Scientists plan ‘space ark’ to save humanity

Brave new world: Could humanity leave a dying Earth and find a new planet? © Adam Benton

A British team is working on plans for a giant living spaceship, which will roam space to find a new, habitable planet. Is this really a worthwhile endeavour or a pointless fantasy?

In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after 16 successful days of experiments in orbit.

But unknown to the crew, the spacecraft's left wing was damaged with a small hole the size of a dinner plate. As Columbia re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, it disintegrated high in the sky above Texas and Louisiana, killing all seven crew members on board.

In the wake of the disaster, NASA‘s activities practically ground to a halt, and a jittery US government cut back space exploration funding as the public angrily questioned these expensive, risky missions.

But all that has changed, and many plans exploring how humans can harness the final frontier are once again flourishing, supported by both governments and private enterprise.

One in particular made headlines this week: a living spaceship, an ‘interstellar Noah’s Ark’ that could launch in 100 years’ time, designed to transport humans away from a dying Earth.

Researchers from the UK are working on Project Persephone, a spacecraft made partly from biotechnologies that use organic matter such as algae and artificial soil. It would enable a few thousand people to undertake a one-way journey to find a new habitable planet.

Steve Fuller, the team’s sociologist, said: ‘If the Earth ends up a no-go zone for human beings due to climate change or nuclear or biological warfare, we have to preserve human civilization. We need nature to survive, so how do we take nature with us?’

The team is not the first to consider relocating humanity in the event of an Earth-bound cataclysmic disaster. Renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking warned in 2006 that humans must colonise planets in other solar systems or face extinction.

And many scientists agree that recreating Earth’s atmosphere will be crucial in our understanding of space survival. As scientists get closer to mapping a route to Mars, some have advocated changing the hostile surface and atmosphere of the Red Planet by planting vast numbers of trees there.

One small step

Project Persephone is impossible and unrealistic, say some, and instead, more effort should be spent on combating climate change. It simply reinforces the lazy idea that if we make a mess on Earth we can simply planet-hop elsewhere. Besides, even if it does save a few seeds of life from Earth, it could only save a tiny number of its inhabitants.

But others say that scientific innovation like this is imperative. Resources on Earth are finite and a range of threats, such as asteroid collisions or nuclear disasters, make it hugely important. Even if the end is literally light years away, the research could also provide important solutions for how to live sustainably on Earth.

You Decide

  1. Is the proposed space ark a good idea? Is it realistic?
  2. Should we rely on technology to save humanity in the event of disaster? Or should we do more to protect the planet we have?

Activities

  1. In groups, discuss what aspects of living in space you would enjoy, and what you would miss about life on Earth.
  2. Using expert links, draw a timeline, with illustrations, that displays the key events and figures in the history of space exploration.

Some People Say...

“The human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.’Stephen Hawking”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t space stuff just for science nerds and sci-fi geeks?
No! The idea of space exploration is fascinating and hugely relevant to all of us. Scientists believe that within a few decades, we will have the technological capability to send humans to Mars permanently, and have settlements on the Moon. The idea of permanently moving into space is also attracting a growing band of enthusiasts, such as Elon Musk, the business magnate who plans to leave Earth’s orbit forever.
Are the threats to Earth really that serious?
Some scientists think they could be. Possible asteroid collisions and other crises like climate change, over-population and dwindling resources are fuelling the race to space.

Word Watch

NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the US government’s agency responsible for space exploration and research. Last week, NASA administrator Charles Bolden announced that humans must become a ‘multi-planet species’ to avoid disaster.
Biotechnologies
Biotechnology is the use of living organisms and systems to create new or improved technology.
Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. In 1963, Hawking contracted motor neurone disease and was given two years to live, yet despite this, he has gone on to produce highly influential theories on the nature of the universe.
Mars
It is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, and is often referred to as the Red Planet, on account of the fine iron oxide dust that covers its surface.
Hostile surface
Mars is a barren desert buffeted by 100mph winds and the temperature on the planet is roughly -60°C. The atmosphere has a density of one per cent of the Earth’s and it is 95% carbon dioxide — breathing it would kill someone within three minutes.

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