Humankind is on the verge of becoming a space-faring civilisation. This change is important to humankind and even those of us left on Earth will reap the benefits. The economy will change completely as we will be able to tap into an almost limitless supply of resources. There will also inevitably be many inventions from space exploration, that will eventually filter down and become space technology used in everyday life. There's far too much ground for me to cover in a brief introduction so let's get stuck in shall we?
Space Exploration Pros and Cons
There are both benefits and dangers of space travel for humankind, and we must ask ourselves what the risks of space exploration are and what are the benefits of space exploration. Ultimately will the benefits outweigh the risks? Space travel is an important milestone for our species, and perhaps it is more of a question of are we ready?
List of Advantages of Space Exploration
Why is space exploration important to humankind? To answer this, we must first answer, what are the benefits of space exploration? I'll stop with the questions now I promise.
Space Exploration Advantage - Space Asteroid Mining
NASA have valued the entirety of the asteroid belt at an estimated £500 quintillion. Asteroid mining can give humankind an almost limitless supply of materials, some of which are scarce on Earth. More common materials can be used to build space infrastructure or be brought back to Earth in immense quantities. There is an asteroid relatively close to Earth that has more platinum than has ever been mined on Earth. It is only 500m in diameter, and this is rather small when there are approximately two million asteroids in our solar system larger than this. The materials contained within asteroids that we know of so far include; gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten. All of these are in short supply on Earth and could be incredibly useful and are currently underutilised due to their cost.
There are other more common materials available within asteroids such as; iron, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, aluminium, titanium, water, oxygen, hydrogen and ammonia. These would likely be mined to build structures in space, support space colonies and refuel spacecraft.
If you are thinking, it is true that there are materials available out there in space, but we have no chance of accessing them anytime soon. Well, I am sorry to inform you that you are mistaken. There are a handful of different options at present being explored as solutions for asteroid mining;
Mining and bringing back to Earth
This is by far the simplest option, land on a targeted asteroid, mine as much as the spacecraft can carry and return to Earth. However, this method would not be the most profitable. At this moment in time with the costs of mining and transporting the raw material from space, it would be more worthwhile simply sourcing and be mining the elements on Earth. For higher valued materials though this could be a viable and simplistic option, well relatively simplistic I should say.
Mine and refine on the asteroid, build in space or send valuable materials back to Earth
This method is similar to the previously mentioned method though the materials will be refined on the asteroid. While this will initially cost more, with having to build both mining and refining infrastructure, the materials in their refined form will have a higher value. It is likely the most expensive part of mining in space will be traversing to and from the asteroid so bringing back more valuable materials will increase the profitability. If there were to be multiple trips to and from the asteroid the mining and refining facilities would already be set up increasing profitability even more. This method also benefits humankind as any pollutants created in the refining process would be polluting asteroid and not our home planet. It is worth mentioning that having refined materials available in space would make it so that building in space would become more economical, possibly providing us with the ability to assemble megastructures in space.
Move a selected asteroid into a close orbit closer to Earth then mine it
NASA plans to move an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon during the 2020s. Being able to move asteroids would make it easy for humankind to mine pretty much all of the desired materials off of any selected asteroid and transport them back to Earth with relative ease. Funding and advancements in this kind of technology will also mean that we could defend Earth against the risk of possible future collisions with rogue asteroids by redirecting them past our precious home planet. Moving asteroids would give us even more freedom regarding building in space or on other planets, allowing us to transport masses of raw material to where it is required.
Self replicating mining machines
There is a fourth possibility that scientists have been discussing, but this asteroid mining option is incredibly complicated. The basic idea is to send self-replicating mining machines that will go to an asteroid and use a certain proportion of materials to build more of themselves, speeding up the mining process exponentially. A certain percentage of materials will be designated to be sent to be stored or where they are needed. This method, however, does pose serious threats, if sci-fi has taught us anything we need to be extremely cautious when using self-replicating machines with AI.
To wrap up space asteroid mining
Asteroid mining is one of the key benefits of space exploration; it will give humankind access to massive quantities of resources that will aid in facilitating further exploration, building infrastructure, as well as reducing our current conflicts over limited resources. As Earths resources dwindle, asteroid mining is more likely to be more commercially viable, and this will most likely kick-start our evolution into a space exploring species. Best of all it is quite plausible it will be happening soon.
