Can humans survive on Mars in 2018?
Humanity will only survive if it colonizes Mars
For both Musk and NASA, Mars is the next challenge. What problems do we face there and what solutions can we find?
We have to be very careful if we want to send our astronauts to Mars. The trip to the moon took only three days. You could fly to the moon and come back on Friday. The trip to Mars is a completely different number. It takes nine months just to get to Mars. Then you have to wait a couple of months so that the planets are back together favorably, and then you need another nine months for the return flight. So this is a two year journey where weightlessness, cosmic rays and micrometeorites will be a problem. In addition, Mars is frozen, so you have to heat the surface, which is known as terraforming.
The settlers who came to America almost 400 years ago had animals there to hunt, plants to grow, and high-quality soil on which to farm. But we'll have to bring it all to Mars ourselves. That's why cost is so important, and that's why we want robots that build things, genetically modified plants that can grow in that environment, and nanotechnology to develop lightweight but sturdy building materials that are prefabricated to build domed cities.
The journey to distant stars will require new modes of transport. Tell us about the Breakthrough Starshot Project and other fantastic ideas that are being worked on.
Once again, it's the Silicon Valley billionaires who open their checkbooks to the sound of $ 100 million to build the first spaceship to fly to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Hollywood made us believe we had a huge spaceship like that Enterprise with heroic captains like Kirk need. But the first spaceship to fly to Proxima Centauri could be the size of a postage stamp - a computer cluttered with cameras and sensors hanging on a parachute. The parachute is inflated by shooting a laser at it from Earth, about 800 megawatts of energy. That would bring this tiny parachute to about 20 percent the speed of light. It can be done, believe it or not. In just 20 years, some of them could reach the next star, just with off the shelf technology. Looking even further into the future, physicists are already dreaming of a rocket era beyond chemical propellants when we use antimatter, fusion energy, or ramjet reactors to fly at half the speed of light. With that we can fly to the stars.
Another problem with deep space travel is that some destinations are hundreds of light years away. They suggest that astronauts could be frozen and thawed again at the end of the trip. To quote tennis player John McEnroe: You can't be serious, can you?
The stars are pretty far away, but we hope that one day we can use advanced physics to move faster than light - with a warp drive. But until we have warp drives, we have to be content with missiles that are slower than light. It would take centuries to reach the Earth-like planets that we have discovered so far. That means we have to discover the secret in order to extend human lifespan, or need to learn how to freeze ourselves. Some companies already offer to freeze you - and when you thaw you have cures for cancer and other diseases. Do not believe that. These companies are a hoax if you ask me. However, it is a possibility that we must consider.
We have discovered around 60 genes that appear to affect human lifespan, and we know that certain genes enable animals to live for centuries. The Greenland Shark, for example, can live to be over 400 years old. So genetics make it possible to slow down the aging process.
You prefer what you call laser porting as a solution. Tell us what that is – and how the Human Connectome Project could lay the foundations for this.
The first major science project was the Manhattan Project, which gave us the atomic bomb. The second was the Human Genome Project, which we used to decipher the human genome. The third could be the Connectome Project. Many countries, including the US, have said that the brain is key to understanding mental health, depression, and suicide. All of this could possibly be cleared up if we understand the connectome, a map of the entire brain.
We suspect we may have this card by the end of the century. But when we have it, what do we do with it? We could deal with mental illness, but we could also shoot them through space on a laser beam. In a second you could be on the moon, in 20 minutes on Mars, and in a few years on the nearest star. Laser porting is perhaps the most efficient way to traverse the galaxy without rocket propulsion, radiation, or asteroid impacts. You just laser port yourself!
Let us end with the million dollar question: will we one day make contact with another civilization in space? And if so, when? Do you agree with Stephen Hawking, who warned against such contact?
I definitely believe we should take this warning to heart because one day we will encounter other planetary life forms. They will probably be thousands of years ahead of us. They won't want to loot our resources as there is no shortage of uninhabited worlds like Mars that they can loot without having to deal with recalcitrant locals like us. The biggest threat could be that we are just in the way. In the novel "War of the Worlds" the Martians did not want to take over the earth because they were evil and that homo sapiens didn't like. They had to get rid of us so the Martians could live on Earth themselves and terraform it to look like Mars.
We have discovered 4,000 planets in the galaxy so far, and we know that, on average, every star in the galaxy has a planet. So I believe that it is inevitable that we will encounter one of these advanced civilizations and that will change the history of our world. Not like when Cortez met Moctezuma and smashed Aztec civilization in a few months. The conquistadors had a secret agenda. They wanted to plunder the gold of the Aztecs. I don't think aliens will want that too. And I hope that there will be a mentor who will show us the way to a future in which we will not lapse into war and barbarism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Simon Worrall on Twitter and his homepage.
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