Why Mars?


SpaceX had a planned manned space flight the other day, postponed now until tomorrow, so is it too soon to complain about the whole project? Here’s an article, The Case Against Mars, which asks a really simple question: WHY?

Why are billionaires like Musk and Bezos and Branson eager to take on the complex and expensive task of launching rockets into orbit and eventually to Mars? Why is Mars even a reasonable destination for human colonization? So the author of this article, Byron Williston, does the obvious thing: he looks at SpaceX’s own justifications, which turn out to be astonishingly vapid. Anyone should be able to see right through this crap.

To get a sense of the first attempted justification, by far the most ubiquitous of the three, return to that SpaceX promo-video. Narrated by Musk himself, the “case” for Mars it lays out has been invoked by space expansionists since humans began fantasizing about occupying other celestial bodies—asteroids, moons, and planets—and building rockets powerful enough to take us to them. The simple idea is that expansion is the next step in evolution and that we ought to push it forward. Life has evolved from single-celled organisms, has migrated from the oceans onto land, has exploded into myriad forms of multi-celled organisms, and has somehow produced consciousness. The next step, Musk says, is surely to make life “multiplanetary.”

With characteristic inarticulacy he summarizes the argument this way: “if something is important enough to fit on the scale of evolution, then it’s important.” It’s not obvious whether that’s a tautology or a non sequitur, but in either case it is breathtakingly facile. You get the impression that the appeal to evolution is semi-intellectual cover for Musk’s sense of wonder at his own chutzpah. This feeling that they are doing something so big that it defies all attempts at rational comprehension shows up frequently among technology’s high priests.

That’s not how evolution works! Elon Musk doesn’t get to dictate the necessary direction of future human evolution. This is just weird biased progressivism imposed on the pattern of diversity. There isn’t some kind of internal biological need to adapt to live in uninhabitable environments. Can we just openly admit that Mars is not a place where human beings can live, no matter how many potatoes you think you can grow in poop? Manned missions to Mars are suicide missions, something that isn’t going to be favored by evolution.

That’s one justification that is totally bogus. Surely they’ve got better ones?

That brings us, finally, to the other two attempted justifications for space expansion: that the program will safeguard the long-term future of our species and that it will enhance human freedom. The first idea arises from the observation that given the inevitable heat death of the sun a billion or so years from now, our career on this planet is ultimately doomed, so we’d better figure out a way of transporting ourselves out of the solar system as soon as possible. The idea seems to be that discovering the planet’s finitude has somehow massively accelerated the imperative to leave it. In a remark quoted by many space expansionists pushing this line of thought, Tsiolkovsky once said that “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle for ever.”

This is a stunningly silly argument. It’s a bit like learning you will have to leave the family nest several years down the road, then deciding you had better start packing right away. As Deudney notes, we have a few hundred million years to prepare for the Sun’s death, making that event completely irrelevant to our policy choices in the coming decades and centuries. Perhaps instead of worrying about being swallowed up by an expiring star in an impossibly distant future we might devote an equivalent amount of intellectual and political energy to avoiding climate catastrophe on this planet within the next decade or two. Just a suggestion.

If you are seriously concerned about the viability of the human species, why are you rushing to ship a handful of people off to their death on an inhospitable rock rather than developing technologies that maintain the health of planet Earth? If you care about “human freedom”, how does moving a subset of humanity into a confined, fragile habitat that requires tight restrictions on the inhabitants’ behavior help that? None of this makes any sense.

It makes sense to send probes to explore other planets — we learn things. It makes sense to put satellites into orbit — we learn things about our planet, and it enables all kinds of useful communications technologies. It does not make sense to launch people off to Mars. It’s rather shocking that SpaceX has no legitimate defense of Musk’s grand goal. But then, what else could we expect from goofball who also can’t defend his idea of boring lots of tunnels under cities?

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    OK, so – Manifest Destiny. Again. I find myself completely unconvinced.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    When drilling for samples in search of biological traces on Mars, human astronauts are a million times more flexible than robots. But before we get there we have to make manned missions to near-Earth asteroids -a much easier task- to test the technology. And asteroid probes will give a rich scientific payoff.
    I would be content with a significantly later timescale for human missions to Mars to provide time to solve the problem with radiation, especially galactic cosmic radiation. And spend more money on space telescopes with the ability to spot exoplanets!

  3. says

    Seems to me that the more people you put outside of the gravity well, the easier it becomes for them to drop something on you, quickly ending any notion of national soverignty. The old fascist Robert Heinlein pointed that out in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – it’s not a new idea.

    Also: if we are talking about events to save humanity in deep time: there is no humanity in deep time – we either die out or turn into something else. Humans are tied to The Earth – we have to bring a whole biome with us – and when we forget something we evolve or die. It’s not simply a matter of getting to Mars to preserve humanity – it’s giving up on humanity by creating an inevitable competitor.

  4. says

    It’s virtually impossible to make Earth less hospitable to life than Mars. Even during the Chicxulub meteor impact Earth was a better place to be than Mars.

    The best argument for manned missions to Mars is the science. If we want to know if it harbored live once chances are that we will need boots on the ground. One man could probably do more science in a week than all the unmanned rovers has done to date.

  5. stwriley says

    Mars is an obvious boondoggle to anyone with a scrap of sense, and I say that as someone who is fascinated with space exploration. It’s not that we as a species don’t have an interest in getting people off the planet for the right reasons, but the ones behind these Mars plans simply don’t add up. If Musk and his fellow travelers were talking about things like asteroid mining so that we can stop doing that kind of thing on Earth, then they might be making some sense (not that we’ll have the technology to do that any time soon, but it is within the realm of possibilities.) Using the exploration and even exploitation of space to increase our knowledge and improve life here on Earth is a fine thing, but the whole “we’ll colonize Mars to save the human race” thing is a mad pipedream.

  6. daverytier says

    The Case Against Mars

    150 000 BC : The case against venturing into Sahara.

  7. doubter says

    I’ve always been for the human exploration of space. Why should we, human beings, personally go into space? Why the hell not? Because we’re curious, and we want to experience it for ourselves.

    You are right about the attitudes of Musk/Bezos/Branson, of course. I don’t want the off-planet human presence to be dominated by a bunch of creepy libertarian pseudo-scientists. Never put yourself in the position of sharing an escape pod with someone who believes selfishness is the highest virtue!

    I do think we should go to Mars – eventually. Let’s start with the Moon and work our way up to it.

  8. daverytier says

    xkcd says to that

    The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.

    https://xkcd.com/893/

  9. says

    That’s a weird xkcd. You could make the same actuarial plot for “people who have talked with father”. That’s mere human mortality.

    As for the claim that there are space-faring cultures that have visited the planets of non-space-faring cultures…evidence not shown.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    daverytier @9:

    …each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision destined for multi-planet graves.

  11. daverytier says

    @PZ Myers,#10
    I forgot to add to my previous comment “@10”. … and while at it, I will attempt to elaborate.

    First, that there have been no more past those few is not “mere human mortality”. That’s missing the point #1.
    Second. That description is obviously speculation serving merely as a means to bring up the real point. Getting stuck and failing to escape extinction is actually not rational. Yet you chose to play captain obvious instead of addressing it. That’s missing the point #2.

    Are you just evading on purpose to screw with me or are you suffering from a serious case of motivated reasoning ?

  12. daverytier says

    destined for multi-planet graves.

