The Environmental Case for Extraterrestrial Resources

17 07 2013

During recent travels over the heart of our nation’s fossil fuel development and storage centers, a realization descended upon me in a new and sudden way.  As I peered out of my porthole window at the landscape below, it struck me that a simple glimpse at the current state of our world is the only justification needed for developing extraterrestrial resources.

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words:

Drilling Pads

Take a closer look.  Different aspects of the image will no doubt strike individual readers first.  But as for me, I saw for the first time a jarring and unsettling truth.  Quite unexpectedly, I was assaulted by the reality that between agricultural development and subsurface mineral resource exploration and extraction, no native portion of the planet’s surface remained as far as I my eyes could take me.

I reached up and took a picture with my phone, seeing for the first time the image of a planet not new but used – a surface completely consumed or discarded.  It was the very first time I’ve had a negative visceral reaction to the breadth of our civilization’s development of the Earth’s surface.

The thought quickly followed that, with an ever-expanding population and given the current course and nature of our civilization’s growth, this is the least developed our world will ever be, barring some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster.

My mind then immediately turned to the idea of life support.

The Holy Grail of Space Exploration

From a space exploration perspective, the idea of the Closed Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) is a critical one.  The holy grail of human space exploration, CELSSs are a natural, self-sustaining life support system, (e.g., a collection of plants that feed us, purify our waste, and supply our air, while our waste, in turn, feeds the plants and supplies their air).

One can quickly see that possessing functioning CELSS technology would enable our ability to establish long-term settlements on space stations, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.  We wouldn’t need constant resupply shipments from Earth.

On a massive scale, the Earth’s biosphere has managed to itself become a CELSS after great spans of geologic time and the cooperative adaptation of biology with it.  Unsurprisingly, our biosphere serves as the very (only) natural template for current CELSS research.

So, like the importance of a spacesuit to a lone astronaut on a spacewalk, what struck me as I gazed our of the aircraft window at our pervasive impact on the environment is that our biosphere is all that stands between us and the great, inhospitable reaches of space.

Damaging our species’ only functioning life support system by compromising our biosphere is a terrifying proposition.  Just as was the case with timber resource utilization early in this nation’s development – the rude awakening that what was perceived to be a limitless resource was instead all-too-finite – so too might it be time we open our eyes to the realities of our finite world from a life support perspective?

The first Earthrise imaged by a human.  B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8.  (Credit: NASA)

The first Earthrise imaged by a human. B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

Encouraging a Planetary-Perspective Paradigm Shift

Whereas the rationale our society has adopted in implementing better sustainability practices, such as recycling, is to “protect the environment,” I was awakened to the reality that from a planetary perspective a greater truth is the reverse:  It is not humanity that protects the Earth’s “environment,” rather, it’s the Earth’s biosphere (environment) that protects us – from asphyxiation and starvation in orbit about the Sun.

So, if we can encourage a broader (and I dare say more scientific) view of our world in the cosmos, we might all come to view our biosphere not as simply “the Environment” in which we live but instead as a crucial, planet-scale, natural life support system operating to keep us all alive in the dark, unforgiving, and unyielding reaches of space.

Such a paradigm shift, which could be driven by one, simple directive – to preserve our global biosphere as a planetary resource – logically compels our development in two directions:

  1. Minimize the surface area impact of what must be located or conducted on Earth’s surface.
  2. Maximize the impact of that which can be located or conducted off-world.

Should we accomplish the task of even beginning such a conversation, the right sorts of questions will follow:

  • Can we consolidate, enable, and focus mining operations in areas of less biospheric importance?
  • With limited land surface area, can we take advantage of much more plentiful airspace for agriculture, (e.g., vertical farming, or perhaps explore even the possibility of aerostat-based agriculture?)
  • Alternatively, can we increase the use of marine farming (mariculture)?
  • Might not we lessen or reverse the burden of natural resource utilization on Earth’s biosphere via the development of off-world mineral resources?
  • After that, could we begin a shift toward extraterrestrial agriculture and export back to Earth?  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, anyone?)

By merely engaging in this mode of thought in a culturally-significant way, it seems possible that not only would we develop and promote the use of extraterrestrial resources, but we could and would simultaneously become smarter about the way we structure our communities and settlements here on Earth.

Where does this lead?  Well, it seems to me that the clearest path is the serious, practical use and implementation of Arcology research, which is something I believe we as a civilization are ready to pursue in earnest.

