In one of the oddest space stories of the week Russian scientists are happy after regaining control of a “lost” satellite containing a geko sex experiment in which the effects of weightlessness on their sex lives and development were monitored.
Throughout all of human history, from tribal chiefdoms in the Indus Valley to Egyptian Pharaohs to the United Nations, political power has been based on certain inalienable truths. However, now some of these truths are beginning to change.
All terrestrial power has been based on a horizontal axis, all frontiers to the left or right, never up. Space travel, and the real possibility of settlement on other planets, has changed a structure that has existed in its current form for at least the last couple of centuries. Space (in the geographical sense) was finite; there was only so much land and so much sea to have power over and modern power structures have been built on that idea.
So how would an extra-terrestrial human colony fit into the established system on human politics?
Take the Mars One project, an ambitious plan to launch a small group of ordinary humans on a one-way trip to set up a colony on Mars within the next couple of decades. This is not like a manned mission by NASA (such as the moon landings), these colonists will live, settle, breed and die on Mars and will quite probably never come back to Earth.
A Martian colony would represent the first organised group of humans to exist completely outside the terrestrial political system. Even closed communities (fundamentalists, anarchists etc.) or pariah states like North Korea exist within the system they pretend to exist apart from. Mars one has thought about how the colonists would organise themselves on the red planet:
“Early on, because the settlement will be very small, it is likely that most decisions will be collective and require unanimity. As the community grows it will become necessary to develop more complex systems for managing conflict and maintaining effective ways to make decisions.”
In a national mission (by NASA for example) the internal power dynamic will normally be more hierarchical and military-based with a Captain or Commander and lower levels beneath them.
However, whatever the colonists choose (or have chosen for them!) no-one has really asked how such as colony would fit into Earth politics especially if it grows to a size of a normal national entity. While the first Mars One colony will only contain 24 people the smallest independent nation on Earth, Vatican City only has 839 for a population.
Technically they could be completely independent from the Earth, having no political impact, owning no land under terrestrial law and taking part in no international (or interplanetary!) relations. However, this seems unlikely as such a massive step forward in human history can not remain detached from the machinations of politicians.
While such a colony may be able to represent itself to transnational entities like the UN if it was agreed that it was a colony rather than a business. However, there is a three to twenty-two minute delay in current communications between Earth and Mars making it highly impractical to attempt to communicate ‘real-time’.
All issues of representation in global affairs is based on recognition. You are only a country if other entities recognise you as such, there is no objective grading system. All you have to do is look at Somaliland, Palestine or the Principality of Sealand to see this issue in current affairs.
The latter actually has a lot of similarities as it involved an ex-pirate radio DJ attempting to set up a nation on a WWII rig in the North Sea off the coast of Suffolk, England. He has been followed by his son, the current regent of Sealand who continues to fight for it’s independence. Even if the Mars colony decided to become independent from the Mars One project and set themselves up as an independent entity there is still no guarantee of recognition especially as there is no clear definition over what they would be representing: the people of the colony, the land the colony uses, the whole planet?
Clearly there are a lot of issues around the permanent movement of humans to space, indeed almost every problem breeds more problems. What is very clear is that the rules and regulations of space-faring humanity do not even begin to cover modern issues.
The more we explore and learn, the more we simply push the boundaries of our ignorance. Understanding and accepting that we can never know everything about the universe allows us to expereince wonder and that is really the best feeling we can get!
Doesn’t this photo look like something out of the new Star Trek movie? When I first saw this on the IFL Science site I almost couldn’t believe that this photo is actually from NASA. It is in fact a concept picture of a ship capable of achieving (or rather surviving!) the force of a warp engine.
“”NASA/JSC is implementing an advanced propulsion physics laboratory, informally known as Eagleworks”, to pursue propulsion technologies necessary to enable human exploration of the solar system over the next 50 years, and enabling interstellar spaceflight by the end of the century.”
It’s things like that sentence that make me wish I was an engineer, or preferably a spaceship captain (of Picard or Reynolds type if possible!). However, this does pose some very thorny issues beyond those being wrestled with at Eagleworks. With the ability for humans to travel swiftly within, and beyond, the Solar System there are rather large unanswered questions of politics and commercialism.
Asteroids are relatively easy, in political terms anyway; you just fly around, grab onto the nearest interesting hunk of rock and break it apart for fuel, metals and whatever else you can grab. Many enterprises and even countries are considering the possibilities of mining space rocks and while there is nowhere near enough legislation governing extra-planetary mining it is perhaps the least objectionable activity in the near future of space travel.
While I will deal with militarization in later posts it still leaves a lot of political issues to deal with. With limited international legislation there is a major black hole around settlement and ownership. What if, for example, the Chinese government set up an occupied base on the Moon do they own the land it sits on? Do they own the Moon? The legislation from the last space race does have some limited rules on ownership (Basically saying that the land you use is yours for as long as you use it for scientific, non-commercial, non-military concerns) there is no mechanism for enforcement. Similarly, companies like Mars One who want to settle on other planets, have even less legislation around their activities.