    Based on unwarranted assumptions. And even if true, a multi-trillion-planet grave is still better than a trillions of years older single-planet one.

  13. lochaber says

    We could probably send dozens of robots to Mars for the same amount of labor and resources it would take to send a single human, and everything needed to support them, there. And that’s not even addressing the issue of returning the human. Or how many people would be necessary for such a mission.

    And that’s just Mars. Getting a living person to any of the outer planets is orders of magnitude more difficult, and leaving the solar system is yet even more difficult.

  14. says

    @#14, daverytier:

    You have failed to show:
    1. That multi-generation human survival on Mars is possible — if it isn’t, then the entire project is by definition a waste. We can’t even keep a bio-dome working for 30 years here on Earth, where conditions are more hospitable.
    2. That human survival on Mars is a necessary step for “escaping” Earth — it may be that a humanity which viably escapes Earth does so by adapting to life in space rather than on a planet. (Not substantially more unlikely than successfully colonizing Mars at the current moment.)
    3. That human survival on Mars is a necessary step for escaping the death of the sun — Mars is going to die when Earth does, and the tech to get to Mars will not be applicable to reaching other stars. Repeatedly exercising tech which is not the solution does not equal developing tech which is a solution
    4. That colonizing Mars should take priority over fixing climate change, a problem we are capable of doing but only if we stop putting resources into projects like attempting to colonize Mars for a while; if climate change (or any other problem being ignored) wipes out civilization in less time than it would take to build a self-sufficient colony, then the colony was not only wasted effort but actually the cause of humanity’s extinction
    5. That people like Elon Musk, a known imbecile with a history of unethical behavior, should be trusted with the effort to colonize Mars — and if he shouldn’t be, then it’s time to start re-funding NASA, although neither party is really going to do that

  15. William George says

    Elon Musk wants to be remembered alongside Newton, and Edison basically. Like everything he does it’s about feeding his ego.

  16. chigau (違う) says

    daverytier #7
    Do you think that the Sahara desert existed in 150 000 BC?
    .
    Why are you using BC?

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    daverytier @14:

    Based on unwarranted assumptions.

    Thanks! Haven’t had a good belly laugh in ages.

  18. says

    First, that there have been no more past those few is not “mere human mortality”. That’s missing the point #1.

    No. Noting that the numbers of people who participated in a transient event show a decline over time is trivial and irrelevant. It does not in and of itself imply that not going to the moon again is deplorable. You’ll have to do a lot more work to show that revisiting the moon is worth doing than to point out that the original astronauts are aging and dying off. You are making an emotional argument.

    Second. That description is obviously speculation serving merely as a means to bring up the real point. Getting stuck and failing to escape extinction is actually not rational. Yet you chose to play captain obvious instead of addressing it. That’s missing the point #2.

    Humans are not going to escape extinction, no matter what they do. Do you think our species will exist 100 million years from now? I’m not being pessimistic here — typical lifespan of a mammalian species is, optimistically, 10 million years. Our lineage will either die out or be replaced with a descendant species. If we were to plant a viable colony in an environment as radically different as Mars (or in orbit, or on a Jovian moon, or an asteroid), that would represent a major speciation event, I suspect.

    Also irrational: that you believe a colony on Mars would represent a kind of immortality for your lineage. You aren’t likely to go. Sorry.

    By the way, the Sahara was a tropical grassland as little as 6,000 years ago. If we can’t restore that patch of climate here on Earth, why do you think we can bring life to Mars?

  19. garnetstar says

    I haven’t kept up on how all these hubristic fantasists have addressed the practicalities of getting to and living on Mars, but, have they solved the radiation problem yet? Even Kim Stanley Robinson had to invent a DNA-repair procedure, for versimilitude. And, of course, the moon’s radiation problem is far, far worse. If life as we know it evolved to many different species on Mars, it’d have to evolve significant radiation reistance, and then we’d all look lke or be tardigrades or cockroaches, talk about alien!

    Then, the nitrogen problem. Nitrogen is essential for life, yet it tends to degrade to nitrogen gas, N2. That’s thermodynamics and there’s no way out. You might say great! That would thicken Mars’ atmosphere, but…does anyone know if the gravity of Mars is enough to hold N2? Earth’s gravity is not enough to hold onto hydrogen or helium gas, which continuously just stream out into space when in the atmosohere here (the only reason that we have any helium at all is continued radioactive decay in earth’s crust, which generates it). Mars can hold onto some carbon dioxide, but nitrogen weighs less.

    So, I would check that out first, because another planet or moon (Titan?) is an awful long way to go to get your nitrogen.

    Kim Stanley Robinson also got the “war of the worlds” part right. And, he had to invent small portable fusion reactors to make it believable that the colonists would have enough energy. Haven’t these arrogant billionaires read the Mars trilogy?

    Their hubris is such that you might even say that they’re flying to close to the sun.:) And, how did that turn out?

  20. Artor says

    Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kid. In fact, it’s cold as hell. And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.

  21. iiandyiiii says

    “It would be awesome” is a good enough reason for a manned mission to Mars, IMO, if technically feasible and with no more risk than the Apollo astronauts faced. It’s not about safeguarding the future of the human race; it’s not because (or at least not only because) human explorers are much more flexible and effective scientists than robot explorers; it’s because sending people to Mars would be awesome.

    That’s enough for me.

  22. garnetstar says

    Then, wouldn’t it be kind of inconvenient to live on a planet that doesn’t have a magnetic field? Forget about compasses! And, of course no helium: radioactive decay in Mar’s crust has ended, so no balloons or magnets and the like cooled with liquid helium.

    Earth’s magnetic field is what protects us from solar flares: has it just been decided that, since Mars is farther away, flares aren’t a problem? They won’t fry any satellites in Mars orbit, or disrupt electrical grids on the surface? Could I see the math on that please?

    And, gosh, no northern or southern lights! Have they thought of that?:)

  23. garnetstar says

    iiandyiiii @24, see, the safety part, no more risk than the Apollo astrounauts, is kind of tough, because a trip to the moon takes only three days (the same time it takes to fly from Philadelphia to Jakarta, but at least the moon flight is direct.) And the astronauts only spent a couple days (?) there.

    I don’t know how long you have to expose yourself to space radiation to get to Mars: I’ve seen everything from eight months to three years, but it’s a long time. And, staying there a long time, unless it’s wholly underground, you will get fried.

    Lead-lined spaceships and habitats?:) But then, just try to boost those into orbit, lead weighs an awful lot.

  24. ORigel says

    @14: the Earth is only 4.5 billion years old, about the same age as Mars.

    If humans have a limited time to live on Earth, better we spend it eradicating poverty and fixing climate change than wasting it on useless grand gestures.

    Let’s think about “manned” space colonization when we have the technology to do so.

  25. ORigel says

    Now that I read the article, I think it plausible that depotism can easily run rampant in space colonies. So nah, don’t do that.

  26. says

    If you want us to evolve into space, then we’ll need a natural reason to do so. Glory isn’t enough; it does impress females and rivals, but that’s not sufficient selective advantage to be sustainable.

    So how about this mission: clearing away all the Earth-crossing asteroids. Fling all the rocky ones into the Sun or out past Jupiter; use up the carbonaceous for fuel; and best of all mine all the metallic ones to nothing. Never mind the quadrillions of tons of nickel-iron; for dissolved in that nickel-iron are millions of tons of silver, and platinum, and gold.

