Worlds of Convenience

24 August 2017

Thursday


Three Worlds, Three Civilizations

In August of this year I spoke at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2017. One of the themes of the congress was “The Moon as a Stepping Stone to the Stars” so I attempted to speak directly to this theme with a presentation titled, “The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout.” The intention was to bring together the possible development of the moon as part of the infrastructure of spacefaring civilization within our solar system with the role that the moon could play in the further buildout of spacefaring civilization toward an interstellar spacefaring capacity.

Most of our spacefaring infrastructure at present is in low Earth orbit.

In preparing my presentation I worked through a lot of ideas related to this theme, and even though Icarus Interstellar was very generous with the time they gave me to speak, I couldn’t develop all of the ideas that I had been working on. One of these ideas was that of the moon and Mars as worlds of convenience. By this I mean that the moon and Mars are small, rocky worlds that might be useful to human beings because of their constitution and their proximity to Earth.

Any agriculture on the moon will of necessity be confined to artificial conditions.

The moon, as the closest large celestial body to Earth, is a “world of convenience”: It is an island in space within easy reach of Earth, and might well play a role in terrestrial civilization not unlike the role of the Azores or the Canary Islands played in the history of western civilization, which, as it began to explore farther afield down the coast of Africa and into the Atlantic (and eventually to the new world), made use of the facilities offered by these island chains. Whether as a supply depot, a source of materials from mining operations, a place for R&R for crews, or as a hub of scientific activity, the moon could be a crucial component of spacefaring infrastructure in the solar system, and, as such, could serve to facilitate the growth and development of spacefaring civilization.

Because Mars is a bit more like Earth than the moon, conditions on Mars may be less artificial than on the moon.

Mars is also a world of convenience. While farther from Earth than the moon, it is still within our present technology to get to Mars — i.e., it is within the technological capability of a rudimentary spacefaring capacity to travel to a neighboring planet within the same planetary system — and Mars is more like Earth than is the moon. Mars has an atmosphere (albeit thin), because it has an atmosphere its temperatures are moderated, its day is similar to the terrestrial day, and its gravity is closer to that of Earth’s gravity than is the gravity on the moon. Mars, then, is close enough to Earth to be settled by human beings, and the conditions are friendlier to human beings than the closer and more convenient moon. These factors make Mars a potentially important center for the exploration of the outer solar system.

The further buildout of our spacefaring infrastructure will probably include both space-based assets and planetary assets, but it is on planets that we will feel at home.

We can easily imagine a future for humanity within our own solar system in which mature civilizations are found not only on Earth but also on the moon and Mars. Since the moon and Mars are both “worlds of convenience” for us — places unlike the Earth, but not so unlike the Earth that we could not make use of them in the buildout of human civilization as a spacefaring civilization — we would expect them to naturally be part of human plans for the future of the solar system. Because we are biological beings emergent from a biosphere associated with the surface of Earth (a condition I call planetary endemism), we are likely to favor other planetary surfaces even as human civilization expands into space; it is on planetary surfaces that we will feel familiar and comfortable as a legacy of our evolutionary psychology.

Our planetary endemism predisposes us to favor planetary surfaces for human habitation.

These three inhabited worlds — Earth, the moon, and Mars — would each have a human civilization, but also a distinctive civilization different from the others, and each would stand in distinctive relationships to the other two. Earth and the moon are always going to be tightly bound, perhaps even bound by the same central project, because of their proximity. Mars will be a bit distant, but more Earth-like, and so more likely to give rise to an Earth-like civilization, but a civilization that will be built under selection pressures distinct from those on Earth. The moon will never have an Earth-like civilization because it will almost certainly never have an atmosphere, and it will never have a greater gravitational field, so Lunar civilization will depart from terrestrial civilization even while being tightly-coupled to Earth due to its proximity.

The moon will always be an ‘offshore balancer’ for Earth, but conditions on the moon are so different from those of Earth that any Lunar civilization would diverge from terrestrial civilization.

