The White Pill: What's The Best Place For A Space Colony?
white pill #4 // the next era in alzheimers treatment, potential breakthrough in longevity research, and where the human species should colonize next
Welcome back to The White Pill, a Pirate Wires weekly digest of inspiring, fascinating, and evocative developments in tech, engineering, physics, astronomy, space, and medicine. Today, we’ve got a hefty lead story on the most realistic places to build a space colony by guest contributor Owen Lewis. And as usual, a storm of links. This one’s a long one, so buckle up, grab a coffee, and when you’re finished reading say hello and share your own links in the comments section.
First, some excellent news
Alzheimers game changer. Alzheimers was slowed up to 35 percent in volunteers of a 1,700-person study on the efficaciousness of the drug Donanemab, manufactured by the company Eli Lilly. "We're now on the cusp of a first generation of treatments for Alzheimer's disease, something that many thought impossible only a decade ago," Dr. Susan Kolhaas, from Alzheimer's Research UK, told the BBC. Importantly, the new drug can produce serious side effects, with two volunteers dying due to brain swelling caused by taking the drug. But that Donanemab — and Lecanemab, another recently FDA-approved Alzheimers treatment — targets amyloid in the brain and succeeds in treating Alzheimers has “convinced scientists they are on the right track after decades of misery and failure.” Excellent news. (BBC)
Longevity breakthrough. In a blockbuster development nearly seven years in the making, scientists were able to increase the lifespan of yeast cells by up to 82 percent. Targeting a process by which cells’ “fates” are decided, the team tricked cells into delaying their “commitment” to deterioration — a non-trivial mechanism in aging — using synthetic “oscillators.” “I don’t see why it cannot be applied to more complex organisms,” Nan Hao, senior author of the study, told Motherboard. “If it is to be introduced to humans, then it will be a certain form of gene therapy.” Excellent news. (Motherboard)
Small modular reactors LFG!! NuScale Power, which has the only Small Modular Reactor (SMR) design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ‘broke ground’ this week. Here’s GPT explaining the advantages of SMRs over traditional nuclear, if the reader were a 10-year old:
SMRs are like smaller versions of the big power plants that make electricity from atoms. They are easier to build and don't cost as much money because they're smaller and made in parts that fit together like a puzzle. They can be put almost anywhere. SMRs can also change how much power they make when we need more or less electricity, like when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. This makes them a good friend to other ways of making clean energy, like solar panels and wind turbines.
From NuScale’s Twitter: “The first pours of molten steel represent a significant breakthrough into the manufacturing phase for… the SMR industry.” Excellent news. (@NuScale_Power)
Lead Story: Leaving the Cradle
With the Starship launch on our heels, leading this week’s White Pill is a fascinating overview of the best and worst places in the solar system to establish a space colony using current technology, or realistic iterations of current technology. Science and space enthusiast Owen Lewis is the guest writer here — say what’s up in the comments. He had previously published this piece on Medium in 2020; this version is updated.
“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” —Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of modern rocketry
We started off strong. Just 66 years after the Wright brothers made their historic flight, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, a turning point in human history. No longer confined to our home world, we could step out and see for ourselves what wonders, treasures, and challenges await us. Sadly, after the triumph of Apollo 11, only 5 more manned missions to the Moon took place; and in 1972 the last of 12 humans to have ever set foot on another world left and came home. We have yet to return.
Now things finally seem to be changing — NASA’s new goal is returning to the Moon in 2025. Though manned spaceflight plans seem to change depending on who is in the White House, this time there are added spurs for NASA to set and achieve definite targets in getting humans back out beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). One is private companies like SpaceX, who are determined to get us into space no matter what governments do, as can be seen by the recent first flight of a fully stacked Starship. The second spur is China. They have significant long term ambitions in space and their program has already had some big successes despite just starting to gear up. It is of greatest importance that we leave the cradle and don’t crawl around in LEO forever — who gets us there is secondary. While freedom and liberty would be better served by a country like the United States leading the way into space instead of one like China, if America refuses to step up and China does, our descendants will probably thank them.
