Tuesday


There’s a lot of room in our solar system. The intrastellar or intersolar neighborhood is vastly beyond the scope of the ambition of most mortals. (The Thomas Digges chart of a Copernican solar system from 1576.)

The Advent of Intersolar Civilization

Before human civilization has achieved a robust interstellar presence, and has conquered, or begun to conquer, those nearly insuperable problems associated with the vast distances between the stars — which are as much temporal distances as spatial distances, because of the limiting velocity of the speed of light — it is likely the there will be a robust human presence within our native solar system. That is to say, it is likely that we will have an extraterrestrial civilization within out solar system before we have an interstellar civilization.

As I said, there’s a lot of room in our solar system. More importantly, there are more resources and more energy available than even a greatly expanded human civilization could consume in the foreseeable future.

Elsewhere I have identified this stage of industrial technological civilization as a Stage II civilization, but since no one is familiar with my terminology, it would be more straightforward to refer to interplanetary civilization. However, “interplanetary civilization” implies human spacesteading on naturally occurring celestial bodies, which is an arbitrary limitation. It is to be expected that spacesteading will involve as much or more settlement in artificial environments orbiting celestial bodies or in low- or micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt. I will use the more comprehensive term “intersolar” to refer to all possible forms of human habitation and travel in the vicinity of our native sun and within our native solar system, but exclusive of other stars and their solar systems. (This could just as well be called “intrasteller” as “intersolar” but I suspect that the former term might be confusing, so I will prefer the latter.)

There’s really no need to hoist up one’s resources from the bottom of a gravity well like the surface of the Earth. The moons of our solar system have plenty of resources and much lower gravity.

One of the distinctive features of human extraterrestrial civilization within our native solar system (i.e., intersolar civilization, as defined above) is that it will not be a one way trip. There will be an expectation that those who go into space will be able to return to the Earth if they so desire, and to do so on a timetable of days, weeks, or months, and only at the outside would travel times be reckoned in years.

Even better than the low gravity environments of the solar system’s moons are the micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt.

This contrasts dramatically to interstellar voyages that we might contemplate in the next hundred years or so, which, given our contemporary understanding of science and our expectations for technology based upon that science, would be one-way journeys, or, if return was contemplated, the round trip would require years or decades, and optimally would involve some sort of induced hibernation or other biological stasis technology.

Even if early spacesteaders choose not to return to the Earth, they would want to maintain their connections and communications with the Earth and its inhabitants, unless they had purposefully chosen to isolate themselves for ideological or ethical reasons. While we cannot rule out the possibility of self-imposed isolation from Earth, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

Given these assumptions, how would the members of an intersolar civilization communicate with each other? How would the Earth communicate with spacesteads, and how would spacesteads communicate with each other and with the earth?

An Internet for Intersolar Civilization

The internet is becoming the de facto planetary brain of human civilization, the central clearing house for all information, and therefore also, in a sense, the blueprint for the construction and maintenance of industrial-technological civilization. It is also a universal communications network that can not only carry familiar forms of communications traffic such as email, but is increasingly used for voice and visual communications. It is to be expected that these developments will continue and that internet-enabled communications devices will be the norm and the standard for future communication.

Moreover, the internet is not a closed and finished system, but is growing and changing every day. This means that the blueprint for industrial-technological civilization is growing and changing every day, and if any community wishes to be a part of this tradition, it must have access to the internet in real time.

Real time” is the rub. The limiting velocity of the speed of light is not only a physical limit but also a social limit, because the speed of light marks the limits of the possibility of communication. Within the sphere of intersolar civilization, this limit would be felt, but it would not be felt so keenly as to abandon communication as pointless.

While interstellar distances would involve delays of years or centuries in communication between humanity’s home planet and any representatives of our species having found their way to other stars and their solar systems, interplanetary distances involve delays of seconds, minutes, hours or days. This is a problem, but it is possibly a problem that we can deal with in creative ways, and perhaps with some unavoidable compromises, and not an insuperable problem.

We will here assume that the limitation of the speed of light is observed. There has been significant discussion of the possibility of communication based on quantum entanglement, and while this possibility cannot be ruled out, it also cannot be counted upon. If this possibility materializes, our communications difficulties will be addressed on the basis of instantaneous universal communication, and some (but not all) of the problems discussed here will become irrelevant.

One of the features of the internet throughout its development has been that of striving after ever higher speeds, requiring ever higher bandwidth, and enabling technologies that rely upon very high speeds and very large bandwidth, such as watching streaming video, whether of a live conference or of a film. Instantaneous access to ever more data-rich environments and instantaneous communication has become the norm and the expectation.

