Sunday, December 25, 2016

Habitats in Space : Our Second Home

If not on Earth, where else can humans beings be? Not as a traveller in a spacecraft or as a one-off tourist on the Moon but as an immigrant, or a colonizer who sets up a permanent residency for multiple generations. Given our current knowledge of physics and the state of propulsion technology, we really do not have the ability to travel to other stars in a reasonable amount of time, so our search for that second home for humanity is restricted to our own solar system. Where do we start?

photo credit Tittat427

There are two divergent points of view on where to locate such an extraterrestrial colony. Some believe that the colony should be located on a natural body like a planet, satellite or an asteroid while others think that the best bet would be an artificial structure in orbit around a planet or in space. There are pros and cons for both. What is common to both approaches is the realisation that any environment outside the terrestrial biosphere that we currently inhabit is inhospitable if not actually hostile to all kinds of known lifeforms, including humans. The availability of a magnetosphere that shields us from cosmic radiation, of liquid water that is fundamental to our biology and of an atmosphere that supplies us with oxygen for metabolism is essential but unfortunately there is no place where all of this is readily available. So wherever we go, we would need to create this environment artificially. Question is, where is it that this can be done with the least effort or at lowest cost.

The obvious place to think of is our Moon because it is closest and we have already been there. But because it is so deficient both in water -- with just traces of this precious liquid found by India’s Chandrayaan -- as well as in gaseous oxygen and nitrogen, that it is not thought to be worth exploring. The only real value of the Moon is as a source of minerals that can be mined and more importantly lifted off the surface relatively inexpensively because of the low gravity compared to Earth.

Mars on the the other hand is a more Earth-like location. The physical terrain is very similar to our rocky arid deserts and while no liquid water is present today, there are huge ice caps in the polar region that if melted can provide all the water that we would ever need. What is nice is that because the axis of rotation of Mars is tilted just like that of Earth, there are regular seasons and while winter temperature at the poles can be as low -150O C, summer temperatures near the equator reach a comfortable 35O C. The atmosphere is thin and the air pressure on the surface is about 0.6% of what we have on Earth. But since most of this is carbon dioxide, there is a good possibility of using terrestrial plants to use sunlight and gradually convert carbon dioxide into precious oxygen that both plants and animals can use. Melting the polar ice caps to release water and gradually converting carbon dioxide into oxygen could be the first steps towards terraforming Mars and creating an Earth like environment. After water and oxygen, the third challenge is the lack of a global magnetic field that would shield residents from cosmic rays but the existence of umbrella shaped auroras in some areas show the promise of local magnetic shields that could prove useful. But in areas bereft of such protection, thick walls or living underground would solve the problem.

While Mars may look like a good place to pitch our extraterrestrial camp, there are three other possible locations.

Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn, is a world where liquid hydrocarbons play the role that water plays on Earth. Titan has a dense atmosphere consisting largely of nitrogen and it rains hydrocarbons, like liquid methane, every now and then. This leads to the  formation of liquid methane lakes near the poles. The climate, along with the winds and the rain, creates surface features very similar to Earth with dunes, lakes, rivers, deltas and oceans that are dominated by seasonal weather patterns. Titan is cold, very cold and far away from the sun and so solar energy may not be a feasible solution. But it has water ice and if the energy potential of the vast quantity of methane -- and that is a big IF  -- can be unlocked with the help of oxygen extracted from water then we have one of  largest sources of hydrocarbon energy in the solar system. Again, even if we do not go to live here, Titan could be be source of energy, like the Middle East on Earth, that could be extracted and transported to other worlds inexpensively, because of Titan’s low gravity.

Next stop is Enceladus, a small rocky world covered with water ice that orbits Saturn. But what is interesting in Enceladus is that even though surface temperatures are far below freezing, there exists beneath the thick ice shell, vast oceans of liquid water that are kept warm by the tidal effects of Saturn’s immense gravity. In fact, so hot is the interior that plumes of salty water are regularly seen to erupt out of the surface in a manner similar to geothermal geysers on Earth. These salt-water plumes also contain nitrogen, as ammonia, and organic molecules like methane, propane, acetylene and formaldehyde that prove the existence of  hydrothermal activity and potential energy resources. In fact, the presence of these products also signal the possible existence of life forms similar to those found on Earth.