The presence of worlds of convenience within our solar system does not mean that we must or will forgo other opportunities for the development of spacefaring civilization. Just as Icarus Interstellar holds that there is no one way to the stars, so too there is no one buildout for the infrastructure of a spacefaring civilization. One of the themes of my presentation as delivered was the different possibilities for infrastructure buildout within the solar system, how these different infrastructures could interact, and how they would figure in future human projects like interstellar missions. Thus the three worlds and the three civilizations of Earth, the moon, and Mars may be joined by distinctive civilizations based on artificial habitats or on settlements based on asteroids or the more distant moons of the outer planets. But Earth, the moon, and Mars are likely to remain tightly-coupled in ongoing relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict because of their status as worlds of convenience.

The worlds of convenience within our solar system may be joined by artificial habitats.

The possibility of multiple human civilizations within our solar system presents the possibility of what I call “distributed development” (cf. Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster and Emergent Complexity in Multi-Planetary Ecosystems). In the earliest history of human civilization distributed development could only extend as far as the technologies of transportation allowed. With transportation and communication limited to walking, shipping, horses, or chariots, the civilizations of west Asia could participate in mutual ideal diffusion, but the other centers of civilization at this time — in China, India, Peru, Mexico, and elsewhere — lay beyond the scope of easy communication by these means of transportation and communication. As the technologies of transportation and communication became more sophisticated, idea diffusion is now planetary, and this planetary-scale idea diffusion is converging upon a planetary civilization.

An interplanetary internet would facilitate idea diffusion between the worlds of our solar system.

Today, our planetary civilization has instantaneous communication and rapid transportation between any and all parts of the planet, and planetary scale idea diffusion is the rule. We enjoy this planetary scale idea diffusion because our technologies of communication and transportation — jets, high speed trains, fiber optic cables, the internet, satellites, and so on — allow for it. So fast forward to a solar system of three planetary civilizations — i.e., three distinct and independent civilizations, though coupled by relationships of trade and communication — and with an interplanetary network of communication and transportation that allows for idea diffusion on an interplanetary scale. The pattern of distributed development among multiple civilizations that characterized the west Asian cluster of civilization could be iterated at an interplanetary scale, driving these civilizations forward as they borrow from each other, and no one civilization must make every breakthrough in order for the others to enjoy the benefits of innovation.

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Fast or Slow to Mars?

27 September 2016

Tuesday


Now that Elon Musk has delivered his highly anticipated talk “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” providing an overview of his plan for a Martian settlement sufficiently large to be self-sustaining (he mentioned a million persons moving to Mars in a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft leaving Earth en masse), the detailed analysis of this mission architecture can begin. Musk said in his talk that he thought it was a good idea that there should be many different approaches, so he clearly was not making any claim that his plan was the one and only workable mission architecture.

As both public space agencies and private space companies go beyond the talking phase and begin the design, testing, and construction of a Mars mission (or missions), these designs will embody assumptions about the best way to get to Mars with contemporary technology (there are many ways to do this). The assumptions, as usual, aren’t often explicitly discussed, because assumptions are foundational, and you have to have a community of individuals who share the same or similar assumptions even to begin designing something as complex as a human mission to Mars. Foundational assumptions may be challenged in initial “brainstorming” sessions, but once we get to sketches and calculations, the assumptions are already built into the design.

One of the most important assumptions about Mars mission design is whether that mission should be slow or fast. In this context. “slow” means following one of the well-established gravitational transfer trajectories (Hohmann Transfer Orbits) that many uncrewed missions to Mars have followed, which requires a minimum of fuel use and little or no braking upon arrival, but instead requires time.

A Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars would require many months (six months or more; cf. Flight to Mars: How Long? Along what Path?, which gives a figure of 8.5 months), the window to make the journey only occurs every 25 months, and during a long voyage such as this the crew would have to be maintained in good health, protected from radiation, and have enough space onboard to keep from going stir crazy. A Mars cycler configuration would involve travel times on the order of years. This is definitely a “slow” option, but also an option that minimizes propellant use.