Space Exploration Advantage - Colonising other planets
Stephen Hawking predicts for our species to survive we need to leave the planet within 100 years. Overpopulation, pollution, and risk of disease are all factored into his prediction. Elon Musk agrees stating it's better to spread across planets in case of natural disaster and it will give us a much greater chance of survival. I agree completely, but we have to be able to achieve sustainability on whichever planets we colonise, luckily many of our greatest scientific minds agree and have set to work making this dream materialise into reality.
So what are the candidates?
Bachelorette number one... It's Mars.
A radiant redhead, never before touched by man, however, prepare for cold nights and rocky patches...
Seriously though why Mars? Put simply because we can. It is in proximity to Earth, at this moment in time takes around a year to reach. It is a rocky planet so that we can build and walk on the surface. One of the downsides is that it does lie just outside the Goldilocks zone, (Habitable zone within a solar system where water exists in liquid form) but does have water available in the form of ice. Though Mars is far from perfect there is scope for terraforming the planet, transforming the planet to make it habitable, however, this will take a considerable amount of time.
Elon Musk is well underway with proceedings with the Mars One mission; he originally set himself and humanity the ambitious goal of colonising Mars in 2030. In light of recent advancements in space technology, mainly SpaceX's BFR, Musk announced at the International Astronautical Congress that he intends to send people as early as 2024.
Construction of a Martian colony will begin in 2022 with cargo being sent two years later the first people will go to Mars. From then on every two years, extra cargo and colonists will be sent to grow the colony. Huge solar panels will be used to power the settlement, and this will provide sustainable energy for oxygen and water production. Afterlife support is completed a propellant plant will be constructed to refuel rockets that have landed on Mars for a return journey back to Earth.
Bachelorette number two... It's Proxima-B
Mysterious and distant perfect choice if you do not mind long distance relationships...
To provide humanity an even greater chance of survival we need to spread across multiple solar systems, not just numerous planets. Proxima-B is a planet orbiting our closest neighbouring star Proxima Centauri, which is only over four light years away. It takes Proxima-B just over 11 days to complete a full orbit, as it is close to its star, despite this it is within the Goldilocks zone, this is because the star is a red dwarf giant, so is much cooler than our star.
A drawback to colonising Proxima-B is that we currently think that the same side of the planet is always facing its star, this means that there is only a narrow band of habitable space on the planet. The primary issue for us, however, is the sheer distance away that Proxima-B is. This presents us with huge challenges such as communication and how much time it will take people to reach the planet. With our current technology, it would take us hundreds of thousands of years to even reach the system in the first place. However do not fret, we are an incredibly ingenious species, and there is a technology in development right now which means we could reach the solar system in within just 20 years!
To wrap up colonising other planets
The two planets mentioned here are the most likely candidates for colonisation, but that is not to say these are the only ones we could ever populate. We are discovering new planets at an increased rate planets, and we are learning more about the ones we do know of. Technological advancements in telescope technology and space travel are bound to unlock previously inaccessible and unknown areas of the universe. Most certainly exciting times ahead for the human race but in our lifetimes at least we will be colonising Mars and perhaps even Proxima-B.
Space Exploration Advantage - Technology
The Cold War brought with it the space race. This show of power was responsible for a huge leap in technology, as governments invested huge sums of money in vital research the product of many things we take for granted today.
Here are just a few inventions that would not exist without the Space Program and have truly become space technology used in everyday life;
Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
Low Cost Solar Panels
If humankind was to focus research on space exploration once again and race with other nations to secure new resources and territories, there is no doubt that this would give birth to loads of new technologies just as the space race did during the cold war. Unfortunately, it would be impossible for me to try and guess what would be created just as 100 years ago it would be unimaginable what technology we have at our disposal today. But what I can say for sure is that it will be mind-blowing, maybe day trips to Mars? Britain to Australia in a few minutes? Floating Skyscrapers? Space Cities? Internet available throughout the Solar System? Who knows if there's one thing humanity proves time and time again, almost anything is possible when we put our greatest minds towards it.
Space Exploration Advantage - Learn more about the universe
As we explore space, we will learn more about the workings of the universe and what the laws of physics are outside of Earth. We might even answer one of life's most prevalent questions thus far, is there life beyond Earth? The chances of us finding life out there increases the more we explore. Though it is possible, we may never come across another life form however I find this highly unlikely.