How can we make this planetary brain of the internet into an interplanetary brain, or an intersolar brain, so that the blueprint of industrial-technological civilization is universally and nearly instantaneously available?

When the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun it takes much longer to exchange a radio signal than when the planets are at their closest approach to each other.

If an individual is using their internet-enabled device on Mars, between 3 and 22 light minutes from Earth (depending upon the relative positions of the Earth and Mars), and is accessing the most recent scholarship on farming techniques in iron-rich soils, they will not want to wait for 6-44 minutes for the turn-around time between each query and response.

An obvious first step would be to build internet “repeater” stations in Earth orbit, or perhaps on the moon or at the Lagrange points. An internet repeater station could continuously access internet content from the Earth, updating everything much as search engines are continuously seeking new content to index. Such a repeater would be a “mirror” of the entire internet, or as much of the internet as a given facility could store and update.

Individuals at a distance from the Earth would have to restrict their chatting and their webcam sessions to others nearby, where the delay was short enough so that it was not too obvious, but the content of the internet other than streaming live content could be made available to everyone at speeds approximating those of the present, depending upon one’s position in the solar system and the nearest internet mirror station.

Popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter would be delayed by minutes between the farther reaches of intersolar civilization, but this would not seriously impact any but the most dedicated followers of their friend’s status updates. Those for whom such matters loom large may choose to remain on the Earth, although by doing this they would still experience delays in status updates from extraterrestrial friends. Still, lives and careers have been decided on slimmer grounds, and such considerations could have a cumulative selective effect over time.

Ramifications for SETI of an Intersolar Internet

The future of intersolar civilization may involve a network of internet mirrors throughout the solar system, much as we now have a network of satellites surrounding the Earth that give as immediate information on our position on the surface of the Earth (and which in doing so must take account of relativistic effects like frame-dragging).

In so far as this network must be based on some kind of radio technology (as we are excluding advanced communication possibilities such as quantum entanglement communications, as noted above) — since we cannot string wires or fiber optic cables in space; our intersolar network of internet mirrors must be a wifi network — such an interplanetary network would be highly “visible” to any electromagnetic spectrum observation of our solar system. This apparently innocuous fact has interesting ramifications.

One response to the “Eerie silence” of SETI research has been the suggestion that, after a certain stage of technological development, an industrial-technological civilization “goes quiet” by resorting to fiber optic communications or related terrestrial technologies that no longer involve our radiating significant radio signals into space.

We can now see that this way of accounting for the Fermi paradox — if the universe is rich in alien technological civilizations, where are they? — involves an additional assumption: that an alien industrial-technological civilization will remain planet-bound. While we cannot exclude this possibility, we ought rightly to explicitly recognize it, and as soon as we do explicitly recognize it we can immediately see that this is highly unlikely.

Any industrial-technological civilization, located anywhere in the universe, that was capable of and interested in establishing radio communications with other peer civilizations, is extremely likely to be at least an intersolar civilization, if not an interstellar civilization, and they are equally likely to have created a communications and data storage network like the internet, and for their intersolar civilization to be fully viable this network would need to be available over the distances of a solar system, which means that another peer civilization would be radiating radio signals as aggressively as a human intersolar civilization would be radiating radio signals.

An Encyclopedia Solaria for a Growing Civilization

Carl Sagan (in his Cosmos), Timothy Ferris (in his Coming of Age in the Milky Way), and others have speculated on the possibility of an Encyclopedia Galactica that would be the repository of one or several industrial-technological civilizations, and which might survive that brief life of particular civilizations to transmit its content to later civilizations or successor civilizations within the universe. This was touched upon several times at the 100YSS 2011 symposium.

What I have described here constitutes something like an abridged version of an Encyclopedia Galactica, Which might be called an Encyclopedia Solaria, for our coming intersolar civilization. A growing intersolar civilization would entail a growing Encyclopedia Solaria that would encompass and connect our native solar system in one vast interconnected network.

This Encyclopedia Solaria would be an intermediate step between our contemporary terrestrial internet and an Encyclopedia Galactica of interstellar scope and reach. It is to be expected that solving — or, at least, dealing with — the problems of an Encyclopedia Solaria would teach us valuable lessons for a future Encyclopedia Galactica. One could think of the Encyclopedia Solaria as a trial run of an Encyclopedia Galactica, allowing us time to experiment and to work out some of the inevitable bugs that would likely plague earlier iterations.

While an Encyclopedia Solaria would ideally be an open and growing entity, receiving continuous updates to its content from all corners of the solar system, if our coming intersolar civilization should stumble, that same Encyclopedia Solaria could serve another function. An Encyclopedia Solaria would be a first step in mitigating human existential risk, at least in so far as this risk touches upon the preservation and expansion of the cultural legacy of human civilization.