Anyway, this subject is so large I will need quite a few other posts to get to grips with it but what the Eagleworks project and that awesome ship design does show is that these issues are not just academic anymore, they are problems that will be rearing their heads in 50 to 100 years and without proper thought and preparation they could cause issues that may never be solved.
All rights to IFL Science
As anyone who has ever been to a party at a friend’s house can tell you humans really, really hate cleaning up and would rather run the other way than confront the consequences of their actions. This doesn’t change when it comes to dumping rubbish in the Earth’s oceans and it certainly doesn’t change when it comes to space.
It may seem strange that I chose space junk (or debris as it more properly known) as the topic of my first post about space rather than say space vehicles or cool new planets being discovered but there is a very good reason: the space junk we leave behind is the best way to show you how humanity has operated up until this point, it is our space history literally written in the stars.
The image above shows NASA data on objects they are tracking. The wide ring shows objects in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) while the cloud of dots around the planet show those in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The amazing thing about this image is that, according to NASA, 95% of the objects on that map are considered space debris, they are not functioning satellites.
More scary still is that NASA is tracking these objects with technology first installed by the US Air Force in 1961 which is only capable of picking up object larger than a basketball. In the last few days Lockheed Martin have won out over rivals to create a new system capable of tracking objects larger than a baseball bringing the total tracked from 20,000 to 200,000. It is estimated that there are also 300,000 more objects smaller than a centimetre (such as paint chips, dust and coolant which, as they are travelling at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour (about 28,200 kilometers per hour) can still cause damage to un-shielded satellites and parts of the International Space Station (ISS). Indeed, a piece of junk the size of marble would hit another object with the force of an exploding hand grenade.
So why has it taken so long for us to start dealing with the problem of throwing tons of stuff into our atmosphere without any plan on what to do when it finishes whatever it’s doing? Well, as with anything from doing the dishes to dealing with climate change, the problem of space junk has grown to the extent that it can no longer be ignored.
Kessler Syndrome, first proposed in the 70’s, argues that if the amount of debris in LEO reaches critical mass it could cause a self-sustaining ablative cascade just like in the film ‘Gravity”. Imagine two pieces of debris impacting and breaking into four pieces which hit four other pieces and break into eight and so on and so on. Not only could this cause catastrophic damage to functioning satellites (which help run our whole lives) but, if there was enough debris in orbit could theoretically shut off much of our orbit and the space beyond.
The biggest threat of this occurring is currently the Envisat satellite (above) which dropped out of contact with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2012. Without steering capability this 26m long, 8,211kg space wreck is likely to impact one of the two large objects that comes within range every year. This would be easily enough to release a cloud of debris capable of starting an LEO ablative cascade. The scientist behind this syndrome spoke to Space Safety Magazine about Envisat after it lost contact: “Envisat is a very large target, operating at an altitude where the debris environment is the greatest and likely to increase. In the next 150 years that the satellite will remain in orbit, it will become a significant debris source and could easily become a major debris contributor from a collision with debris as small as 10 kg.”
There are ways to mitigate this issue and several agencies are working on ways to limit or reduce the amount of debris in Earth’s atmosphere. Most recently the ESA announced the Clean Space program which aims to capture large space junk and derelict satellites like Envisat and bring them into controlled burn-ups in the upper atmosphere.
However, the problem with space junk will only keep getting worse and demonstrates not only the lack of clear multi-national action on space and Earths orbit but also that humanity’s history of poor management could have huge ramifications for future space-faring generations.
I suppose that I’ve always been a geek.
Not that that’s a bad thing, a geek is just someone who allows themselves to be un-apologetically excited about things that bring them happiness. Frankly, being geeky is as close to being emotionally free as most of us will ever get.
As my long-suffering fiancee can probably attest I absolutely love a good bit of Sci-Fi, anything from Star Wars, Star Trek and Firfly (damn you Fox Network) to Mass Effect and Halo. To top off my amazing ability to bring uncomfortable silences to dinner parties I am also an International Relations nerd* having completed by BScEcon at Aberystwyth University in Wales and my MA at the University of Sussex.
As you have probably realised this blog is me channeling these two interests into something hopefully worth reading. I will attempt to bring all that expensive education to bear on the issues and complexities of humanity as we start to blindly stumble around our little corner of the galaxy (don’t worry there will probably be quite a few aliens and Jedi thrown in for good measure!).
I hope you enjoy reading and please do comment with any thoughts, comments or wacky ideas you might have!
* Nerd – similar to geek except it involves getting excited about something that cannot be enjoyed by the mainstream due to its complexity or specificity e.g. the UN or mathematics.