The Mars Design Reference Mission (which I recently quoted in A Distinctive Signature of an Early Spacefaring Civilization), a design document produced by NASA in July 2009 (the full title is Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference Architecture 5.0), characterizes their mission architecture as “fast” (the document repeatedly cites “fast transit trajectory”), but involves a one-way transit time of 6 to 7.5 months:

“…the flight crew would be injected on the appropriate fast-transit trajectory towards Mars. The length of this outbound transfer to Mars is dependent on the mission date, and ranges from 175 to 225 days.”

A “slow” mission to Mars such as this (which NASA calls a “fast” mission) ought to be designed about a large, rotating habitat that can simulate gravity (this has featured in films, such as The Martian). No one wants to spend six months in a “capsule.” An additional benefit of a large and slow Mars mission is that the rotating habitat sent to Mars could be maintained in Mars orbit as a Martian space station (such as I wrote about in A Martian Space Station and A Passage to Mars) and subsequent missions could add to this Martian space station.

Alternatively, instead of a large and comfortable habitat in which to travel, a slow mission to Mars might involve induced torpor in the crew (effectively, human hibernation), and while this would require far less food and water for the journey, this option, too, might be best achieved with simulated gravity. Human bodies evolved in a gravity field, and don’t do well outside that gravity field (cf. Hibernation for Long-term Manned Space Exploration by Shen Ge, which includes many links to resources on induced torpor).

A “fast” mission to Mars I will identify as anything faster that the six months or so required for a Hohmann transfer orbit. Fast journeys could be anything from a gentle ion thrust, using very little propellant and only cutting a little time off the trip, to powering half way to Mars (preferably at 1 g acceleration in order to again simulate gravity) and then decelerating for the second half of the trip. Musk’s mission design as presented in his IAC talk called for initial transfer times “as low as” 80 days (i.e., less than three months; his graphic for this section of the talk showed transit durations from 80-150 days), perhaps improving to as little as 30 days further in the future, but little detail was offered on this part of the mission architecture.

The quickest “fast” trips to Mars contemplated with contemporary technology would be about two weeks. A nuclear-powered ion engine might make the trip in three months, which is a lot better than six months, and might be considered “fast,” but Musk’s 30-80 day transit times are all designed around well-known chemical rocket technology, which makes the effort much closer to being practical in the near term. If you have enough rocket engines, big enough engines, and enough fuel, you can make the trip to Mars more quickly with chemical rockets than is usually contemplated, and that seems to be the SpaceX approach; much of the talk was taken up with concerns of propellant, fuel transfer in Earth orbit, and producing fuel on Mars.

It is important to point out that most of the technologies I have mentioned above — rotating spacecraft, induced torpor, nuclear rockets, and so on — have been the object of much study, but little practical experience. (An early version of the Nerva nuclear rocket was built and tested, but it wasn’t flown into space; cf. Secrecy and the STEM Cycle.) However, we have a pretty good grasp of the science involved in these technologies, so building actual spacecraft incorporating them is primarily an engineering challenge, not a science challenge (except in so far as there is a science of technology design and engineering application; cf. Testing Technology as a Scientific Research Program: A Practical Exercise in the Philosophy of Technology). In other words, we don’t need any scientific breakthroughs for a mission to Mars, but we need a lot of technological development and engineering solutions.

Hearing a presentation such as Elon Musk gave today is exciting, and definitely communicates that this project can be done, and even that it can be done on a grand scale. This is invigorating, and stokes what Keynes called our “animal spirits” for a voyage to Mars. If the momentum can be maintained, the development of a spacefaring civilization can be a practical reality within decades rather then centuries. Musk discussed the “forcing function” of having a settlement on Mars, and he is correct that this human outpost away from Earth would entail continual improvements in space transportation, and moreover it would extend human consciousness to include Mars as a human concern.