    Sure, gold is a barbarous relic; and sure, the centuries-long gold rush will enrich the worst amongst us; and sure, the whole process will be physically and morally dirty; but what did you expect? Our home planet is named after dirt! For us to get greedy is Nature’s way.

    And by the way, consuming all the Earth-crossing asteroids will prevent the next big asteroid impact; and thus prevent a mass extinction; and thus repay our blood-debt to Gaia. This is a matter of altruism, and hence without political power; but it’ll feel nice to do well by doing good.

    So spaceward ho, you hoes! For glory, gold and Gaia!

  27. daverytier says

    @21, PZ Myers

    Noting that the numbers of people who participated in a transient event show a decline over time is trivial and irrelevant.

    Well, again captain obvious deflects from the actual point again.

    You are making an emotional argument.

    Actually, xkcd did. But anyway. You at least understood what it was about, and just intentionally evaded it up until now. Of course, the sadness of an abandoned endeavor is insufficient on its own. But to even have a discussion, both sides must be willing to have one.

    Our lineage will either die out or be replaced with a descendant species.

    Except that doesn’t count as extinction proper. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoextinction
    And I suspect that anyone who cares about the survival of humanity doesn’t consider gradual change “extinction”. It doesn’t matter whether our descendants will still call themselves “humans” or if they would be still theoretically capable of interbreeding with their long gone ancestors. As long as there are any.

    you believe a colony on Mars would represent a kind of immortality for your lineage

    Mind reading fail. I never claimed that. Mars is just another stepping stone. One of multiple possible and many needed.

    If we can’t restore that patch of climate here on Earth, why do you think we can bring life to Mars?

    Except we can. At comparable time scales ;-)

  28. leerudolph says

    iiandyiiii@24: “it’s not because (or at least not only because) human explorers are much more flexible and effective scientists than robot explorers.” So far.

    I have grown even more skeptical and cynical about the future of robotics than I was when I fully retired 5 years ago, after spending the 10 previous years working on (topological, but very applicable) aspects of robotic kinematics—which gave me (and the collaborator who got me interested in it, a genuine theoretical-and-applied computer scientist; and our students) the opportunity to attend lots of conferences (multiple years’ worth of Robotics: Science and Systems and Workshop on the Algorithmic Foundations of Robotics and New England Manipulation Symposium, as well as assorted IEEE meetings and the like), where I heard lots of optimistic predictions from smart, successful, and very well funded people like Sebastian Thrun. For instance, at my very first RSS, in 2006, I heard a plenary speaker from Japan announce that the Japanese government and all the major Japanese corporate groups except SONY had just inaugurated a program to ensure that within 10 years (i.e., by 2016) 80% of the senior care in Japan (a desperately important commodity for demographic reasons) would be performed by robots! That hasn’t happened. I also heard, every year, about how a solution to the DARPA challenge for autonomous automobiles was just around the corner. Nope. And as for “artificial intelligence”…when, back in the early 1970s, I hung out at (but was only briefly barely of, and that in a non-research role) MIT’s AI Lab (then still in Project MAC), there were (at least in the circles on which I was traveling epicyclically) lots of people for whom one major motivation for AI was to understand human intelligence (and vice versa). All too soon “AI” came to be understood almost universally as what would more honestly be called “Artificial Expertise” (which ain’t nothin’, of course). By now it seems to be “Artificial Idiot Savants”. So my cynicism and skepticism, which have always had several dimensions to them, have grown extensively in all of them.

    Nonetheless, I still think that when it comes to exploring Mars, the obstacles to using human explorers (such as described in comments above) will remain effectively insurmountable for a long, long time, during which (supposing humans stop destroying their own Terran habitat) the capacity of robot explorers to be flexible and effective (and maybe somewhat autonomous) tools (for the use of human scientists back on Earth) could be immensely expanded.

  29. daverytier says

    @20, Rob Grigjanis

    Thanks! Haven’t had a good belly laugh in ages.

    I am glad I cheered you up. Now, that you are in good spirit, may I ask you to list the assumptions entailed in your “destined for multi-planet graves” claim ? ;-)

  30. daverytier says

    @25,garnetstar

    radioactive decay in Mar’s crust has ended,

    LOLWUT ?

  31. daverytier says

    If humans have a limited time to live on Earth, better we spend it eradicating poverty and fixing climate change than wasting it on useless grand gestures.

    If our ancestors in East African savanna invested their time into trying to become the most perfect idyllic hunter-gatherer society instead just going forth past their ancestral homeland, they would be still there, trying.

    Let’s think about “manned” space colonization when we have the technology to do so.

    I’ll go to the gym only after I grow muscles strong enough to lift those heavy weights. Guess how long will it take :-D

  32. says

    I’ve always viewed human spave travel as vanity and nationalism. Now Elon Skum wants to turn it into corpses for corporatism. He and google are so gung ho on artificial intelligence that can figure out problems, but they insist on sending humans to Mars? It sounds like they aren’t very confident in their own systems.

    Human space missions cost many times what robots do. Robots are expendable (unless we’re recovering material frpm space) but apparently that’s what space-x “think” of human vounteers: they’re expendable. If things went wrong on Mars or on the way, do you really believe they wouldn’t cut off communications (like the US planned to if Armstrong couldn’t get off the moon) or claim “they’re all dead” and turn it into some sort of Fallout-type human experiment on the survivors? I wouldn’t put it past “pedo guy”.

  33. daverytier says

    He and google are so gung ho on artificial intelligence that can figure out problems, but they insist on sending humans to Mars?

    Human level artificial intelligence is very far off. And human level artificial intelligence portable enough to be put into a rocket yet further. And it will not be any more expendable than you and me.

  34. tacitus says

    The strongest case for returning to the Moon is next generation astronomy. The engineering challenges are enormous, of course, but as a location, the perpetual darkness of craters at the lunar poles just meters away from an endless supply of solar power provide the near perfect environment for the placement of telescopes and other instruments. They can also be shielded from the ever increasing EM interference in and around Earth. We still have a lot to learn about the Universe, and any lunar observatory would immediately be in the forefront of that effort.

    Whether that’s enough to justify a return to the Moon probably depends on how invested you are in the potential science that could be done.

  35. tacitus says

    @26: “I don’t know how long you have to expose yourself to space radiation to get to Mars: I’ve seen everything from eight months to three years, but it’s a long time. And, staying there a long time, unless it’s wholly underground, you will get fried.”

    The typical cruising time to Mars is around seven months. NASA estimates that the amount of radiation an astronaut would receive during a 2 1/2 year mission to Mars (12 month round trip, 18 month stay), unshielded, would be around the recommended maximum career dosage here on Earth, which certainly increases the risk of cancer, but is not a death sentence in itself.

    More concerning are the high energy cosmic rays, which are much harder to shield from, and they recently doubled the estimated exposure rates, so they’re still trying to get a handle on the issue.

    As for living on Mars, one option would be to set up camp inside one of the lava tubes they have discovered around the planet. Living underground wouldn’t be much fun (and you can do that here on Earth) but it’s an option, I guess.

  36. Sunday Afternoon says

    I suppose a plausible case could be for using Mars as a test-bed for large-scale climate-modifying techniques before applying them for real on Earth.

  37. daverytier says

    More concerning are the high energy cosmic rays, which are much harder to shield from, and they recently doubled the estimated exposure rates, so they’re still trying to get a handle on the issue.

