Thursday, March 23, 2006

Nerdgasm

I was definitely in the market for a science fix, and what better topic than the search for life in outer space? I flipped to PBS last nite around 2am and watched a documentary for about two hours on various things beyond our atmosphere that I did not know.

For one, being in space for as little as a week can cause a person to lose nearly 30% of their muscle mass. A cosmonaut back in the 70s went up and spent a week in zero-gravity, only to find that when he came back to Earth, he couldn't even walk. Thus, for someone to survive prolonged space travel, they're going to have to do regular workouts. Amazingly, gravity alone keeps our muscles busy and toned, even while sitting still, aimlessly babbling into the computer.

Next, several ideas have come along for terraforming Mars (making it livable for humans). Interestingly, one thing that would help thicken up the planet's atmosphere is....greenhouse gases. Not like we don't have enough of those to go around. So that stuff makes a more dense atmosphere, which in turn warms up the planet, which would at least cause the ice caps to melt, and the proposed permafrost underground, as evidenced by surface cracks visible from here. The water starts to flow, then we could conceivably seed it with tough breeds of phytoplankton that would start turning the planet's largely CO2 gaseous makeup into oxygen. Just gotta make sure the other important components like nitrogen get in there.

The established ecosystem would start to bring some balance to the weather and surface conditions, forming clouds, maybe even turning the sky blue. This would all work IF the planet's weaker gravitational field can actually hold the atmosphere onto the planet. Big IF. Could be a ton of money spent on something that will never work.

So, my idea is that we just bottle up all our greenhouse gases now and start shooting them at Mars. The containers break open, and we can see, simply via our waste products, if the plan would have worked at all. And it's relatively cost effective.

Next up were methods of transport. They said 90% of the weight of the space shuttle at liftoff is fuel, and every kilogram of mass they send into space costs about $1 million. Thus, cheaper, lighter fuel sources. Two ideas were suggested.

1. Build a smaller spacecraft and give them enough fuel to get there, but the tools to manufacture methane fuel once they land to return home. Sounds risky, especially if any of the needed elements are damaged or lost. Then they're just stuck there on Mars.

2. Nuclear power. It's light and efficient, but also dangerous. Again, and damage to the components during re-entry or landing could spell the end for the entire crew.

On the other hand, the nuclear aspect of it opens up some interesting sci-fi ideas. Like going to a planet, getting into some trouble, and detonating the engines. Yeah yeah, it's a sci-fi cliche, but at least it's nice to see where it came from.

ANOTHER interesting tidbit I learned was how body structure and evolution are determined by the environment. For one thing, if life evolves on a larger planet with a stronger gravitational pull and perhaps a harsher environment, those creatures will have more dense bone structure and muscles, and much tougher skins. They would be badasses if they ever came to Earth, with its gentle climates and lesser gravity. They'd essentially be....Superman.

In the same vein, let's say we did manage to colonize some place like Mars or the moon. After a generation or so, those people probably wouldn't be able to come to Earth because of the way their muscles and hearts will have developed. Lower gravity means they wouldn't be as strong, and thus just walking around on Earth would be extremely taxing. Lower gravity also effects brain development. Dolphins swim in the nearly zero-g environ of the ocean, and their brains are at least 1/3 larger than ours. Dolphins and whales have their own sort of communication system as well. So, extend that to humans, and we may in 1000 years time have two distinct evolutionary tracks of humans developing that are innately different. On one hand we have the physically weaker but intellectually superior Martian humans. On the other we have the hardier but slightly dumber Terran humans. And you just KNOW how much mankind loves people who are different from himself. Civil War? Genocide? Envy? Jealousy? Being different could yet again threaten to bomb us back to the stone age. The war with the Angry Red Planet could end up just being a war with ourselves.

And that, my friends, makes me want to WRITE.

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