We could find other intelligent life and maybe exchange technologies and understandings of the workings of the universe. Perhaps even more of an extreme theory we could be welcomed into a community of space-faring intelligent life forms that know of each other's existence, the truth is that we have no idea what is out there, with our current telescopes we have seen very little of the universe.
It is possible that we could also learn from less evolved life forms, much as we learn from life here on Earth, there are processes in nature that have provided us with many foundations of the technologies we have today. Life is likely to have evolved another way in the different conditions of other worlds and evolution may have found alternative solutions to problems here on Earth or indeed problems that evolution has not managed to overcome on our planet.
Of course, finding other life out there also poses risks. Alien diseases, parasites, and viruses could destroy all life on Earth if something contaminated returns. There is no guarantee that any intelligent life we come across will be friendly or might see us as a threat, advertising our existence could spell the end of humanity.
I think I got a little bit off topic there... Personally, I think finally answering the question itself would be reward enough, would not mind accumulating knowledge of the inner workings of the universe of course. But knowing of other life being out there will make the universe seem much more interesting and a pleasure to continuously explore. It will also be extremely comforting to know that we are not alone. Well as long as our neighbours are not warmongering bloodthirsty alien murderers of course. Though I would like to think that this is highly unlikely there is enough space out there for us to coexist peacefully.
Negatives of Space Exploration
Space Exploration Disadvantage - Financial Cost of Space Exploration
Exploring space is not going to be cheap, the estimated cost of sending four people to Mars is 6 Billion US Dollars. This is a huge sum of money; this is because we do not have the technology and infrastructure available to us at this moment in time to operate in space efficiently. Every time we want to do something in space at this moment in time costs us huge amounts of money because we have to fund research to help us overcome the obstacles we did not previously know how to overcome. For example, how to protect astronauts from space radiation.
Space Exploration Disadvantage - Threat of technology used in space
Technology that arises as a result of space exploration could facilitate further technological advances for things that are a danger to humanity. Advances in technologies such as AI and robotics could be used as weapons in wars. If these weapons were in the wrong hands could pose a danger to innocent people.
Space Exploration Disadvantage - Dangers in space for astronauts
Space is a hostile unknown expanse, everywhere of interest is over distances that are mind-numbing. There are many dangers lurking in deep space we currently know about from what we have observed from here on Earth, but it is impossible for us to truly understand what is out there and what effects that can happen to a person. The current fatality rate for going into space is around 2%, of course, this is a high risk especially with the value of human life. But personally, it is a much lesser figure than I was expecting when I first gained knowledge of it.
The dangers in space for astronauts we currently know about are:
Cosmic radiation is made up primarily of high-energy protons as well as atomic nuclei. These cosmic rays can pass through people and objects, these rays when they pass through people can permanently damage DNA and cause cancerous diseases. On Earth we are protected from cosmic radiation by the Earth's magnetic field and by Earth's atmosphere, the magnetic field deflecting rays and the atmosphere absorbing most of what leaks through the magnetic field.
Having numerous people contained within a small living space comes with its risks. Most people will go a little "crazy" in these conditions and issues that are small from the outsiders perspective can be blown hugely out of proportion. Astronauts undergo vigorous psychological vetting, crew members falling out can easily lead to violence and the possibility of mutiny putting their whole mission in jeopardy.
Microorganisms in Space
Surprisingly life is hardier than we previously predicted. There is a significant quantity of microorganisms that can survive in space, in fact, there is a fungus that grows on the ISS just as well as it grows here on Earth. There is a possibility that we could inadvertently spread pathogens throughout space, or if life is more abundant than we currently think to bring some dangerous extraterrestrial microorganisms back to Earth.
Is Space Exploration Worth the Risks?
When you compile the benefits of space exploration and try to find disadvantages of space exploration to create a counter argument it is extremely difficult. Yes, there are risks of space exploration maybe I am just a biased author because I love the prospect of humankind ascending from our home planet to spread across the stars. But the benefits involved such as spreading life across the universe, in case of disaster, the economic benefits, the technological benefits and of course the sheer vanity of it. Is space exploration worth the risks? Definitely, yes.
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