    The best protection against radiation in space is producing even more radiation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_propulsion

  38. pengothylacine says

    I honestly can’t stand Mars colonization talk, and the big reason why is people like Musk. We honestly could have gone to Mars in the 70s, the technology existed, it’s not too hard, but people correctly understood that there’s no point, because what would one do there? There’s never going to be a self sustaining colony on Mars, because it’s not just hostile to human life, it’s hostile to any form of productivity. No native oxygen, no native sources of Carbon, Water… kinda exists, but it has to be mined, and you want to start industry there?And yes, these ARE solvable problems, but only at a massive price, both financially, and in terms of energy. It would be far easier to start a new civilization in the Abyssal plains, or Antarctica. We don’t do those things, because we recognize it as being dumb. Musk and Bezos, don’t strike me as intelligent, forward looking men, they’re children, dedicated to reliving the 70s Popular Mechanics magazines they grew up with as children.

  39. leerudolph says

    daverytier@37: “Human level artificial intelligence is very far off. And human level artificial intelligence portable enough to be put into a rocket yet further. And it will not be any more expendable than you and me.”

    I agree with the first sentence (given my cynical skepticism expressed earlier, how could I not?), modulo however “human level AI” is defined.

    As to the second, why a rocket? Given the time and expense that would (surely?) be needed to get to “human level AI” in the first place, instead of waiting until such a system can be reduced in physical size and weight to a single rocket-load, devote more time and further expense until you can send as many rocket-loads as you need to carry as physically big a (multiply redundant!) system as required.

    And as to the third, go back to that “redundant”. One vision that at least some traditions in AI research has had is that of accurate replication of an entire “intelligence”. The last time I heard Marvin Minsky speak (at a memorial service for Oliver Selfridge) he still was (vainly and I would say stupidly, except he was pretty damned smart) hopeful that he would be alive long enough for his entire “mind” (i.e., the “natural intelligence” known as Marvin Minsky) to be accurately replicated in silico (i.e., “downloaded”), then kept around until the rest of the project got far enough along to “upload” it to an AI that/who would proceed to carry on as … Marvin Minsky. Obviously he didn’t make it. But we don’t have to solve that problem, of transplanting an instantiation of Natural Intelligence to an instantiation of Artificial Intelligence, to implement such a transplant between two physically distinct instantiations of AIs. (This is where I assume some people might go off on what an “embodied” AI is, or maybe distinguish “cloning” from “transplantation”. Forget that.) So the issue of “more expendable than you and me” becomes simply (ha!) hardware and software, not biology.

  40. Rob Grigjanis says

    daverytier @33: No assumptions. All things must pass. The assumptions are all on your side. As well as some truly weird notions;

    @14:

    a multi-trillion-planet grave is still better than a trillions of years older single-planet one.

    How is one grave better than another? Bragging rights for the dead?

    @31:

    It doesn’t matter whether our descendants will still call themselves “humans” or if they would be still theoretically capable of interbreeding with their long gone ancestors. As long as there are any.

    How do you decide what matters? Why does it matter that we might have descendants who would be as different from us as we are from squid? For that matter, would it be so awful if those far-future entities were descended from squid? Same lineage, ultimately.

    @35:

    If our ancestors in East African savanna invested their time into trying to become the most perfect idyllic hunter-gatherer society instead just going forth past their ancestral homeland, they would be still there, trying.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing, but never mind that. What’s with the “going forth”? This is all just Saganesque wankery; man as the intrepidly curious explorer, rather than the poor bastard just trying to keep their family alive at the one-to-three generation level. Which, by the way, is still the primary concern of most of our species.

  41. daverytier says

    @44

    No assumptions. All things must pass.

    Yea. And this is not a self-negating sentence. :-D

    How is one grave better than another?

    How is living longer better ? Well. If it’s not, then why do you keep trying to stay alive ?

    For that matter, would it be so awful if those far-future entities were descended from squid?

    Dunno. Why do people want kids when other people already have kids ? Also. When alreay way down the road, why it is better to continue from there as opposed to starting again from square one ?

    intrepidly curious explorer, rather than the poor bastard just trying to keep their family alive at the one-to-three generation level

    I see no either/or there. And also, I don’t see why that poor bastard would abstain from extending that level to further generations if he had the opportunity.

  42. daverytier says

    @43.

    instead of waiting until such a system can be reduced in physical size and weight to a single rocket-load, devote more time and further expense until you can send as many rocket-loads as you need to carry as physically big a (multiply redundant!) system as required.

    Yea, good luck building a huge data center and all the supporting infrastructure on mars without any technicians putting it together and maintaining it … and needing a smaller payload size/mass than sending in human colonists.

    But we don’t have to solve that problem, of transplanting an instantiation of Natural Intelligence to an instantiation of Artificial Intelligence, to implement such a transplant between two physically distinct instantiations of AIs.

    Human level AI would consist of a lot of data. Good luck again sending it at bit rates possible at that distance… and being faster than if you just hauled a few squishy ambulating supercomputers back and forth.

  43. unclefrogy says

    “space the final frontier”
    it is all well and good but there is a big part of the desire and rational I hear that sounds like trying to get to “heaven” for the life eternal (as a species?) . with the idea of human survival for ever, millions and millions of years. Like the old saying “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die” I see no reason to believe that life will be possible eternally in a universe that is changing as this one appears to be.
    We are already on a huge space habitat traveling through the cosmos at speeds we can not duplicate with machines very easily. We can’t seem to even keep the “bathroom” clean though we do know a lot about how to do that, the kitchen is just as bad. Until we can handle the habitat we have in a sustainable way without having to apply a lot of external sanctions on ourselves we will not be able to do any better any where else.
    he idea is fun and there are a lot of things we can learn and do but the reality as presented by the “entrepreneurs” is much more “The Expanse” without gravity and far nastier if you take past performances into account as a guide then it is the semi-utopian vision of StarTrek
    uncle frogy

  44. says

    I figure that whenever we go, then even if we leave behind no mutant progeny, we’ll still leave behind a huge niche for intelligent life, which other species will fill. Some monkeys make stone tools, parrots talk, apes can learn sign language, dolphins and elephants pass the mirror test, raccoons can pick the lock on a garbage can, and so on. So no matter what, it’ll be a smarter planet because of us. It’ll have to be!

  45. daverytier says

    @47.

    Until we can handle the habitat we have in a sustainable way without having to apply a lot of external sanctions on ourselves we will not be able to do any better any where else.

    Ah, the classic “No point going to the gym until I can lift those weights” .

  46. Rob Grigjanis says

    daverytier @49:

    No point going to the gym until I can lift those weights

    No. More like “no point running to the gym until you learn how to walk”.

  47. unclefrogy says

    @49
    I know you kind of missed part of that by only focusing on the environmental reference.
    Does anyone here want to ‘work” for any of the two prominent billionaire promoters of these ideas? I may be wrong but from all the news i see their business are not worker paradises, they seem pretty anti-union so I would think that they would treat the people they send to those far way places at great expense as part of their machine and not autonomous human beings with rights privileges and dignity. I for one would not trust them with my life nor my liberty.
    These guys are in essence reproducing the early commercial colonization of the “new world” and I am sure will bring all of the same abuses along. past performance and all
    uncle frogy

  48. daverytier says

    @50. Yawn. Persuasive.
    @51. Implies one is the necessary precondition of the other. That is not the case. In fact, learning how to control a small artificial system not only can be done without, but is in fact much easier than learning how to control a large natural one.

  49. daverytier says

    I for one would not trust them with my life nor my liberty.