Our third and final stop on this current tour of possible locations for our second home is Europa, another ice and rocky satellite that orbits Jupiter. Europa too has a vast, subterranean ocean of liquid water warmed by the immense tidal effects of Jupiter’s gravity and it ejects plumes of water spray similar to the kind found on Enceladus. There are two other features that make Europa possibly one of the most habitable locations both for terrestrial as well as non-terrestrial life forms. First it has a magnetic field caused either by a nickel-iron core or a subterranean pool of salty, liquid water that forms a subsurface conductive layer. Second, it has an atmosphere, which though thin and tenuous consists primarily of oxygen!  This is of immense value for any human colony that may be located there. Because of all these factors, Europa has emerged as one of the most likely locations in our Solar System for potential habitability.

Mars, Titan, Enceladus and Europa all seem to have the basic ingredients necessary to support human life but given the lack of an Earth-like environment, man will have to create an independent structural unit with controlled, ecological life support systems that are isolated from the local environment. If this be the case, why build this structure on a planet or a satellite? Why not build the structure in space itself?  This is the logic behind the design of space habitats that could either be in orbit around planets or around Lagrangian points -- gravity wells where the gravitational attraction of two large astronomical bodies tend to, kind of, cancel each other out. These could be huge structures, many kilometers long and shaped like a cylinder or a torus that spin on an axis to generate the sensation of gravity. Powered by an abundance of solar energy and sustained by recycling materials on a mini-planetary scale, these structures could be sustained by advanced agricultural techniques based on greenhouse and hydroponic technology. Many of these technologies already exist but the biggest challenge would be to source the construction materials. Carrying them from Earth would be impossibly expensive but a more feasible approach would be to mine them from other, low gravity locations. That is where robots will come in very handy because they can be made to mine and transport materials from inhospitable worlds.

Now that we have some options for our second home, some of us will ask the question -- why on Earth, pun intended, would we want to go there? One reason of course could be the deterioration of the political and ecological environment, that may make Earth uninhabitable. There is also the finite, non-zero probability of some incredible accident that may wipe out life on Earth. But perhaps the most biggest compulsion would be man’s curiosity. 200,000 years ago, primitive man walked out of Africa and spread out all over the world. Later on, people from south India crossed the Bay of Bengal to colonise south east Asia and Europeans spilled out into America and then Australia. Each such excursion led to vast increase in exploitable resources. However in each case, in each society, there would have been sceptics who would have wondered why?  But then there must have been others who said “Why not?” and it is the latter who would eventually prevail!

So would be the case for man in space. Why Not?

this article originally appeared in Swarajya, the magazine that reads India right

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Engineering India for the Space Age

Elon Musk may have suddenly become the glamourous mascot of a new, post Apollo, space age but the fact remains that the destiny of mankind is among the stars. While many people will keep on trying to salvage what remains of spaceship Earth from the environmental, social and political scourges that threaten it, it is but inevitable that a significant, space faring community will emerge that will seek to live and work outside the planet -- like European emigrants going to America. Are we in India ready for this? Will we just watch and cheer while others depart? -- as it was in 1969 when man went to the Moon? Or should we as nation participate in these great voyages?

credit : gwydion1982
Astronomers tell us that there must be, thousands of habitable, earthlike planets in orbit around various stars in our galaxy. Unfortunately, the distance between stars is so great that we have no means yet, not even theoretical ideas, on how to build spacecraft that will be fast enough to travel to another solar system in the lifetime of a human being. But travel within our own solar system is  possible with technology available today. So to be realistic, let us focus on our own solar neighbourhood.

In a recent paper in Universe Today, Nancy Atkinson has identified Mars, Europa and Titan, two satellites of Saturn and Enceladus, a satellite of Jupiter as possible destinations based on the availability of a solid surface, the presence of an atmosphere to protect against cosmic rays, the existence of water and hydrocarbons and a temperature range that supports liquids. There may or may not be pre-existing life in these worlds but the environment can certainly support the carbon based life forms that we are familiar with. More importantly, we already have the rockets and spaceships that can take us to these destinations in a reasonable amount of time. But going there is only a one part of the story -- a story that is being written with great enthusiasm by NASA, ISRO, SpaceX, Blue Origin and other companies. What do we do when we get there?

In the early years of the 15th century, the Chinese government sent out flotillas -- the Zheng He fleets -- to impress people around the world with the size and power of their ships and the glory of the Chinese empire. At the same time, Portuguese and Spanish sailors, with far smaller ships, also set sail but their aim was to create outposts from where they could carry out trade and commerce. The Chinese ships achieved little even though they were far superior to the European ships but as we know from history, it was the latter that ended up ruling the world -- both politically as well as economically. Space voyages tomorrow would do well to keep in mind that it is not enough to just go there. We need to create habitable colonies where humans can stay and plan for the next part of their journey.