Once humanity begins to make itself a home on Mars, and human beings can call themselves “Martians” (perhaps even with a certain sense of pride) and adopt a genuinely Martian standpoint, humanity will be a multiplanetary species, a multiplanetary human civilization will begin to emerge, and this multiplanetary civilization will be distinct from our planetary civilization of today. Mars, in this scenario, would be a point of bifurcation, the origin of a new kind of civilization, localized in the same way that the industrial revolution can be localized to England.

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Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference Architecture 5.0

Human Exploration of Mars: Design Reference Architecture 5.0

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Tuesday


An artificial habitat orbiting Mars.

An artificial habitat orbiting Mars.

Introduction

There may be more justification, in the short term, for building an artificial habitat in Mars orbit rather than Earth orbit. Before I discuss the reasons for this, I will give some background on the near-term prospects for Mars missions.

Landing on Mars in the 1925 German film Wunder der Schöpfung. Mars has long been the stuff of dreams.

Landing on Mars in the 1925 German film Wunder der Schöpfung. Mars has long been the stuff of dreams.

The Mars Race

It is, once again, an exciting time in space exploration. After decades in the doldrums, we are on the cusp of private industry commercial space exploration. Both Blue Origin and Space X have landed rockets on their tails, just like in early science fiction films, and with increased re-usability comes lower costs. Many other technologies are in development that may further lower costs, but right now we are already seeing private space technology companies with capabilities not possessed by the space program of any nation-state. This is remarkable and unprecedented. Partly this is a result of the exponential improvements in technology in recent decades, especially computing technologies, which in turn improve the performance of other technologies. Partly this is also the result of the concentration of wealth at the top of the income pyramid. I previously mentioned this in The Social Context of SETI, where I noted Yuri Milner’s investment in Breakthrough Listen, a SETI project. Billionaires are now in a position to personally finance enterprises once the exclusive remit of nation-states. With the funding available, only the motivation is needed.

It looks increasingly like a human mission to Mars will be realized by private industry rather than by a government space program. For space exploration enthusiasts, Mars is such stuff as dreams are made on. Mars is another world almost within our grasp. For all practical purposes, we have the technology to get there, only the funding has been lacking. As technology improves, becomes cheaper, and great capital is concentrated into the hands of a few, it becomes possible to undertake what was not possible just a few years earlier. The most visible figure in this recent spate of space activity has been Elon Musk of Space X, who has been explicit about his intention to develop rockets capable of human missions to Mars. In a recently announced time table, Space X may be able to mount a Martian mission in 2024, i.e., within ten years (this announcement was made at Code Conference 2016 in Los Angeles; cf., e.g., Elon Musk Is Sending Humans To Mars In 2024 by Evan Gough, 03 June 2016).

Musk has also been explicit that his interest is in creating an ongoing settlement on Mars. NASA plans for human missions to Mars cover exploration but not settlement, and their timetable is further in the future than Musk’s. It will be interesting to see if the model of the Space Race will portend for Mars what happened on the moon — once one side got there, the other gave up trying — or whether we will see multiple human missions to Mars, some purely for scientific exploration, and others bringing settlers with a plan to stay.

Wernher von Braun's mission design for Mars involved re-configuring spacecraft in Mars orbit for descent to the surface.

Wernher von Braun’s mission design for Mars involved re-configuring spacecraft in Mars orbit for descent to the surface.

Martian Extraplanetary Infrastructure

With the possibility of multiple human missions to Mars, and with a population of settlers on Mars, the need and uses for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure becomes obvious. The crucial piece of the puzzle of Martian extraplanetary infrastructure would be a Martian space station. By a Martian space station I don’t mean something like the International Space Station (ISS) now orbiting Earth, though this would be better than nothing, to be sure; I mean an enormous Gerard K. O’Neill style space habitat, such as an O’Neill cylinder, a Stanford Torus, or a Bernal sphere. Such an artificial habitat could serve a variety of functions in Mars orbit.