    Yea, it makes me sad it came down to this. Narcissistic wankers becoming the only ones carrying forwards. Still beats giving up entirely, though. If nothing else, they can be overthrown afterwards.

  50. says

    Once again Musk does what Musk excels at, pissing off people without imagination. If he (and a number of consenting adults) eventually ends up on Mars, who cares? It’s his life, his money.

    On the subject of using Helium on Mars for balloons, whattafuck? Hydrogen is twice as effective, locally available with solar energy and incombustible without oxygen.

    Perhaps Musk should pull in his horns and act like our esteemed PZ instead, and study naked spider butts instead. That’ll be one virtuous endeavour for the advance of the human condition.

  51. unclefrogy says

    . In fact, learning how to control a small artificial system not only can be done without, but is in fact much easier than learning how to control a large natural one.

    yea no. the point is we already know how to do the larger one but do not for “reasons” mostly because we are lazy and greedy. In fact if it were not for the knowledge of how the earth systems work we would not even begin to manage an artificial one of any size bigger than the international space station which is livable only through being resupplied regularly.
    What is being promoted would have to be much larger and far more complex to be any where near self-sustaining. It would have to be regularly resupplied at great expense from earth for a long time leaving the “colonists” at the mercy of who sent them and who is paying for all of it.
    other wise it will just be like a trip to the Marianas trench aa great feat and all but little profit safe science. which is fine but take the rose colored glasses off and leave the fantasy for saturday morning cartoons.
    uncle frogy

  52. consciousness razor says

    From the article:

    The first idea arises from the observation that given the inevitable heat death of the sun a billion or so years from now, our career on this planet is ultimately doomed, so we’d better figure out a way of transporting ourselves out of the solar system as soon as possible.

    A confusing sentence.
    — The sun turning into a red giant isn’t what people mean by “heat death.” That’s a problem for life in the very distant future (not just some billions or trillions of years), and it will make no difference at all where our descendants are located or how many different locations they are in. The whole universe is subject to it. You’re not getting around that with any sort of technology or by moving somewhere else.
    — The Sun’s red giant phase won’t happen for another 5 billion years or so. That’s presumably what the author is referring to as a kind of “death” for the Sun. But really, it’s just turning into a red giant: it will continue to be a star and fuse atoms. It runs out of hydrogen in the core and will fuse helium and such instead. This process also lasts a long time, over 100 million years, which is much more than anything relevant to individual people or societies. Then, it will spend trillions of years as a white dwarf. (It’s also possible that it will merge at some point with other things to become another kind of degenerate object, like a neutron star or a black hole.)
    — Earth will probably be uninhabitable in about 1 billion years, as solar luminosity steadily increases (boiling away our oceans and so forth), which is well before 5 billion years from now. You could say that means death for anything on this planet, yes, but that is obviously not the Sun. The Sun will be just fine.

    birgerjohansson, #2:

    When drilling for samples in search of biological traces on Mars, human astronauts are a million times more flexible than robots.

    They are, currently. If we have a very long time play with, as we do, I’m fairly optimistic about the potential of AI. (However, if somebody tells you about AI in the next few years or decades, that is usually just marketing.)

    The point is, even with a very rosy outlook on the timeline for colonizing Mars, it will be a long time. That’s time other people will definitely be spending making robots more “flexible,” because we have many different uses for them even here on Earth. So, we almost certainly will have better ones at that time, which will be able to do more than the ones we have now. And of course it will be more than the ones we could make decades ago, when we sent astronauts to get Moon rocks. (That didn’t involve any extensive drilling like you’re talking about. The flexibility of people may be impressive, but in any case, it didn’t solve all sorts of other technical issues that come with plans like that.)

  53. DanDare says

    Lots of people desire space travel and colonisation beyond Earth. Its an emotional thing. The attempts at intellectual argument are post hock justifications. But even the attempt by some bungling billionaires has inspirational value for us. So we look for spin off value for everyone such as technological improvements, science gains or social pulling together and so on. Sorry, can’t help it. Its a romance.

  54. daverytier says

    the point is we already know how to do the larger one but do not for “reasons” mostly because we are lazy and greedy.

    .
    So, basically it devolves into “Let’s not advance forwards because some people are lazy and greedy and mess everything up.” – collective guilt and punishment.
    .

    In fact if it were not for the knowledge of how the earth systems work.

    Well. That’s usually the case – before building the first toy model, one has to gather enough knowledge to do it. That doesn’t make it any less useful for further learning, though. It’s much easier to get a hang of something if there is not a bazillion confounding factors and one can try and experiment around.
    .

  55. daverytier says

    Its an emotional thing. The attempts at intellectual argument are post hock justifications.

    An analogy : At a certain point, attempts to stand up or hold and manipulate objects have no utilitarian value to the toddler – just the pleasure of doing it. Yet in the long run, they are indispensable. So, it’s probably for the best that toddlers can’t do a rational cost/benefit analysis.

  56. lochaber says

    These people arguing for colonizing Mars seem to have a few traits in common with religious proselytizers.

  57. residualecho says

    There are far more reasons to work to develop Luna as a future space port and science platform than Mars, and many compelling arguments against human contamination of Mars.

    First of all, as for human habitats, I don’t see a huge rush for people to create self sustaining multiple generation colonies in Antarctica, a far cozier environment than Mars.

    Here’s one for the panspermaniacs: It’s not out of the question that abiogenesis may have occurred first on Mars, then spiraled in towards Terra. Robots can check that out just fine.

    Lunar round trips are orders of magnitude easier than Martian; telepresence turnaround is lots more rapid.

    It’s far more efficient to get anywhere in the solar system from Earth’s moon than from down here at the bottom of the gravity well.

    Probably safer to develop colony building robots on Mars and make it cozy in already existing subsurface tunnels and caves. Work out how to do that closer to home before sending people and potatoes to Muskville.

    While Heinleiners have already remarked that any projectiles from Luna could be deadly, the exploitation of a lunar environment for industrialization might leave earth more of a biological preserve, especially if we can strip mine asteroids instead of Appalachia for resources.

  58. residualecho says

    I meant to say, safer to develop colony building robots on Luna than Mars, and make it cozy…

  59. unclefrogy says

    Let’s not advance forwards because some people are lazy and greedy and mess everything up

    no it is not some it is all we always look for the easy way. when the early hominids started to move to more areas it was because they were following the easy way there was more food and shelter over there then right here. no on was striking off across some forbidding obstacles they were following their perfecting hunter gathering knowledge and did so until they found out about planting seeds that would not plant themselves very well.
    the lazy and greedy way would be to just abandon the old place and start a new place somewhere else. Why spend the time and money fixing up the place you already have? just leave the mess and destruction behind. many birds do that every year they just leave the temporary nest behind, that works OK on their level and might even be a plus for some things
    but we have expanded and developed past that stage. If and when we do leave here with any kind of permanence in mind we will have be doing things very differently then we do today or we will just be going some place else and making another big f’n mess, which is not in any sustainable in any way long term. I ain’t holding my breath
    uncle frogy

    uncle frogy

  60. chigau (違う) says

    daverytier #35
    If our ancestors in East African savanna invested their time into trying to become the most perfect idyllic hunter-gatherer society instead just going forth past their ancestral homeland, they would be still there, trying.
    [citation needed]

  61. fishy says

    Human space flight is a dead end. It’s romantic nonsense.
    I don’t care what Musk spends his fortune on. I would, however, like to see him put his butt in a seat on one of his own rockets.