Unfortunately, none of the feasible destinations that we have identified can natively support human life as we know it. The first thing that we need to have is a Hab, a habitat, that we human beings can live in. This Hab must be as large as a big house or a perhaps a small township that has its own oxygen rich atmosphere hermetically sealed against the alien atmosphere of the outside world. But a Hab as big as we need cannot be built on Earth and transported to the colony, it needs to be built there. So before we have a Hab as big as we want, we need a Fab -- a fabrication facility -- at the location, that will be used to build components of the Hab.

The Fab, would in turn have three pre-requisites. First it would need a source of energy and while nuclear power carried from Earth would be the initial source, it would eventually need to have gigantic solar cells to harvest sunlight, however weak it may be, and provide sustainable energy. The huge hydrocarbon deposits on Titan could also be used if we can get a source of oxygen to burn them. The second second requirement of  the Fab would be raw materials to build the Hab and also the solar cells to power both the Fab and the Hab. Again, this raw material cannot be transported from Earth but would have to be mined near the Fab / Hab complex itself. The third facility in the Fab would be autonomous manufacturing facilities -- or what we refer to as smart robots..

Human beings with their fragile lives and the need to protect them from accidental death means that it would be far simpler and inexpensive to use robots as much as possible for all mining and manufacturing activities. This is one area where Indian companies may wish to focus on if they want to remain relevant as mankind ventures out into the vastness of space. Space or not, robotic manufacturing has already become a key feature of the terrestrial economy and unless Indian companies adopt to this technology in a big, big way the Make-In-India concept would be rendered irrelevant. However the focus should not just be on using robots but on building robots as well -- robots must become the centrepiece of India’s capital goods industry. This will create a stable platform on which space faring robots can be built.

Robots have sensors to detect cues from the environment, actuators to move and control materials and other machines and all this is held in place by artificial intelligence (AI) software. This same AI, that is the basis of the autonomous, self driving cars pioneered by Google and developed by Tesla should now be extended to autonomous equipment for mining and material handling that would be essential to feed the Fab at the space colony. This presents another window of opportunity for Indian engineering companies to place a toe-hold in the line-up for the space race. Manufacturers of earthmoving equipment must start exploring ways and means to adapt their products for autonomous operations in different worlds. The first step would be of course to build autonomous products for terrestrial operations and once we have a level of confidence in the technology, we can seek to adapt them for space. For example, seabed mining with autonomous submarines could become a model for mining operations on Enceladus that has huge water oceans under a layer of clean white ice.

Autonomous mining is not science fiction. The Mine of the Future initiative of Rio Tinto and the Next Generation Mining program of BHP have both started working on autonomous mining equipment and multiple Chinese companies are also in the fray. In India too, we must start working on these technologies, not just in preparation for their eventual deployment in space but for benefits that will accrue in the terrestrial economy, today.

Once the minerals have been mined, we would need to convert them into building materials that will allow us to create a series of increasingly bigger and more sophisticated Habs. Materials that are easy to work with and yet good enough to protect human lives from the harshness of the extra terrestrial environment would need to be designed along with the capability for autonomous manufacture and fabrication. This calls for new thinking in materials science and in construction technology that can be automated easily with smart robots.

The final component of any space colony is the farm to grow food. In the movie Martian, which demonstrated some very feasible technologies necessary for a human to survive on Mars, we saw the protagonist growing potatoes in a fairly hostile environment. In a recent experiment at the Wageningen University and Research Centre, “scientists have managed to harvest 10 crops, including tomatoes, peas, and rye, from soil that mimics the conditions on Mars”. Farmbot, a precision farming DIY robot built with off-the-shelf components like Arduino and Raspberry Pi and based on traditional CNC machine tool guidance technology, could be a good model for autonomous farming under tightly controlled environments.

Rockets and spaceships are necessary but not sufficient in our quest for new homesteads beyond Earth. A broad consortium of engineering companies is necessary to provide R:U:M  रोटी, ऊर्जा और मकान -- food, energy and habitat -- on extraterrestrial locations and to build the capital equipment capable of autonomous mining, mineral processing, fabrication and assembly. A community that plans to go to space will need to dream, design and demonstrate these technology capabilities here on Earth. Since these technologies have a direct impact on the current terrestrial economy there is a strong business case for investing in such dual-use products right now. Expertise acquired in these areas is not only good for business today but will also provide the platform for that big leap into space.

A national convention on “Engineering India for the Space Age” would be a good launch pad for  the national goal to become a space faring nation in the next 50 years.

This article was originally published in Swarajya.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Launch Pad

We launch a new blog that explores how mankind can leave Earth and head for the stars ...

Credits :
Original soundtrack from
Extracted as mp3 file using
Edited at
Converted into a new movie with
Using images from Nasa found at
and from the singers website
Lyrics and English translation available at