We have all heard that any Martian settlers would be dead within a few months’ time from suffocation and “starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere” — cf. the widely discussed MIT study An independent assessment of the technical feasibility of the Mars One mission plan – Updated analysis, by Sydney Do, Andrew Owens, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, and Olivier de Weck. The MIT analysis concludes that Mars settlers would not be self-sufficient and so their survival would require continual re-supply from Earth. Part of this analysis hinges on what technologies are “existing, validated and available.” Needless to say, technologies can advance rapidly given the necessary expenditure of resources upon them. The analysis does not address how quickly innovative technologies can be brought online, and it is important to understand that the MIT report does not argue that human self-sufficiency on Mars is impossible, only that there are problems with the Mars One mission architecture.

Many of the shortcomings of the Mars One mission architecture, or the shortcomings of any other proposed mission to Mars (Mars One is the most detailed proposal to date, so it has received the most detailed criticism), could be addressed by a large, self-sustaining artificial habitat in Mars orbit. We should expect that the settlement of a sterile and hostile environment will be a difficult undertaking, but we could make this difficult undertaking much less difficult with the resources that might be needed positioned nearby, in orbit of Mars.

With large enough mirrors to capture sunlight, the interior of an artificial habitat even at the far edge of the habitable zone in our solar system would be able to concentrate sufficient sunlight for electrical power generation, growing crops, and the maintenance of comfortable conditions for residents. In orbit around Mars, an artificial habitat could provide a steady source of food produced under controlled conditions (under perfect greenhouse conditions, and far more amenable to control that any environment initially set up on the surface of Mars), before large scale food production is possible on the surface of Mars itself. The industrial infrastructure and processes necessary to maintain the lives of early Martian settlers could probably be maintained in orbit more cheaply and more efficiently than on the surface.

Some other considerations for Martian extraplanetary infrastructure include:

● Martian dirt It would be cheaper and easier to lift Martian dirt off Mars than to lift dirt off Earth in order to begin large scale agricultural production in a large artificial habitat. Having an artificial habitat in orbit around Mars would make it relatively easy to transfer significant quantities of Martian soil into Mars orbit. Using Martian soil for farming under controlled conditions, moreover, would provide valuable experience in Martian agronomy.

● Gravity A large artificial habitat in orbit around Mars could provide simulated full Earth gravity. This could be very valuable for long term settlers on Mars, who may experience health problems due to the low surface gravity on Mars. Settlers could be rotated through an artificial habitat on a regular basis. This would also be an opportunity to study how rapidly the human body could recover any lost bone mass, etc., after living in lower than Earth gravity conditions. It might also be valuable to experiment with slightly more than Earth gravity to see if this can compensate for extended periods of time in lower gravity environments. On an artificial habitat, simulated gravity can be tailored to the specific needs of the crew by spinning the habitat faster or slower.

● Way Station A Martian space station would also be a stepping stone for human missions farther along into the outer solar system. With all the resources necessary to preserve the lives of Martian settlers, such a way station could also serve to preserve the lives of deep space travelers. This would also provide an opportunity for space travelers to experience time “planetside” before and after missions into the outer solar system or beyond. The first human mission to the stars might be launched not from Earth, but from Mars orbit, or from similar habitats even more distant in the outer solar system.

Martian extraplanetary infrastructure could prove to be one of the greatest investments in space exploration ever made. We will likely have the technology to build a space elevator between the Martian surface and Mars orbit before we can build a space elevator between Earth’s surface and Earth orbit. Linking the Martian surface directly with Martian extraplanetary infrastructure will make possible economic opportunities that will not yet be available on Earth when they are available on Mars, with consequent economic growth likely integral with growth in science and technology. This will drive forward the STEM cycle more rapidly, and it will happen first on Mars.

Another planet awaits us...