This observation suggests the next step, which would be a conscious and systematic effort to safeguard the cultural legacy of human civilization from existential risk.

Existential Risk Mitigation for a Declining Civilization

I have been influenced in this present suggestion by the presentation of Heath Rezabek at the 100YSS 2012 conference about the possibility of archives to mitigate existential risk to human civilization.

A server farm or internet mirror set up on the moon, for instance, and designed according to principles that guide projects like the clock of the long now, i.e., designed for the long term, powered by solar power and perhaps with a nuclear backup power supply, and with plenty of shielding against the harsh environment of space, might well outlast terrestrial human civilization if that civilization succumbs to the existential risks of extinction, permanent stagnation, or flawed realization.

From the perspective of an active backup and repeater for the internet for a human presence in intersolar space, an orbiting artificial environment would probably be preferable to a moon-based installation, but if we are thinking in terms of existential risk, the moon’s bulk itself could provide a certain security, as well as providing plenty of material for shielding and plenty of space for the facility — space on firm ground, as it were. A facility in space, as opposed to an installation on a naturally-occurring celestial body, would need to be heavily shielded and even with shielding would be vulnerable to collisions. Even if such a facility experienced no major catastrophic collisions, it would be steadily bombarded by small particles and dust, which would take their toll over time.

Since the moon is phase-locked with the Earth, always presenting one side to our planet and a back side — the “dark” side of the moon — to extraterrestrial space beyond the Earth, a moon-based installation would have a certain security from immediate threats issuing form the Earth’s surface.

Other possibilities would present themselves in connection with an installation on the far side of the moon. Radio and optical telescopes based on the far side of the moon could peer much deeper and much farther into the universe that Earth-based telescopes (due to the lack of an atmosphere and the bulk of the moon shielding both light and EM radiation from the Earth), and, being built on the moon, such astronomical assets could be much larger than our current orbital telescopes. A significant scientific installation along with the internet mirror and universal information backup would continuously add new knowledge to our Encyclopedia Solaria, and much of this would be knowledge inaccessible to terrestrial observers, which would add an element of novelty to the science and might therefore mitigate some of the risk of stagnation.

The risk that such an installation would entail would be its visibility to nefarious and hostile alien powers. However, this would not be nearly as visible, and therefore not nearly as risky, as an internet and an Encyclopedia Solaria for a growing intersolar civilization as described above, which would be radiating more powerfully than a mere lunar installation.

Stephen Hawking as recently warned of the existential risk entailed by contacting, or being visible to, hostile aliens. Others have suggested that the risks are minimal or non-existent because the economics of interstellar invasion are insuperable. I do not agree with this latter analysis, but I will not attempt to argue the point here; I will only note that the point has been made.

What I have said here of the moon applies, mutatis mutandis, to Mars. At an even greater distance from the Earth than the moon, Mars would be that much more secure from Earth-based threats (such threats presumably being a consequence of succumbing to the existential risk of flawed realization). Mars, like the moon, is geologically inert, or nearly so. Any installation here could count on geological stability. Since Mars has an atmosphere, it has another layer of protection for its surface. For any residents, Mars would feel more like home, and less artificial, than an installation on the moon. However, the fact of an atmosphere means that the view of the cosmos from Mars would be compromised for any ground-based telescopes, unlike the moon’s clear view into space.

Ideally, existential risk mitigation for the cultural legacy of human civilization would be redundant, involving facilities on the moon, on Mars, and on orbiting platforms.

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Note added later the same day: Heath Rezabek, whom I have cited above, and who has commented below, has drawn my attention to two items that are closely related to what I wrote above, Why We Need a Supercomputer on the Moon by Robert McMillan writing in Wired and NASA Mulls Deep-Space Station on Moon’s Far Side by Leonard David, space.com Space Insider Columnist.

I also happened to find that there is an entry on an “Interplanetary Internet” in Space Sciences: Macmillan Science Library. This volume is aimed at a young adult audience, but there is still much of interest here.

Obviously, many people are thinking about the issues I have outlined above. If enough people converge on a similar solution, something might get done. One can at least hope.

None of the other treatments I have found mention the potential science payoff of a big telescope on the far side of the moon linked into a supercomputer and internet node. If we think of how dramatically the Hubble Space Telescope has transformed our understanding of cosmology, this is no small matter. While the technocrats will always focus on particular problems, we who take the larger view know that industrial-technological civilization continues its relentless technological transformation of life only because it is systematically driven by science. New basic science of the kind that would be enabled by a major telescope (preferably both visible spectrum and radio telescopes) — imaging exoplanets and their atmospheres would be just the start — would offer an order-of-magnitude increase in observational cosmology.

