Space Exploration and Malthusian Nightmares

Back in 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that eventually we were going to run out of food. Now, we may (I don’t know if we do or not) now have the means to overcome that limitation to our population via technology, but we also have other things that could substantially limit the carrying capacity of Earth for humans, like oil, fresh water, IPv4 addresses, and so on.

I don’t mean to use an argument from authority, but Stephen Hawking is of the opinion that we need to leave Earth, and I tend to think he’s right, not least of which because we’re currently carrying all of our eggs in one basket, but because we know for certain that mass extinction events can and do occur. The C-T boundary event that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago wasn’t even the biggest mass extinction Earth has had, only wiping 75% of species off the planet.

In September, Astronomers announced that they had discovered a 6th planet orbiting the star Gliese 581 using radial velocity measurements (Watch the star close enough and anything orbiting it will cause it to wobble if you know the stars mass you can do some math that goes over my head (Just kidding, I could probably do it) and you can work out the mass of the object orbiting it, and thanks to Kepler’s third law of planetary motion you can work out the distance it orbits the star from. Anyway, the planet discovered in September (Even more recently it was announced that with newer data, they can’t actually find Gliese 581 g or f, so the planets are listed as unconfirmed) lies within it’s stars habitability zone, or area around the star where temperatures would be such that liquid water could exist, if all the other conditions were right.

Because Gliese 581 is a red dwarf (which means it’s very small, no more than 40% solar mass, and not as hot with a surface temperature of around 4000k), then the habitability zone for the star would be much further in than that same zone in our solar system (which Mars is just outside of, suckers)

Estimated zones of habitability for various star types

Gliese 581 g is thought to be tidally locked to its star, meaning one side of the planet is in permanent darkness, while the other is in permanent light. It also means there’d be no axial tilt, and so no seasons. However with the size of the planet, around 3-4 earth masses, the atmospheric density is expected to moderate temperature extremes, with global winds transferring heat from the light side to the dark side, preventing the dark side from freezing solid (Assuming water exists) and the light side from being a permanent, hellish inferno. An alternative is that in such a scenario there may be a region around the planet’s terminator, or boundary between day and night on the planet’s surface. Basically the areas where it’s permanently twilight.

sensationalistic journalists have already been quick to quote one of the planet’s discoverers as saying that the chances of life occurring there are 100%, but what he actually said was “I’m not a biologist, nor do I want to play one on TV. Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100%. I have almost no doubt about it.”, and assuming all other predictions about the planet, such as its composition and atmospheric makeup pan out, I would agree with him. However for a few more years we can’t perform spectrographic analysis to determine the makeup, but the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in a few years may change that.

To get to my point, which I may have lost a while back, we’ve been looking for extrasolar planets forever, but the first one wasn’t confirmed until 1981. Since then, we’ve discovered almost 500 other planets, and more are popping up every day, plus our technology is constantly improving as well. We know there’s other places out there, hell, we know there are resources up there in our solar system we could get to. We could be putting solar panels in space and beaming the power down via microwave to earth to meet energy demands, we could be on the moon mining for, who knows, apparently there’s a current helium shortage here on earth, but if I’m not mistaken it collects in lunar regolith up there in leaps and bounds. We’re also finding we need more and more rare earth materials for our increasing demand for new technology, and who knows how much more we could up in the asteroid belt, but we’re not doing anything about it all. Why?

NASA has a pitiful budget of around 19 billion US dollars per year, and while the increases under the latest administration somewhat make up for that, as well as the restructuring to move away from actual space exploration into basic science with more money going towards private companies getting up there are a good thing, I personally am of the opinion that we as a species, collectively, need to be doing much much more in this area, not just because it’s cool, and it is, not just because exploring is in our species’ very nature, and it is, but because one day, with the way we treat our planet now maybe one day soon, we might find our home is a shitty place to live and we want to live somewhere new.

Also I really, really want to go into space some time for I shuffle off this mortal coil. Share your thoughts below.


4 Responses to Space Exploration and Malthusian Nightmares

  1. KATY says:


    There ;-P

  2. Michelle says:

    Started writing and then saved it, was meaning to get back to this.

    This makes me remember my obstetrics training, they took an interesting approach of following it through from before conception right through to the mechanics of birth. Needless to say, once I’d got through this all and realised all the things that could go wrong, I was amazed that anyone made through the process of reproduction and came out alive. Yet here we all are. It’s same thing with the Universe, it seems so overwhelmingly inhospitable to life yet we know on at least least on Earth, life proliferates. I think if you think about it in strictly biological sense once life gets a foothold, the odds of it continuing even against what seem to be enormous odds is very good. The problem is it getting started in the first place, don’t know what the actual odds would be but they are probably pretty slim.

    The current findings of extrasolar planets is fascinating, it’s going to be something to look forward to find out if there is anything there that might make it possible for that planet to sustain life of any sort. Probably need to listen to Hawking more because his ideas are good ones to explore, it’s too easy to fall on the pessimistic side at times. One thing I’d always trust in is that humans are endlessly inventive and that challenges can be overcome. I too think think we’d need some major investment and new technologies to be developed, there is so much more to be tapped if there was the political will there.

  3. Des says:

    Not necessarily Michelle. If we disregard the nuclear test ban treaty, we can have a nuclear pulse propelled craft at the Gliese system in, conservative estimate, a century and a bit.

    We know how to build Orion drives, we just need to get rid of the hippies who stand in the way of their being built.

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