Another planet awaits us…

The Martian Future

The first stage of an interplanetary civilization will be a human civilization that spans both Earth and Mars. In going to Mars, we will learn a great deal about living and working both in space and on other words. This knowledge and experience is a necessary condition of establishing the redundancy that human beings, our civilization, and the terrestrial biosphere require in order to overcome existential risks that could mean our extinction if we remain an exclusively terrestrial species.

The human future on Mars, then, is an essential element in expanding human experience so that we are not indefinitely subject to the planetary constraints native to planetary endemism. We need to experience the Martian standpoint in order to develop both as a species and as a civilization, and then to go beyond Mars.

After interplanetary civilization will come interstellar civilization, and we will need to begin with the experience of Mars, our planetary neighbor, in order to take the next step on to more distant worlds. The way to ensure the initial success and eventual expansion of an interplanetary civilization within our planetary system is through the construction of an artificial habitat in Mars orbit. One such artificial habitat could mean the difference between the life and death of the earliest settlers, and, in the long term, the success of these earliest settlers on another world will mean the difference between life and death for our civilization.

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The Martian Standpoint

31 March 2016

Thursday


Mars 0

Red Planet Perspectives

It is difficult to discuss human habitation of Mars scientifically because Mars has for so long played an disproportionate role in fiction, and any future human habitation of Mars will take place against this imaginative background. Future human inhabitants of Mars will themselves read this cultural legacy of fiction centered on Mars, and while some of it will be laughable, there are also likely to be passages that start heads nodding, however dated and inaccurate the portrayal of human life on Mars. And this human future on Mars is seeming increasingly likely as private space enterprises vie with national space agencies, and both public and private space programs are publicly discussing the possibility of sending human beings to Mars.

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

Panoramic view of the Payson outcrop near the Opportunity rover’s landing site. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/Cornell)

A human population on Mars would eventually come to identify as Martians, even though entirely human — Ray Bradbury already said as much decades ago — and it would be expected that the Martian perspective would be different in detail from the terrestrial perspective, though scientifically literate persons in both communities would share the Copernican perspective. There would be countless small differences — Martians would come to number their lives both in Terrestrial years and Martian years, for example — that would cumulatively and over time come to constitute a distinctively Martian way of looking at the world. There would also be unavoidably important differences — being separated from the bulk of humanity, having no large cities at first, not being able to go outside without protective gear, and so on — that would define the lives of Martian human beings.

Wernher von Braun's Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

Wernher von Braun’s Mars mission concept as imagined by Chesley Bonestell

At what point will Martians come to understand themselves as Martians? At what point will Mars become a homeworld? There will be a first human being to set foot on Mars, a first human being born on Mars, a first human being to die on Mars and be buried in its red soil, a first crime committed on Mars, and so on. Any of these “firsts” might come to be identified as a crucial turning point, the moment at which a distinctively Martian consciousness emerges among Mars residents, but any such symbolic turning point can only come about against the background of the countless small differences that accumulate over time. Given human settlement on Mars, this Martian consciousness will surely emerge in time, but the Martian conscious that perceives Mars as a homeworld will differ from the sense in which Earth is perceived as our homeworld.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

An actual, and not a mythical, canal on Mars.

Human beings lived on Earth for more than a hundred thousand years without knowing that we lived on a planet among planets. We have only known ourselves as a planetary species for two or three thousand years, and it is only in the past century that we have learned what it means, in a scientific sense, to be a planet among countless planets in the universe. A consequence of our terrestrial endemism is that we as a species can only transcend our homeworld once. Once and once only we ascend into the cosmos at large; every other celestial body we visit thereafter we will see first from afar, and we will descend to its surface after having first seen that celestial body as a planet among planets. Thus when we arrive at Mars, we will arrive at Mars knowing that we arrive at a planet, and knowing that, if we settle there, we settle on a planet among planets — and not even the most hospitable planet for life in our planetary system. In the case of Mars, our knowledge of our circumstances will precede our experience, whereas on Earth our experience of our circumstances preceded our knowledge. This reversal in the order of experience and knowledge follows from planetary endemism — that civilizations during the Stelliferous Era emerge on planetary surfaces, and only if they become spacefaring civilizations do they leave these planetary surfaces to visit other celestial bodies.