  62. John Morales says

    residualecho has the best comment, IMO.

    Except for the bit about “contaminating” Mars.

    And I also liked Aachen on the Plains’ comment; I too remember the sad saga of Biosphere 2. Though, obs, technology was much more primitive in the C20.

  63. hemidactylus says

    I think they are both hyperwealthy asshats but didn’t Bezos say: ““We have sent robotic probes now to every planet in this solar system, and this is the best one,” Bezos said of Earth. “My friends who want to move to Mars? I say do me a favor: Go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first and see if you like it, because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars.””

    https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-mount-everest-challenge-mars-spacex-elon-musk-2019-3

    That said I think it will be cool for human missions again launched from KSC to ISS instead of relying on Russia and maybe add other companies besides Musk’s ego inflation project. But weather won’t be cooperating this weekend while tons of people congregate and do the opposite of social distancing two more times.

    I for one would love Moon Base Alpha and Eagle ships to become a thing if only because it gets us closer to meeting Maya the shapeshifter. I wonder how well she emulates a cute bunny or extinct dinosaur.

    https://youtu.be/ZKiIYvWIUj0

    Our best bet is an accidental nuclear explosion on the moon that sends it’s moonbase hurtling through deep space somehow. Moon first then Maya…the shapeshifter…maybe she could emulate John Lennon.

    How does Mars gravity and effect on humans bode for long term colonization? I loved The Martian and gardening with poop but prefer psycho Damon from Interstellar. That guy was creepy.

  64. katahdin says

    I’d like to emphasize the earlier point made about avoiding the next major asteroid strike, which will happen and perhaps make humans extinct. We’re not working hard enough on that.

  65. John Morales says

    katahdin, either it’s avoidable, or it will happen, but not both.

    (I do get you; it’s the eggs-in-a-basket argument, but still)

  66. hemidactylus says

    @74- John

    So H+ then? Shouldn’t we be cyberenhancing first? If only transhumans make it what of the rest of us lesser beings?

    https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/617190942

    Given the recent death of one of Kraftwerk’s founders I think we have seen this coming for a long time. They at least provided the soundtrack to our demise.

  67. John Morales says

    No, you miss the point; he’s not super-human, he’s cyborged to find Mars amenable.

    Not superior; different.

    On Earth, he was/would be a cripple, just as on Mars, a baseline human would be.

    (The overall idea was that it was more practical to change humans to fit Mars than to change Mars to fit humans)

  68. consciousness razor says

    It sounds like some here are unaware of this, which is not just hypothetical and is already in progress:

    The Lunar Gateway is an in-development mini-space station in lunar orbit intended to serve as a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, short-term habitation module, and holding area for rovers and other robots. It is expected to play a major role in NASA’s Artemis program, after 2024.

    The article lists a bunch of planned/proposed launches from 2023 to 2028. From the page on the Artemis program:

    The Artemis program is an ongoing government-funded crewed spaceflight program that has the goal of landing “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon, specifically at the lunar south pole region by 2024.

  69. residualecho says

    John Morales, to the extent to which Mars is a biological laboratory, human presence risks contaminating it, it’s one of the reasons we have worked so hard to sterilize rovers. It makes sense for people to drive robots on Mars with faster I/O, so we might turn Phobos into a colony suitable for people, and drive the robots from there.

  70. John Morales says

    residualecho, there is no good reason to believe Mars has any life on it, so the extent of its biological laboratory status is hitherto non-existent.

    I mean, I do get the precautionary principle, but if any large-scale exploration or (presumably the ultimate goal) exploitation is to occur, contamination will occur.

    But I do take your point, I just don’t worry about that or share your concern — it would be super-remarkable if Earthly life-forms could accidentally colonise Mars as it now is.

    Right now, the only likely candidate for that would be deep extremophiles (cf. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/life-found-thriving-in-one-of-the-least-likely-spots-on-earth/)

    Another strain of thought is that seeding life on Mars would not be a bad thing, BTW.

  71. consciousness razor says

    It makes sense for people to drive robots on Mars with faster I/O, so we might turn Phobos into a colony suitable for people, and drive the robots from there.

    Well, to the extent that some are actually concerned (as they claim to be) about what will happen in tens of millions of years or over much longer timescales, there’s this:

    Phobos gets closer to Mars by about 2 meters every one hundred years, and it is predicted that within 30 to 50 million years it will either collide with the planet, or break up into a planetary ring.

    Of course, that’s not exactly a pressing issue at the moment, but obviously neither is colonizing Mars.

    It would be sort of handy that surface gravity on Phobos is only 0.0057 m/s^2 — lots of fuel savings in that, compared to the 3.7 for Mars, or of course the 9.8 we have to deal with on Earth. On the other hand, that may not be such a healthy thing for people who are supposed to live there. Even the lower number for Mars is already a source of concern.

    Also, regarding Phobos:

    It is so close that it orbits Mars much faster than Mars rotates, and completes an orbit in just 7 hours and 39 minutes. As a result, from the surface of Mars it appears to rise in the west, move across the sky in 4 hours and 15 minutes or less, and set in the east, twice each Martian day.

    That would complicate radio coverage for a spot on the surface, including slow-moving rovers and the like. For those purposes at least, it would be better to pick your own orbit for your satellite (or a whole bunch of them perhaps), like an areostationary one or something similar (analogous to a geostationary orbit for communication satellites around Earth). So, what you could do is put the people in a base under the surface of Phobos, where it’s (maybe? slightly?) safer to live, and then they would need to bounce the signal via some other satellites that can talk to the robot. That’s kind of complicated, but there would at least be a much shorter delay for the signal.

    Still, like I said before, if we can make the probes smarter on their own, there’s little or no need for direct human control. I realize neither of the tasks are easy, but compared to building a base where people can live indefinitely on another planet/moon, making reasonably smart AIs (merely good enough to do the job) sounds much more doable to me, partly because we’ve already had a lot of success on that front in the last several decades.

    Also, if a mission were meant for one of the Martian poles, where there’s ice and whatnot, Phobos is not in a good orbit for that. Its inclination is only 1.093 degrees from the Martian equator. I mentioned the Lunar Gateway in my earlier comment. The whole reason for putting it into a polar orbit is not simply to reach the poles themselves, but to have easy access to any part of the Moon you like … assuming you don’t mind waiting until the time is right to land. (It’s generally better than carrying more fuel.)

  72. wzrd1 says

    OK, I see one who came close to a point for a martian “colony”, just like our Antarctic “colony”, research only outposts for basically a year long typical tour (some are shorter, as many that are posted to Antarctica aren’t winter over staff).
    Period, living there on a permanent basic is just insanity redefined for a number of physiological reasons.

    “I want to get off of earth”, I can respect that. Here’s a ladder. Dunno where you’ll survive, so I guess we’ll have to build an orbital habitat of some type.
    Hold on, got one in the bottom corner of the drawer, you’ll need this badly…
    There you go! A radiation protection device, it’s called the hand wave device, hand waves the radiation away! Adds enough gravity to survive as a 1G evolved creature as well.
    Seriously, the nitrogen argument is zany, to put things mildly! Nitrogen isn’t uncommon, although fairly often it’s likely chemically fixed, it is only chemistry to liberate it or react it with another element or twenty. I think that’s part of the hand wave device as well.
    Titan is a wonderful idea! Barely noticing day from night sounds fascinating! Thankfully, the ubiquitous hand wave device will add heat, electricity and light to the dismal nitrogen heaven. Those hydrocarbons sound ever so heavenly for dinner as well!