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Addendum on Spacesteading

21 September 2012

Friday


A few days ago in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II I mentioned the presentation made by Gabriel Rothblatt about spacesteading, and that I had written to ask him the following question:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

Mr. Rothblatt has been kind enough to favor me with a reply, and since I promised an addendum if he did respond, here follows Mr. Rothblatt’s answers to my questions:

To answer your question about distinctions between social structures I’d have to say purpose. Space colony social structures will be focused on workforce efficiency in production or extraction, with the colonies themselves existing as means to an end and resembling economic zones with policies otherwise incongruent with standards of modern civilized life. By definition and practice a colony will have no right to control its own organization and policy, therefore given the extreme circumstances and remoteness it is highly probable that exaggerated forms of exploitation will be introduced, much like they were in the Americas, which most closely resembles the space colony scenario to-date.

It’s important to consider here that most space enthusiasts are not suited or interested in performing labor and most people in a position to perform the tasks of a colony have no interest in opting to go to space to do so. Spacesteaders came to space voluntarily for the love and/ or the freedom and adventure. Space colonists do so under duress of their economic situations on Earth.

In contrast to space colonization the concept of spacesteading does not as clearly define a specific social structure. What it does is create space based communities that are free to govern themselves. Communities may engage in production and mining for commercial gain, but do not exist for that purpose. The spacestead is the end, the mining/production a means to maintain it. In the former scenario, you would see a homogeneous model of operations, regardless if Interplanetary or Sol Systems was operating the colony. In the latter model the Mormon spacestead may look somewhat different from the Terasemian Monastery and still yet different from the Space Gambit orbital laboratory for Interstellar R&D facility or the municipality of New Nairobi. All of them having in common with each other the right to establish their own laws and existing expressly to be free communities in space, not as feeders to a remote political and economic machine.

To conclude, it is not to say that every model of space colonization we’ve dreamed till now truly fits that definition, some are apt descriptions of spacesteads. I’m not the first to propose this separation nor even the first to use the term spacesteading. As we get closer to a realization of a community in space it becomes more and more important to distinguish between the different pixels in the picture. I foresee soon we will begin to look closer at government versus corporate space colonies, perhaps even religious (although I personally do not distinguish much between government and religion). It is also equally possible for a spacestead to achieve equal or greater degrees of immorality than a space colony, in my humble opinion however, it’s the most pragmatic safe guard against institutionalized human rights violations and an inevitable war of rebellion to interstellar colonialization.

Mr. Rothblatt has outlined several very important points here, and I realize now in retrospect that the paternalism and patriarchalism that I noted in 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II as implicitly figuring in many of the 100YSS presentations might also be cast in terms of colonialism — one of the most pernicious and perennial rationalizations of colonialism being that of a benign presence that oversees and attends to the moral edification of the residents of the colony.

Mr. Rothblatt is exactly right to point to the danger of space settlements being primarily economically motivated and therefore lacking self-governance and therefore control over policies, practices, and procedures. We have an image of this danger in the science fiction film Outland, which depicts a space mining settlement as a “company town” with all that implies. This is not a model of development that we should want to extend to the human future in space. The danger of close Earth control over space settlements what I had in mind when I previously opined that it would be unrealistic to think that controlling powers on the Earth could reach out over space and time to shape the lives of those who would be, by then, living under very different conditions.

I also find myself in agreement with Mr. Rothblatt that spacesteading need not define a particular social structure. In the event of multiple settlements in space, I surely hope that we will see a hundred flowers bloom in terms of the diversity of social systems that will be attempted. The political and social experimentation with novel (and perhaps also not-so-novel) systems of governance under new and unprecedented conditions for human beings will be, I think, very healthy for our species and its continued social development. Something genuinely new may come about as the result of social experimentation in parallel with spacesteading, and this ought to be very exciting for any political philosopher.

The social and political diversity of space settlements — not to mention on long distance generational starships — may also, as Mr. Rothblatt points out, be the best safeguard against rebellion and militancy. Any quasi-colonial scenario immediately suggests the possibility of colonists at a great distance from the political center choosing to assert their independence even if this is denied them officially. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine such a scenario not resulting in violent separatism.

As the human future in space slowly and steady grows in scope, it will become increasingly evident that what Thomas Paine said of the relationship between Britain and its American colonies — using an astronomical metaphor no less — must also be true of the Earth and those communities that come to be established off the surface of the Earth:

“Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”

The Earth is an island in space. In time, we will come to see it as such, and we will be forced to recognize that this small planet, as beautiful as it is, is but a fragment of the cosmos, and that space must belong to itself and not to the earth.

I would like the thank Mr. Rothblatt for his response, which highlights so many important issues for the social future of humanity in space.

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