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

A sunset on Mars photographed by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit

What is it like, or what will it be like, to be a Martian? The question immediately reminds us of Thomas Nagel’s well known paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (I have previously discussed this famous philosophical paper in What is it like to be a serpent? and Computational Omniscience, inter alia.) Nagel holds that, “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” A generalization of Nagel’s contention that there is something that it is like to be a bat suggests that there is something that it is like to be a conscious being that perceives the world. If we narrow our conception somewhat from this pure generalization, we arrive at level of generality at which there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being. That there is something that it is like to be a bat, or a human being, are further constrictions on the conception of being a consciousness being that perceives the world. But at the same level of generality that there is something that it is like to be a Terrestrial being, there is also something that it is like to be a Martian. Let us call this the Martian standpoint.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

Seeing Earth as a mere point of light in the night sky of Mars will certainly have a formative influence on Martian consciousness.

To stand on the surface of Mars would be to experience the Martian standpoint. I am here adopting the term “standpoint” to refer to the actual physical point of view of an intelligent being capable of looking out into the world and understanding themselves as a part of the world in which they find themselves. Every intelligent being emergent from life as we know it has such a standpoint as a consequence of being embodied. Being an embodied mind that acquires knowledge through particular senses means that our evolutionary history has furnished us with the particular sensory endowments with which we view the world. Being an embodied intelligence also means having a particular spatio-temporal location and having a perspective on the world determined by this location and the sensory locus of embodiment. The perspective we have in virtue of being a being on the surface of a planet at the bottom of a gravity well might be understood as a yet deeper level of cosmological evolution than the terrestrial evolutionary process that resulted in our particular suite of sensory endowments, because all life as we know it during the Stelliferous Era originates on planetary surfaces, and this precedes in evolutionary order the evolution of particular senses.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Sometimes the surface of Mars looks strangely familiar, and at other times profoundly alien.

Mars, like Earth, will offer a planetary perspective. Someday there may be great cities and extensive industries on the moon, supporting a burgeoning population, but, even with cities and industries, the moon will not be a world like Earth, with an atmosphere, and therefore a sky and a landscape in which a human being can feel at home. For those native to Mars — for eventually there will be human beings native to Mars — Mars will be their homeworld. As such, Mars will have a certain homeworld effect, though limited in comparison to Earth. Even those born on Mars will carry a genome that is the result of natural selection on Earth; they will have a body created by the selection pressures of Earth, and their minds will function according to an inherited evolutionary psychology formed on Earth. Mars will be a homeworld, then, but it will not produce a homeworld effect — or, at least, no homeworld effect equivalent to that experienced due to the origins of humanity on Earth. The homeworld effect of Mars, then, will be ontogenic and not phylogenic.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

The von Braun Mars mission concept was visionary for its time.

If, however, human beings were to reside on Mars for an evolutionarily significant period of time, the ontogenic homeworld effect of individual development on Mars would be transformed into a phylogenic homeworld effect as Mars became an environment of evolutionary adaptedness. As the idea of million-year-old or even billion-year-old civilizations is a familiar theme of SETI, we should not reject this possibility out of hand. If human civilization comes to maturity within our planetary system and conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and communicate rather than travel), we should expect such an eventuality, though over these time scales we will probably change Mars more than Mars will change us. At this point, Mars would become a homeworld among homeworlds — one of many for humanity. But it would still be a homeworld absent the homeworld effect specific to human origins on Earth — unless human beings settled Mars, civilization utterly collapsed, resulting in a total ellipsis of knowledge, and humanity had to rediscover itself as a species living on a planetary surface. For this to happen, Mars would have to be Terraformed in order for human beings to live on Mars without the preservation of knowledge sufficient to maintain an advanced technology, and this, too, is possible over time scales of a million years or more. Thus Mars could eventually be a homeworld for humanity in a sense parallel to Earth being a homeworld, though for civilization to continue its development based on cumulative knowledge implies consciousness of only a single homeworld, which we might call the singular homeworld thesis.