Where Can’t We Go (Yet)?
Regardless of who takes the lead, the most important question is: Where should we go? To help us narrow down our options, let’s first look at where we can’t go, at least not in the immediate future.
Sometimes called Earth’s twin because of their similar sizes, Venus is nothing like our home. With a thick atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide, the surface pressure would crush you like a tin can, and also roast you in temperatures that, like Mercury, are hot enough to melt lead. While the surface is definitely out, building a home in the sky might make this hellish world feel a little homier. Up around 50 km, pressures and temperatures in the Venusian atmosphere are close to that on Earth, with protection against radiation to boot. Because the atmosphere of Venus is denser than ours, you could actually fill a balloon full of breathable air — or something lighter if you’re higher in the atmosphere — and it would float. Dealing with the clouds of sulphuric acid has a surprisingly easy solution: just coat everything with Teflon, which is highly resistant to it.
Constructing a floating city on Venus sounds like it might be a great idea; NASA even considered a floating research lab in a now archived project called HAVOC (watch the concept video here). However, there are a couple glaring problems which put a damper on near-term colonization plans: resources and wind. While water and oxygen are obtainable using solar energy to break down carbon dioxide (CO2) and sulphuric acid (H2SO4), finding other materials would be far harder. Mining the Venusian surface will need better technology than we currently possess; so the only options are relying on Earth for all imports, or asteroid mining. As for wind, turns out that anywhere high enough up in the atmosphere to be livable, winds are at hurricane speeds and beyond. Constructing a floating city to race through the Venusian skies would be a monumental engineering challenge. I suspect these mountains will eventually be conquered, but they knock Venus off the list of initial destinations for setting up a second home.
The Moons of Jupiter
While we may be able to get there with near-term technology, Jupiter’s moons look to be pretty uninviting places to set up camp. Jupiter has the most intense and dangerous radiation belts of any planet in our system. Unlike our own Moon which is beyond the Van Allen radiation belts, all four Galilean moons — Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io — are within Jupiter’s. Not a healthy environment to stick around without significant shielding, or perhaps living below the surface. In addition to the radiation problem, Io is also highly active volcanically. The surface is yellowish due the presence of sulphur; not a very inviting place. And in addition to bombardment by intense radiation, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa are all thought to have an icy surface covering an ocean tens of kilometers or more in depth, making access to raw materials for construction difficult for potential human colonists. Mining the rocky moons of Jupiter, or nearby asteroids could be a solution, but that adds a layer of difficulty to any colonization plans. Though it should be noted that Ganymede and Callisto have some rocky material left by impacts at or near the surface.
Another place we probably won’t want to go is Mercury. At less than half an AU, Mercury is a little too close to the Sun for comfort. While there seems to be water ice protected in deep craters at the planet’s poles, the high levels of solar radiation, combined with scorching temperatures hot enough to melt lead during the day (lasting about 88 Earth days) fail to make the small planet very appealing.
Asteroids are like oases in the vast desert of interplanetary space, and mining them for resources ranging from water to platinum may soon become commonplace, greatly accelerating our expansion into the Solar System. However, we are a ways off from tunneling into them and building cities inside as portrayed by The Expanse. The biggest problem is gravity, there simply isn’t much of it, and until we find a way to deal with this, asteroids are out as potential homes. Spinning up a structurally competent asteroid to generate artificial gravity is the obvious solution, but our ability to do that is probably decades in the future.
This doesn’t mean that we will never colonize asteroids, many of them would be excellent sites for cities, especially with the protection from radiation all that rock affords. It simply means that the asteroids won’t be first on the list of places we go.