In other words, an inevitable outcome of leveraging and fully harnessing the technological advances at our fingertips to actively preserve greater portions of our planet’s biosphere would promote our civilization’s growth and maturation along two fronts – the creation of an extraterrestrial infrastructure and economy, and the development of sustainability technologies that would improve life for us all.

A Call for Wiser Expansion

While certainly I’m not the first to voice these sorts of opinions, nor was this the first time I’ve considered these sorts of concepts, there was something fundamentally different about the experience I had as I was flying above majestic portions of the country, witnessing what for the first time appeared to my eyes to be the subtle but pervasive erosion of our species’ only life support infrastructure.

It was the context.

Thinking of the Earth as a closed life support system not from within but from beyond, as a system sustaining us against a vast and threatening cosmos, it struck me that elevating our collective views above and beyond our world’s horizon may be more than just financially lucrative and scientifically fruitful.

In working to shift the burden of our growth off-world, and considering the social perspective shift that doing so will require with respect to the way we view our own civilization, (e.g., as a people for the first time directly connected to an environment that extends beyond our planet), we should reinforce the pursuit by simultaneously cultivating a view of our world’s biosphere as an ultimately rare resource – or perhaps even the rarest natural resource (as the only known, functioning CELSS to-date!).

In doing so, perhaps we can accomplish several worthy objectives at once:

While lengthening the useful span of our planet’s life support system, we could also inspire and challenge ourselves to finally become smarter and wiser about how we populate our world… and in the process, start thinking seriously about how we move beyond.

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Exploring Test Cell C with ArcGIS Online

22 03 2011

ESRI logo. (Credit: ESRI)

The future is now.  GIS forerunner company ESRI has recently published much of their geospatial analysis capability online… for free.  Implementing the philosophy that knowledge is power and that all peoples and nations should be empowered to make smart and responsible decisions, ESRI is seeking to change the world by making powerful GIS tools available to anyone with web access.

-And they’ve included not only the tools, but the data as well.  Called “base layers,” this data is literally something you can add to a map with a click – like roads, topography, vegetation, weather… you name it.

For only the mildest example of what they’re doing, check out a map of the Nuclear Rocket Development Station’s Test Cell C.

Explore, play around with it, create your own map web apps… get creative.  With this kind of power at your fingertips, from checking out whether or not your house is on a floodplain to investigating political demographics in your area, there is literally no limit to what you can do with this.

Amazing.





Titan eclipses Mars

22 08 2010

Cassini spacecraft view of Saturn's 3200-mile-wide moon, Titan, with the smaller, 698-mile-wide moon Dione actually 600,000 miles behind it. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Titan has eclipsed Mars.  Not literally, mind you, but conceptually.  With active surficial geology the likes of which are known only to Earth, and considering the recent discovery of possible biochemical signatures of alien life, to me Titan has become the most interesting exploration destination in the solar system.

Take the above image, for starters.  Whereas most other rocky worlds in our solar system offer an unbridled view of craters, mountains, and ancient plains, Titan’s dynamic, hazy atmosphere betrays little.  Truly, the giant moon, which is larger than the planet Mercury itself, is a world shrouded in mystery.

-And, the more we learn about Titan, the more we have reason to believe it is the most Earth-like world this side of a few trillion miles.

(As an aside: My hat is off to the CICLOPS Cassini spacecraft imaging team for giving us real-life pictures like this.  Thanks to them, images from our science today trump the science fiction special effects of a decade ago.)

Unlike Mars, Titan offers us lakes, rivers, clouds, and rain – A full, living hydrologic cycle that is active not billions of years ago, but today.  (Yes, “hydrologic cycle” is perhaps a slight misnomer, because on Titan the active fluid is methane/ethane, not H2O, but the process appears to be the same.)  -And, perhaps most excitingly, scientists have recently discovered evidence that may indicate methane-based alien biochemistry at work.

Specifically, a flux of hydrogen molecules toward Titan’s surface, (rather than away as would be expected,) may indicate the consumption of the gas on Titan (as aerobic life on Earth consumes oxygen); A distinct lack of the hydrocarbon acetylene, one of the most potent chemical energy sources on Titan, may betray that hydrogen-breathing, methane-based life is consuming acetylene as food.

And at least hypothetically, all of the potential chemistry checks out.

If all of this together doesn’t spell impetus for further investigation, I can’t imagine what does.  To boot, because it is so cold out at Saturn’s distance from the Sun and despite Titan’s weaker gravity, the condensed atmospheric pressure on Titan is practically identical to what we experience on Earth, making human exploration all the more feasible.

Have spacesuit, will travel.  Titan or bust.