    Mars has an excellent purpose – labs to study hard science on planetary evolution, planetary chemistry and assorted other subjects that are either impossible to study from earth or just insanely poorly done without a proper lab in place. Long term home, we have precisely one – earth, no other planet will work for us, nature defaulted us to the planet we evolved on.
    Alas, the biggest question will be “how can we profit from it”.

  73. mickll says

    I think that it’s weird that Elon and Co think that going to a faraway place just to be there is what colonization is. Granted there are numerous ethical problems with colonization as it’s happened here on Earth but it’s never been the end in itself. Nobody makes a colony to have a colony, the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians didn’t set up colonies around the Mediterranean in order to ensure the continued existence of their civilizations or just…be there. There was stuff in those far flung places that they wanted. What’s on Mars? Iron and rock mostly. It’s interesting in it’s own right but it doesn’t exactly have stuff that can be exploited and shipped back to Earth that’d economically justify the trip even if we had rockets as efficient as those on The Expanse. Even if you did want to go out into the solar system and exploit it’s resources there are better candidates.

  74. drken says

    @mickii #83:

    I’m with you. When you hear people like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Buzz Aldrin talk about colonizing Mars it seem like they view it as colonization without all that pesky genocide that bums people out when they find out about it in history class. Here’s our chance to explore for all the romantic reasons we claim to have when we colonize other places. But, it keeps running into the same problem: There’s nothing on Mars that we can’t get on Earth cheaper, which is what drove colonization and exploration in the first place. At least for the people paying for it. Sure, it’ll be inspirational, but given that nobody watched the Apollo 13 launch, how many trips to Mars would we be able to justify before people decide it’s not worth the cost? Show me a mountain of palladium, or some other rare substance we use a lot of and I can see colonies, or at least outposts for getting it back to Earth. But for now, all Mars has is science and adventure.

    Personally, I like private space flight and think SpaceX et al have done a great job of lowering the costs of getting satellites into orbit. That’s going to lower the barrier of entry for many research and industrial groups who otherwise wouldn’t be able to launch their own satellite. NASA can do many things well, but efficiency has never been one of its strong points. However, going to Mars seems more ego driven than anything else. Fine by me, but unless those capitalists find a reason to go to Mars with a ROI to justify the expense, it’s going to be like SST passenger travel. Really neat tech that sounds great on paper, but not economically viable.

  75. garnetstar says

    daveytier @34, yes, the sort of radioactive decay that helps keep earth’s interior hot has ended on Mars. Mars is a lot smaller than earth, and, after 3.5 billion years, the smaller amount of isotopes that do that kind of decay has been depleted. I am told (though don’t know if it’s correct) that that’s one reason that Mars has no magnetic field: lack of heat produced fom radioactive decay has helped let any liquid metal core that might be there cool down. No liquid metal sloshing around inside, like it does on earth, thus no magnetic field.

    wzrd 1 @82: no, the N2 problem isn’t zany. Of course nitrogen’s pretty common (7th most abundant in the universe), but as I say, it invariably decays to N2, which is the element’s thermodynamic sink. And, once it’s N2, it doesn’t come back to any usable form: N2 is when is it what you calld “fixed”. There are almost no nitrogen minerals left on earth (some nitrates), and there’s some in the biosphere, but all the rest is fixed as N2.

    N2 is so unreactive, and therefore useless, that you can count the reactions that it does at room temperature on one hand. And, no higher plant or animal (only nitrogen-fixing bacteria) can chemically convert N2 into the nitrogen compounds that are needed, and are reactive enough to use. Even on earth, humans chemically getting N2 into a usuable form is a huge, expensive, problem (see the Haber process). 1/3 of the world’s population now lives on food grown with fertilizer made from what usable nitrogen we generate from N2, and that population would starve without it. It’s been a problem for years of how to scale up the conversion of useless N2 to usable nitrogen, so that the ever-increasing population of earth doesn’t starve. It’s called “the nitrogen problem” even on earth.

    And, as I say, in an open living enviroment where nitrogen compounds from decaying life forms are degrading, N2 is the inevitable endpoint which some nitrogen will get to. Then, since it’s a gas, if it’s not held by Mars’ gravity, like helium and hydrogen are not held in earth’s atmosphere, your planetary nitrogen supply just drifts off into space, and you have less and less of the element to work with over time. So, this is definitely something I would check before I get onto a spaceship headed for Mars. I don’t know if the gravity there is enough, but you should check first.

    That’s why helium, although the second most abundant element in the universe, is rare and very expensive on earth (I just read an article about how it’s becoming more expensive, and since all our superconducting devices need to be cooled by liquid helium, that’s a problem). It just keeps streaming out into space, we have to try to capture whatever we can before it heads off into the galaxy,

  76. garnetstar says

    You know how farmers discovered long ago that their fields get kind of worn-out after growing crops for some years? And don’t grow good crops anymore? They found that they have to plant a field out to soybeans or clover every few years, and that would “refresh” the field, and the next few years it would grow crops well.

    Soybeans and clover have nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in their roots, and so what the field’s getting “refreshed” in is usable nitrogen compounds that plants need to grow, aka fertilizer. We’ve long ago passed the point where that solution was enough, and now need to apply lots of chemically-generated (from N2) fertilizer.

    Before climate change, and the realization that soon there wouldn’t be enough land to grow food on, or the right climate for it to grow, the lack of enough of nitrogen fertilizer and subsequent starvation, was one of the main things people were worried about with human population explosion. Now, of course, we have something worse to worry about, carbon dioxide. At least that’s good for plants, as the denialists always say.

  77. garnetstar says

    Sorry to keep babbling about nitrogen, but, most N2 in our atmospheree was producd by geothermal reactions: tectonic plates clashing, ultra-high temperatures, lots of nitrogen-containing minerals were converted to N2, which ended up in the atmosphere (bio-decay also produces some, but not as much.)
    So, Mars’ interior used to be hot (when radioactive decay was still going?), it’s got all those massive extinct volcanoes. And, if there were nitrogen-containing minerals in the crust (likely, since N is abundant), did some of them get converted to N2 by all that geo activity, and enter the atmosphere, and if so, where is that N2 now? JAQ!:)

    I don’t think that Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos have thought this through enough. I just want to know what the gravity situation re N2 is before I bet my life on it.

  78. daverytier says

    Mars is a lot smaller than earth, and, after 3.5 billion years, the smaller amount of isotopes that do that kind of decay has been depleted.

    That’s not how radioactive decay works.

  79. unclefrogy says

    @87
    up to a point

    @88
    the important detail is that there is no or a a very weak magnetic field on Mars so nothing is there to deflect the solar wind striping the atmosphere
    uncle frogy

  80. daverytier says

    @89

    the important detail is that there is no or a a very weak magnetic field on Mars so nothing is there to deflect the solar wind striping the atmosphere

    Does that alter how radioactive decay works ? No. Thus the same fraction of radioactive isotopes decayed on Mars as on Earth.

  81. John Morales says

    daverytier, unclefrogy was pointing out that the actual mechanism is not relevant to the fact, and you responded as though unclefrogy was instead arguing for the proposed mechanism due to the fact.

  82. rcomian says

    I never got the “going to mars is a suicide mission” thing. It’s seems to be used in a couple of ways. One way is that it’s incredibly dangerous, and the other is because you’re moving there and not coming back.