Anywhere Past the Orbit of Saturn
Along with getting out of Earth’s gravity well, journeying to our planned destinations is probably the most difficult problem we face. Earth sits at 1 AU from the Sun, a distance of about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles). Mars is at 1.5 AU, half as far out again. From Earth to Jupiter is 4.2 AU, and Saturn sits at 8.5 AU, about 17x as far from us as Mars. Next out is Uranus, over twice as far from Earth as Saturn. By this point, distances simply become too large for conventional, or even small nuclear rockets to get us (with large amounts of gear in tow) there in anything like a reasonable amount of time. Even getting to the moons of Saturn would be a long trip, but until more advanced and powerful fission or fusion rockets are developed, going farther will probably need to be left to robots.
Where Can We Go Now?
To decide where to go first, determining the easiest places to establish large populations — cities — as opposed to just research outposts, is vital. Now that we’ve looked at where we won’t go first, let’s turn our attention to where we might.
Our Moon is in Earth’s backyard as far as distances in the Solar System go. Though the lunar regolith (soil) is bone dry, the Moon has water ice near the poles, in shadowed craters hidden from the Sun. An excellent resource for potential colonists, both as water and for making rocket fuel. A potential downside to building cities on the Moon is the low gravity, only 1/6 that of Earth. Unfortunately, while we know that extended stays in zero g are bad for human physiology, we don’t know how much gravity is required for us to stay healthy. A greater challenge is radiation. For now the best solution is probably building habitations with thick walls and roofs. Or living underground, perhaps in lava tubes.
The biggest reason why we should settle the Moon is because we need to start stepping out into our Solar System, and the Moon is literally right there. It’s a short ride back if you get homesick; relatively easy to send supplies or mount a rescue mission if needed, and it offers a platform where we can experiment with living and working off world.
In many ways Mars is the most Earth-like place in the Solar System. It possesses an atmosphere, albeit a thin one, and gravity 38 percent of Earth’s. Martian day lengths and axial tilt are almost the same as ours, which should make the transition easy for our internal clocks. NASA missions indicate large volumes of water ice exist on or just under the surface, from the mid-latitudes all the way to the poles. Estimated at more than 5 million cubic kilometers, there is more than enough for any possible needs of future colonists, including terraforming. Another huge advantage Mars has over other contenders is minerals. While the Moon is quite poor in some of the minerals we commonly use, Mars appears to have them all. All of this makes Mars a more inviting target for large-scale colonization than anywhere else; plus it’s the only place in the Solar System that can be terraformed with known or near future technology.
In terms of points against it, Mars has no planetary magnetic field to shield against radiation, which means the first colonies will be at least partly underground. There are also the challenges of adequate food, oxygen, and heat common to any journey into space. But most of these obstacles are easier to overcome on Mars than anywhere else.
Larger than Mercury, Saturn’s moon Titan is unique among moons in possessing a substantial atmosphere; which is comprised mostly of nitrogen, along with about 5 percent methane. 50 percent thicker than Earth’s, it provides excellent protection against radiation, and would allow future explorers and colonists to dispense with pressurized suits — a necessity everywhere else in the Solar System (except floating in the skies of Venus). Oxygen could easily be made from the abundant water ice underfoot, and even the temperatures would be fairly easy to deal with given the abundance of raw material and energy in the form of hydrocarbons lying around on the surface. While on Earth we are trying to move away from using hydrocarbons as an energy source, on Titan we may find they are exactly what we need to help us set up cities and build a thriving branch of human civilization.
Free Floating Space Stations / O’Neill Colonies
Most visions of the future include enormous cities in space with millions living in them. One of the first to give some solid engineering underpinnings to that vision was Gerard O’Neill; a physicist who wrote The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, and popularized the idea of massive rotating space stations we now call O’Neill cylinders.
With only the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong Space Station as permanently inhabited orbital outposts, we are clearly far from building cities in space. But it’s not too late to start. We can take our experience building space stations in LEO, and work on gradually making them bigger. There are a number of companies with plans to do just that; including Airbus, Axiom Space, and the Gateway Foundation with its spectacular rotating torus design. The point is, while we cannot yet build free floating space colonies, we can start right now on smaller stations that will evolve into more sizable structures, and eventually true cities in space.
