BY ALASDAIR WILKINS
Just sending a few humans to visit Mars is a multi-billion-dollar endeavor, and the task of establishing full-blown settlements on Mars would make such missions look like nothing. As NASA planetary scientist Philip Metzger explained at a recent conference, setting up shop on other worlds require building the infrastructure to support it, and there are three particular technologies he said humanity would need to master first.
Of the three Metzger named, only the first — mining asteroids —actually involves venturing much beyond Earth. According to a detailed report from CBS News, his ideas aren’t about setting up stepping stones to Mars, like establishing a base on the moon. Rather, they’re about building a space-based economy that would create the supply chain to support mass migration to Mars. Space travel is expensive, impossibly so at the kind of levels a Martian settlement demands. He argued it needs new technologies to make it viable, just as developments like email and later Facebook did for the internet.
Key to all this is first tapping into the trillion-dollar industry that is asteroid mining. Water molecules on these space rocks can be split into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, which Metzger said can in turn be used to fuel recently launched satellites in space so that they can reach their final orbits more or less immediately, rather than the six to 12 months it takes now.
His other two proposed new technologies respond to a couple basic facts: At current trends, there will be more internet data than the world’s satellites can handle by 2030, and the world’s computers will use the entire planet’s available energy by 2040. The solutions to both problems could lie in space, with the former requiring the development of a network of giant, 3D-printed antennas in geostationary orbit. Built from materials mined from asteroids, these antennas would give humanity all the data it needs until at least the 2100s. And all this is good practice for the third technology, in which orbiting solar arrays collect and beam energy down to Earth, easing the power shortage.
Taken together, Metzger said he was optimistic developments like these would build the space-based supply chain that would make it easier to send settlement missions to Mars without having to launch everything into orbit at first. By creating entire industries in space, there could be less need for one giant leap and more a series of logical, well-planned steps.