Image: A ‘steppenwolf’ planet moving between the stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Resources Between the Stars

by PAUL GILSTER on FEBRUARY 20, 2013

Yesterday we looked at the possibility of colonizing worlds much different from the Earth. Seen in one light, pushing out into the Kuiper Belt and building settlements there is part of a slow migration to the stars that may occur without necessarily being driven by that purpose. Seen in another, experimenting with human settlements in extreme environments is a way of exploiting the resources of nearby space, pushing the human presence out into the Oort Cloud. Either way, we can find places that, while not ‘habitable’ in the classic sense of liquid water at the surface, are nonetheless colonizable.

In his Tale of Two Worlds, novelist Karl Schroeder works on a definition of a colonizable world. It has to have an accessible surface, for one thing, meaning one we can work with — obviously a surface gravity of 4 g’s is going to be a problem. Much smaller worlds like Pluto, as we saw yesterday in Ken Roy’s work on possible colonies there, pose less of a challenge, as we can imagine strategies to produce one g for the inhabitants. Schroeder also notes there has to be a manageable flow of energy at the surface in which we can move heat around. That seems reasonable enough, although advanced technologies will have a wider zone than we have.

But I found Schroeder’s third point interesting. Here he’s drawing on a 1978 paper in Science called “The Age of Substitutibility,” by Harold Goeller and Alvin Weinberg (Oak Ridge National Laboratory), in which the authors describe the artificial mineral they call ‘demandite.’ It comes, as Schroeder notes, in two forms:

A molecule of industrial demandite would contain all the elements necessary for industrial manufacturing and construction, in the proportions that you’d get if you took, say, an average city and ground it up into a fine pulp. There’re about 20 elements in industrial demandite including carbon, iron, sodium, chlorine etc. Biological demandite, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of just six elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. (If you ground up an entire ecosystem and looked at the proportions of these elements making it up, you could in fact find an existing molecule that has exactly the same proportions. It’s called cellulose.)

The point is that the right elements have to be accessible on the object you’re trying to live on to make it colonizable. Now if you can find a place that meets the three criteria, surprising things can happen. Centauri B b looks to be a nightmarish place, probably tidally locked and roiling with lava on its day side, and almost certainly without a breathable atmosphere. But from the standpoint of colonizability, we can’t rule out the night side, and the fact that this (still unconfirmed) world has a surface gravity about the same as Earth’s also works in its favor.

Read more: Resources Between the Stars — Centauri Dreams.

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