's climate to a permanently hotter environment, one that will be extremely dangerous for humanity and result in the deaths of billions of people. Lovelock points out that, because our Sun is getting slowly but steadily hotter, it will be harder for our planet's life-support systems to maintain the current temperature range and the Earth systems will shift to a hotter and harsher world, which could be swift and with a vengeance.
One of the World's foremost climate scientists and head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who began his career with the NASA exploration of Venus, has come to see that current human activity could lead to the Earth becoming a second Venus. He calls this the Venus syndrome, which will only be avoided if we cut back on our release of fossil carbon and reduce the current growing load in the Earth's biosphere. There is no indication that carbon release will be reduced any time soon and, with locations like the Arctic getting hotter fast, Nature is releasing plenty more potent greenhouse gases from melting permafrost. It is now wondered if the methane clathrate deposits on the sea floor are beginning to dissolve, as streams of bubbles have been seen rising to the surface of the Arctic Ocean.
Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas that can increase our planet's mean temperature and, when it breaks down, becomes carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide remains aloft in the atmosphere for centuries, where higher volumes provide a steady forcing toward a hotter Earth, by capturing reflected solar energy.
With the powers that be and our institutions so focused on the Earth, hope is in short supply, as there is no plan on the table that will assure our survival. The threat to life is currently ratcheting up, as the oceans absorb about half of the carbon dioxide released into the air, which is turning the sea acidic and dissolving the shells of sea creatures. Are we prepared to risk a repeat of the Great Dying of 252 million years ago?
If Lovelock and Hansen are correct in their warnings, then to ignore this threat to our survival is to stumble into a march of the lemmings.
The powers that be are not looking to space to assure human survival and we cannot expect a sudden change of heart. We can suggest that solar power stations could be built in space, to access the unlimited energy-well of our star and use this power to extract excess carbon from the air and sea. Carbon is an amazing element and may be viewed as a resource, so the process may even return a profit. This simple solution, if it can be verified as practical, will not just happen. It will need to be campaigned for with a vengeance, to demonstrate that space futures offer solutions to Earthly problems. Success will also help to open the way to our future among the stars.
Who do we sell this vision to when political leaders and institutions are not listening? We must take this case to the people of the Earth and mobilise the wisdom of ordinary citizens, who would like a good future for their children and grandchildren, along with a better world. Our challenge is to win the hearts and collaboration of enough people to a vision for space futures, so that politicians will be obliged to listen, if they wish to remain in that career. Institutions will follow the funding trail, just as corporations respond to market demands.
The cosmic birth of life from Earth
When cosmologists speak of the birth of the Universe, they describe an amazingly swift explosive event called the Big Bang — when all the energy of all the Suns that would come to exist appeared in an instant and began to expand. As the expanding cosmos cooled, the primal hot plasma formed into matter, which gathered to become stars that created the heavier elements in their furnaces. At the end of their lives, the first stars exploded, dispersing their stardust into space, which then gathered to form new stars and the first rocky planets, like Earth, where life has sparked into being and began the pageant of evolution.
We can see that creation and destruction are the two sides of the same cosmic coin — that life would not exist on Earth without the death of stars. The journey of Nature should therefore not be seen as a safe merry-go-round, but more like a roller-coaster ride, where the dinosaurs are knocked off by a monster rock from space, opening the way for creatures with larger brains that can make tools.
We, the tool-maker, the spaceship builder, have the ability to undertake the expansion of life beyond Earth. Fossil fuel has been made available to us by Nature, as if a birth-booster for the delivery of life from our planet into the cosmos. Now that we know that using fossil fuel too long can be a threat to life, we may wonder if many alien civilizations have gone down the same road, used their fossil fuel too long and paid the ultimate price, falling victim to the Venus syndrome. This could help to explain why there is a great silence from the stars, where scientists believe that we should have seen evidence of ET by now.
Do we need to find evidence of failed alien civilizations among the stars, before we take action to assure our own cosmic survival? If we cling to the Earth without regard for the consequences, both mother and child may die. We can do better than that.
(Kim Peart and Dr Jennifer Bolton have just made a presentation to the Kepler Space Institute Convention – which was held over the last few days in the United States – without leaving Australia from the virtual orbital space settlement (VOSS) they have built in the virtual world of InWorldz. This article was written for the Convention, to explain the context of the VOSS and explain how they have made a major break-through in the past few weeks, which will enable them to build a working VOSS in the virtual world that will allow any number of people to be involved, as if in space.)
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