Scientists strike back at climate naysayers

8 05 2010

Bookworm George McFly finally standing up to Biff - Back to the Future. Credit: Universal Pictures

Here it is – the long-awaited left hook I wasn’t sure would ever happen.  Yesterday, against the continual volley of naysayer attacks, the journal Science published an open letter from a small army of scientists coming to the defense of current climate change research.

While there is much to engender skepticism these days, what with ClimateGate, Al Gore, and pseudoscience being slung around by politicians on all sides like fish in Pike Place… Sound science is still underneath it all.

No, no – don’t get me wrong.  Doomsayers are synonymous with ulterior motives in my book, so I don’t think the sky is falling.  I think farmers should be worried.  That’s quite different.  An interview I gave a while back lays out what I feel are quite “centrist” views, if a science-type can even claim to be climatologically centrist.

However, beneath all the screaming about vanishing polar caps and the death of small businesses at the merciless hands of carbon cap-and-trade, the idea that human activity can affect planetary systems has something to it.  There would be nearly no free oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere at all if it weren’t for biological activity.  -That’s right- for example, check out banded iron formations and eroded pyrite for evidence of a reducing atmosphere and the knowledge that the biggest climate change this planet has experienced was a result of life upon it.

So, good on ya’, National Academy of Sciences scientists who’ve taken up the challenge and thrown the gauntlet back.  I’m not sure how much good will ultimately come of it, but I have to say I’m impressed at the effort.





Contingency Plans

26 02 2010

A short note, today, on something that struck me while out in the east-central Nevada project area for work:  Remote fieldwork = contingency planning.  That’s really all there is to it.  Take my latest trip this week, for example.  In our project area, we’re really off the grid.  What we call a road can at times barely qualify as a four-wheel drive trail, and most wouldn’t attempt some of our routes with a helicopter, much less a truck:

Northern Spring Valley, NV.

Chaining up to head up a mountain.

Because we’re so far from people or supplies, even more than on other projects, priority one is getting the data, plain and simple.  It’s such a high priority not only because data is valuable from a scientific perspective, but largely because it’s very expensive to obtain when you consider the cost of our time (four of us, two per vehicle), vehicle wear-and-tear, hotel rooms for the week, etc.  All of that expense is for nothing if we don’t get to our sites for the opportunity to make our measurements, download data from the instruments we have installed, and perform much-needed maintenance.

Making measurements fom a mountainside.

So, we push the envelope – that’s what we’re paid for.  It’s rough enough to reach our measurement sites on a good day with dry roads, and in winter time it takes even more finesse.  Weighing against pushing too hard, however, is the fact that the only thing more expensive than not getting the data is if you break a truck trying.  Then you’ve not only incurred the expense of lost time, (which equals lost data,) and vehicle and/or equipment repair, but now you’re paying for whoever has to come to bail you out.  If it’s the other team, then they’re not getting data, either.

We sank our 10,000lb truck up to the axles, spent an extra hour digging out, but made it.

Bearing all of this in mind, the punchline is that when we’re out there, we need to go for it.  But, we also need to have thought out our contingencies ahead of time.  If you get in trouble, help is hours away – assuming you can get word out that you need it.  You need to make sure you have what you need to tackle the unexpected.  Sometimes this amounts to little more than an extra shovel or ice-pick, (which are surprisingly versatile), and some ol’-fashioned grit and determination.  Experience to know what to expect helps, but imagination is also really handy when you get a curve ball from Mother Nature.

That’s all.  Knowing how to dance around the line between being gung-ho and being foolhardy really means knowing your capabilities and knowing how to sense when you’ve gotten yourself in farther than you can get yourself out.

That’s something I’m glad to have experienced firsthand and something I feel (and hope NASA will as well) is absolutely necessary for anyone contemplating leaving boot tracks off-world.

The prize: An instrument station. -Punchline: Know thyself, thy truck, & thy shovel.





A climate change interview

22 02 2010

So, the most beautiful, articulate and talented writer and politics-hawk I’ve ever known (who also happens to be my wife) interviewed me for an honest breakdown on the realities of climate change.  Let’s face it – the topic is now completely murky.  Considering the U.N.’s data-bending scandal and the fact that politicians and commentators are talking more about “global warming” than the scientists studying the Earth’s climate in the field, it is downright difficult to avoid cynicism and not just tune it all out.  My wife was looking for (and looking to offer) a little clarity on the issue, so she asked me a few questions.  I weighed in on the planetary front, doing my best to help intrepid readers to distinguish the facts about climate change from the fiction, farce, and fear-mongering.

For the interested, you can read the interview here.








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