Where to First?
“If you have it in your power to do something great and important and wonderful, then you should.” —Dr. Robert Zubrin
At present we have the freedom, financial heft, and technological ability to spread out into the Solar System, and we should do it while we can, starting with the easiest places first. While nowhere is truly easy compared to Earth; our Moon, Mars, Titan, and large free-floating cities in space are our best options for now. As SpaceX founder Elon Musk said, “Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”
We now have the ability to begin expanding out into the night sky that is filled with so much mystery and promise. Hopefully we will do it. Our children will thank us if we do.
More space and astronomy
New Earth image. On April 26, moments before crash landing on the moon, ispace’s lunar lander Hakuto-R snapped this image looking back at Earth while Australia was experiencing a total solar eclipse. (is_OwenLewis)
Torus megathread. The first White Pill included evocative NASA-commissioned space colony illustrations that the space program published in the 70s. At the time, I didn’t know they also came with an in-depth paper detailing exactly how to engineer a torus-based space colony. This megathread by @granawkins summarizes it, and surfaces some interesting and challenging aspects of building the thing. Namely, the authors suggest that a torus colony will need around 10 million tons of mass, much of which would be collected on the moon, hurled at a rock catcher orbiting at a Lagrange point by an electromagnetic mass driver on the moon’s surface, and then delivered to the torus — Lagrange point 5 — at regular intervals. For context, Elon estimates that it would take the Earth a year of 10 Starships launching three times a day to get a million tons of mass into low earth orbit.
Another small step. Last week, NASA announced that it had successfully extracted water from simulated moon soil with a laser. “This technology has the potential to produce several times its own weight in oxygen per year on the lunar surface, which will enable a sustained human presence and lunar economy.” (Futurism)
Dark matter solved? Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPS, have arguably been the ruling theory explaining dark matter, a force that exerts enormous amounts of gravitational pull throughout the universe, but cannot be directly measured. However, WIMPS has consistently failed its “biggest test by being unable to correctly reproduce the positions and brightness of multiply-lensed images in space.” But in a new paper published in Nature Astronomy, researchers say that a model using axions — extremely light, electrically neutral, and weakly interacting with other particles — does not fail this test. “Understanding the nature of particles that constitute Dark Matter is the first step toward New Physics,” a lead researcher said. (The Debrief)
More firsts for SpaceX. On Tuesday, SpaceX tweeted two fascinating videos of fairing deploy and re-entry. Fairings, protective shells that cover and shield the sensitive parts of a rocket during launch, are jettisoned away once the rocket reaches a certain altitude. This helps reduce the rocket's overall weight, allowing it to use less fuel to reach its final destination in space. One of the videos SpaceX shared showed “the first time flight-proven fairings supported a Falcon Heavy mission, and it was the farthest downrange landing and recovery of fairings to-date at 1,200+ miles – nearly a third of the way to Africa.” The other showed a fairing re-entry generating a trail of plasma from entering the atmosphere at a speed 15 times that of sound. (Teslarati)
Chinese researchers found evidence for liquid water on Mars. (Futurism)
In a first, astronomers captured a black hole and its ‘jets’ in one image. Check it out. (Futurism)
One of the world’s most powerful radio telescope arrays is joining the SETI cause, in a search for the “type of emissions that only artificial transmitters make, [which] would betray the existence of a technically accomplished society.” This will mark the first time this telescope array has been used for this purpose. (SETI)
The European Space Agency announced its interest in reusable rockets and low earth orbit, commencing a study on “key technologies needed to develop an European Heavy Lift Launcher (EHLL), a high-capacity launch vehicle that can provide access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond at both a low cost and high cadence.” (European Space Agency)
Some fun stuff
The Tesla of boats have arrived. Arc Boats look like the interior of the Model 3, transplanted to an electric boat. Sounds like it’s a smooth ride, too: “The experience of punching the throttle and flying up to 40mph with NO Noise was like the first time I punched it in a Tesla!” (@Sethwinterroth)
Ancient human DNA collected from 20,000 year old bone Denisovan jewelry. From a new paper published in Nature: “Their technique revealed the presence of an 'extraordinary' amount of human aDNA, mostly from one female individual who lived between 19,000 and 25,000 years ago... Her DNA would have been worked its way inside the bone through extensive handling, either while she made the pendant or wore it.” Denisova Cave — where they found the pendant — has been home to various human species over the past tens of thousands of years, including Neanderthals. Previously, DNA evidence found within the cave has revealed that Denisovans and Neanderthals not only lived alongside each other but also interbred, resulting in gene flow between the species. (@chrisstringer65)
“The end of house Atreides.” Two-minute Dune Part Two trailer dropped!! It features Paul riding a sand worm. Watch it.