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The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

The descent to the surface of Mars will shape our perception of the planet.

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Monday


Mars is no longer the receptacle of our dreams as it once was. Science has caught up with falsifiable dreams and has falsified them. But science also sometimes surprises us. By now we all know how in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century it was believed that Mars was the home of a dying race that had to build canals to distribute water from the polar ice caps. A translation error contributed to this misapprehension by rendering observations of apparent lines as “canals” (Schiaparelli’s canali).

As it turns out, there are canals on Mars after all. Not canals built by an advanced but decaying civilization, but naturally formed canals — now quite dry, of course — from when, billions of years ago, Mars had liquid water running on its surface. The above photograph released by NASA, and appearing with a BBC story on the same, shows a slender channel between the relatively shallow lake bed in the upper left and the apparently deeper lake bed in the bottom center. While formed by the natural processes of erosion from moving water, it is a canal of sorts on the surface of Mars.

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Other Worlds

16 December 2009

Wednesday


Perhaps in compensation for the overly romantic images of Mars from 19th century science and 20th century science-fiction, scientists today emphasize the barrenness of Mars, its lifelessness, and its differentness from the earth. But when I see the pictures of the Martian surface, I am struck by its similarity to our own planet.

Unlike the moon landing, which I watched on television as a young child, and which remains one of the few episodes from my early childhood that I clearly recall, where astronauts were seen against a black backdrop of stars, and the flag hung limply from a supporting arm, Mars looks a lot like home. It has an atmosphere. It has a day. The sky has color. There are rocks on the ground and wind has blown a reddish brown sand (a color strikingly similar to the deserts of Eastern Oregon) among and between these rocks. On a warm day, ordinary clothes and a respirator would be sufficient to venture onto the Martian surface. If a flag were planted on Mars, it would not need a supporting arm, since it would fly in the Martian wind.

The skeptics of life elsewhere in the universe must deal with the fact that, right next door, there is a planet with an atmosphere, so we know without going any further than our own solar system that smallish rocky planets with atmospheres are not unique. The other claims to cosmic uniqueness are being disproved as soon as the technological means are available to disprove them. For example, there is a large and growing body of evidence on extrasolar planets. We now know for a fact that there are planetary systems other than our own.

Since we already know that planetary atmospheres are not unique (from the example of Mars and of several planetary moons), and we know from the moons of Jupiter that volcanic activity is not unique to the earth, it would be foolish to suppose that these extrasolar planets are all without atmospheres, and if they are small, rocky planets, they will be, like Mars, places not unlike the earth. And among these places not unlike the earth, there will be very interesting places, beautiful places, places unique in their own way, and well worth seeing. It is entirely reasonable to want to see such places quite apart from the question of whether there is life or whether such places are inhabited by sentient creatures or civilizations.

Today the discovery of another extrasolar planet was widely reported. This planet is not all that much larger than the earth (it’s called a “super-earth” at about 6.5 earth masses). It orbits a small, red type M star rather smaller than the sun, but only about 40 light years away from us. The planet appears to be close to the star’s “habitable” zone, though probably on the hot side. Liquid water remains a possibility on the planet due to its greater pressure.

The discovery was made without use of the latest and greatest telescopes, which reflects the continuously improving technology and techniques employed in the search for extrasolar planets. As improved telescopes are orbited, and improved techniques are formulated, we come continuously closer to finding planets like our own out in the universe. When we look up into the starry sky at night, we do so with more knowledge all the time, and at some point in the not too distant future we will know that if we look in a particular direction we will be looking toward a world much like our own. They are out there. For my part, it is nice to know that other worlds like our own are out there. Someday we will be there too. That, also, is nice to know.

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