    That it’s dangerous is true, there’s a lot to sort out. And that’s the challenge and the interesting part. But not one single person is suggesting to move there without addressing the issues. Why would anyone suggest that? What do you think the conversation goes like:

    “There’s a lot of radiation on mars we’ll die within a day without shielding”
    “lets just go”

    The second is the most perplexing. I’d happily move to mars and live out my remaining years there, assuming some basic tech and infrastructure that would allow people to live a reasonable lives.
    Just because someone moves somewhere without any intent or ability to come back is not suicide anymore than moving to another country, or town. How do you think that conversation goes in other situations?

    “I’m going to emigrate to hawaii and never come back to europe”
    “Never come back? You’re going to hawaii to die! That’s suicide!”

    Am I missing something?
    What do you actually mean?

  83. John Morales says

    rcomian, it’s a far, far more inhospitable environment than anywhere on Earth (well, obvious places such as active volcanoes aside).

    So, the first people who do get to go there — once the technology exists, which it currently doesn’t — will, for a start, need to be damn well versed in all aspects of maintaining a survivable artificial environment. The slightest mistake will compromise the mission. And they will need to be in excellent health and have no medical conditions, because every last bit of hands-on medical expertise and equipment will be going with them.

    I’d happily move to mars and live out my remaining years there, assuming some basic tech and infrastructure that would allow people to live a reasonable lives.

    If you’re thinking of a hotel room, forget it. You would be in a tiny enclosed space, living an extremely regimented life, and working all the time to maintain it. That is, once the technology exists, which it currently doesn’t, and it won’t be in any sense basic.
    And you’d need to have the equivalent of multiple doctorates and expertise in matters mechanical and chemical and engineering and so forth. No room for passengers.

    Think more of a hard-labour prison cell than an idyllic holiday.

  84. consciousness razor says

    That it’s dangerous is true, there’s a lot to sort out. And that’s the challenge and the interesting part. But not one single person is suggesting to move there without addressing the issues. Why would anyone suggest that? What do you think the conversation goes like:

    “There’s a lot of radiation on mars we’ll die within a day without shielding”
    “lets just go”

    When someone says, “look, this is dangerous; it’s a suicide mission,” a person can respond in various ways. If they simply accept the risks as they are, it can be “let’s just go” … perhaps because they consider that the challenge and the interesting part, like you apparently.

    Some might say they should reduce the risks somehow, if that’s possible, in order to make them acceptably low. They will try to address the issues that make it unacceptably risky or dangerous, and if they don’t fail to do that, then they might go. They could fail and not know that they’ve failed. They could succeed and not know that they’ve succeeded. The risks are something you have to accept either way, if you are actually going there, knowing only that you did your best to minimize them. (Or if you didn’t do your best, you may only know that you don’t care that much about them. Then we’re back in the territory where you just go in, guns blazing … because you can, because it’s there, because you think it’s interesting, etc.)

    So what could happen, even if in fact they do “address the issues” as you recommend? It certainly could be that they still die. In that case, they did say to themselves something along the lines of “let’s just go.” And then they went. And then they died, because they went. That’s just what happened in this scenario. Isn’t it?

    When people talk about it being a suicide mission and say that you’re not coming back, they mean that you’re dying because of the mission. They don’t mean that you’ll simply be living somewhere else and won’t return to the place you were before. So it’s not like they believe those are logically equivalent statements, and your imaginary bit of dialogue is confused. Dying in the mission is why you’re not coming back, if their predictions are correct. It’s what you might say to warn someone of the risks, not to claim it’s the very same thing as dying in the mission.

  85. hiddenheart says

    There’s an obvious problem with the “we have to do this because of course killer asteroid” argument. Mars is closer to the asteroid belt, and Jupiter, and everything else farther out in the solar system. Meteors hit there too. Has anyone actually worked out the probability that a mass-extinct-event asteroid would be expected to hit Earth rather than Mars? It would suck to put a couple centuries’ work into building settlements on Mars only to have them laid waste by one or a few big impacts.

    Also, I want to see arguments about how well people would live in permanent habitats in light of this year’s experience with stay-at-home orders and lockdowns.

  86. daverytier says

    daverytier, unclefrogy was pointing out that the actual mechanism is not relevant

    Nobody is objecting against the known fact that Mars lost its magnetic field and much of the atmosphere here. I was objecting specifically against the claim that radioactive decay stopped on Mars. Which is mind-boggling nonsense. Nothing more, nothing less.

  87. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The geodynamo responsible for Earth’s magnetic field is actually a fairly complicated system. As others have alluded, the basic mechanism is thermally driven convection of magnetic molten iron in the core. And while much of the energy for this convection derives from decay of radioactive nuclei, a lot of the energy also comes from the latent heat of solidification as the molten inner core condenses and crystallizes on the solid inner core.
    So, as it turns out, Mars gets a double whammy–not only does its smaller size mean it had fewer radioactive atoms to generate heat, the smaller size also means that it had a smaller core to begin with and also that heat radiated away from the core more quickly (less distance to travel), and so solidification occurred much more quickly.
    Earth’s solid core also serves as an inductor, increasing the stability of the geodynamic field so that it flips every few hundred thousand rather than every few hundred years.

    There are several other examples of planetary dynamos in the solar system, including several of Jupiter’s moon–where the energy source is tidal and the magnetic fluid is salty water.

  88. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    daverytier: “Based on unwarranted assumptions. And even if true, a multi-trillion-planet grave is still better than a trillions of years older single-planet one.”

    Oh, that’s so cute. It thinks that a species that has nearly rendered its own planet uninhabitable in a few hundred years will be around trillions of years from now.

  89. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    daverytier: “Human level artificial intelligence is very far off.”
    Why would we need human-level AI? As rich people say, “We have people for that.” What we need AI for is to think in ways people can’t. It’s already able to do that.

  90. hiddenheart says

    A big part of my loss of enthusiasm for space colonization is seeing how many of the big enthusiasts are actively hostile to the measures necessary to protect as much of humanity as possible through the coming years, decades, and centuries. People who care so little about our species and its context here forfeit my trust about our species and its context anywhere else.

  91. ck, the Irate Lump says

    The real reason Musk et al are so interested in Mars colonization is that they intend to leave the rest of us behind. They have no intention of stopping exploitation of shit here, so they want to escape the destruction, and Mars is just one of the many plans on how to do so. Others hope to upload their brain into a computer and live forever there. Others still are planning on building highly secured underground bunkers to try and “wait out” the disaster. The one thing all these plans have in common is letting the rest of earth crumble while they live out their lives in continued comfort.

  92. jack16 says

    Wow! One hundred plus a few comments! Is this a record PZ ??
    Your reasoning, PZ, is excellent. I would add that it’s a good idea to robotically mine the moon and build telescopes on the far side and continue mining to build an orbital ring around the earth (Iron wire to start.). . . . Quite serious and very possible!!
    jack16

  93. zenlike says

    @jack16

    I must conclude you weren’t here during the Elevatorgate and the Grenade days. Some threads ran into multiples of thousands, if I remember correctly. This is peanuts :)

  94. tacitus says

    @103:jack16:
    Not the far side. The telescopes will be inside craters at the poles for the following reasons:

    Permanent shadow providing near perfect viewing conditions 24/7 (or the Moon’s equivalent).
    Yards away from permanent sunlight, a source of unlimited energy to power the instruments.
    Shielded from Earth’s EM radiation.
    Yards away from easy communications with Earth.

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