Watch this AI-generated Star Wars trailer, if Star Wars were directed by Wes Anderson.
New near death experience research demonstrated bursts of “complex gamma activity in a ‘hot zone’ of the brain that is critical for conscious processing” in unconscious dying patients. (Motherboard)
Alaskan Airlines has delivered 76-seat turboprop airplane to ZeroAvia, which will retrofit it with hydroelectric propulsion, which will allow the plane to fly. A few years ago, it was “unthinkable” for an aircraft this size to be “powered by novel propulsion”; the company is targeting a test flight in 2024. (Electrek)
Artificial Intelligence, Computing
AI Grimes banger drops. Last week I wrote about Grimes’ proposition to anon music producers around the world: produce a banger with her voiceprint, and she’ll split any revenue it generates with person who made it (she detailed the proposal here). This week a viable banger candidate dropped, though to my ears there’s still some work to do on getting her sound right. Oh, and the lyrics are written by GPT. (@nickwebb)
Robot soccer. Researchers at DeepMind have produced a very cute video of little robots playing soccer pretty well, made possible by deep reinforcement learning. Full paper here; watch the video here. (ht @haarnoja)
Excellent GPT usecase demo: saving you money. Really impressive demo from Joshua Browder of GPT-lawyer fame — after he gave AutoGPT access to all his financial accounts and documents, it began to (allegedly) save him money in interesting and unexpected ways. If this is real, I can’t wait until his company DoNotPay’s plugin hits GPT. (@jbrowder1)
New Stanford pre-print suggests that AGI fears (and AI hype) are a mirage produced by researchers themselves. (Motherboard)
Researchers at Sussex University made a potential leap in quantum computing when they “transferred quantum information between computer chips at record speeds and accuracy.” (BBC)
What’s next for fusion? After its landmark fusion experiment which demonstrated ‘ignition’ in December of last year, the US National Ignition Facility is now performing iterations of the experiment, varying the characteristics of the pellet that holds the hydrogen isotopes as the basis of the fusion process. Nature published a fascinating explainer on the subject, and what fusion research will look like in the short and medium term. (@scienceisstrat1)
Touch grass this weekend, but not before subscribing by clicking the button below.
As a science writer who has written a lot about astronomy, I found this article to be fascinating and informative. I'm 65, so I don't know what I'll live to see. But even just a return to the moon will be great for me.
I love these deep dives (SPACE!!!) and general optimism!
Just be very wary of becoming corporate press release stenographers.
NuScale has a “certificate” from the NRC- not an approval. It is nice they are finally starting to make the parts, but they need to make sure they get another 5 billion of government subsidies before they will ever turn their project on... call me in 2029. This is not fast enough dammit.
Electrek is basically a Tesla fanboy page- I used to be all in on their reporting. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have given any thought about where all the materials will come from for all of these battery powered toys. (Battery powered passenger airplanes? Gimme a break, let’s do some energy density calculations first...)
Let’s just say I know “some stuff” about the Alzheimer’s drugs, so I will reserve comments there. It is nice to see the naysayers get a poke in the eye though!