Today, after a limited run in theaters that still use film, Interstellar opens wide. And it’s at once a compelling adventure and essentially a lengthy argument that we need to get into space now before our own stupidity and ecological disaster force the issue. But do we? And can we make it happen?
First of all… yes, we need to get into space and start colonizing other planets. By 2100, it’s projected that eleven billion people will be living on Earth and we won’t be hitting equilibrium, either. We’re already dealing with resource strain now; imagine what’ll happen when we have nearly twice as many people running around.
Of course, something might happen to, uh, trim the numbers a little bit, but I think we can all agree that a plague, a mass famine, or a long and bloody war are not good things. So, we need some breathing room, and that means getting off Earth.
But where? While there’s no lack of worlds that are theoretically inhabitable, the problem, right now, is getting there. In Interstellar, there are a few handwaves to getting to other galaxies, which makes sense, because, well, it has to be fun to watch, too. But in terms of getting around, it raises a few questions.
In short, we just don’t have a warp drive right now. Any warp-drive like effects are largely speculation at this point. So that means, for now, we’ve got to stay in the neighborhood, which leads us to the planets and satellites we can move to: Mars, Venus, Ceres, and Europa.
Mars is the most commonly discussed, and probably the best candidate, although it shares a lot of the same problems with the other possibilities. Right now, Mars will kill you without a pressure suit. Its atmosphere is not only 95% carbon dioxide, and so thin it can’t protect the surface from the sun’s rays, it also has atmospheric pressure so low that just by stepping outside unprotected, your blood would boil within your body even as you froze to death even as you were being killed by radiation poisoning. Yes, something about Total Recall was scientifically accurate!
So before anything else can happen, we’ve got to give Mars a far more friendly atmosphere. The same is true of the other candidates: Venus, for example, has actual clouds of acid for an atmosphere. It’s also 872° F on the surface, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
Also, there’s generally little usable water, if there’s any water at all, on these planets. We’ve got the soil and anything else we’re either going to have to find under the crust, create, or import. The challenge, more or less, is building a new Earth from the ground up on these planets, and the Earth is a complicated organism.
We’ll also have to deal with the unique challenges faced by moving to a new planet. For example, a day on Venus can run 116 Earth days, and some parts of the planet will experience fifty days of night. Also, it orbits the sun in 225 days, so it’s a good thing Venus doesn’t actually have any seasons. Mars does have seasons, but they’re not consistent, and thankfully there’s a short winter. And this is just one of the challenges we’ll face as we move away from Earth.
But they’re challenges we’ll have to face. We’re going to force ourselves off this planet, and it might be in our lifetimes. It’s just that where we go, and how we get there, may be very different than we imagine.