HomeSkyWhat Space Travel Will Look Like in the Future Charles December 18, 2017 Sky Science fiction might inspire us to dream, but here’s a rather more realistic vision of what space travel will look like in the future. When Jules Verne wrote his novel From the Earth to the Moon over 150 years ago, he imagined future space travel very differently to how it came to be when man first set foot on the Moon a century later in 1969. Instead of the technically impossible ‘space cannon’ described in the book, mankind’s first mission to the Moon blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in an expendable, liquid-fuelled Saturn V rocket at nearly 25,000 miles per hour (40,000 kph). Fast-forward to the end of 2017, and we’re still relying on the same underlying technology to travel to the final frontier. That all space launches are carried out by rockets is far from the only limitation of current spaceflight. A far cry from the realm of science fiction space operas, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed at all in the last 56 years of manned space travel. Far from being a glamorous affair, real-life space travel still sees astronauts contending with the serious health challenges of excessive solar radiation and weightlessness. Even the relatively cutting-edge International Space Station can hardly be described as a comfortable place to live with its pokey quarters and general lack of comforts. So, what will space travel look like in another century from now, or even another ten years for that matter? While we’re still a long way off from the lofty dreams of science fiction, let’s explore how we might overcome some of the major challenges of human spaceflight in the future. What Goes Up Must Float Around NASAIt might look like fun, but weightlessness takes a severe toll on the human body. From muscle loss to reduced effectiveness of the immune system, weightlessness is highly detrimental to human health, particularly over long periods. The realities of zero gravity have also proven highly inconvenient to science fiction authors to the extent that everyone miraculously walks around abroad their starships and on the surfaces of alien planets as they would on Earth. Unfortunately, there’s no known way to overcome the latter, which means future colonists on Mars, for example, will simply have to learn to get used to weighing only 38% of what they weigh on Earth. There’s little chance of long-distance space travel, let alone fully-fledged colonization of outer space taking off if we can’t find a way to generate a similar effect to Earth’s gravity. Fortunately, the scientific theory necessary to make artificial gravity is well-established, although current technical limitations make it very difficult to implement. Centripetal force can, in many ways, mimic the effects of gravity through rotation, but the technical requirements make its application no easy feat. For a start, your space habitat would need to have an enormous rotating ring in which its living areas would be located. To simulate Earth’s gravity, a ring with a 3,220-foot (1,000 metres) radius would need to make a full rotation once every 62.8 seconds, which requires a speed of 100 miles per hour (360 kph). The centre of the spaceship, or the rotational axis, would always remain in zero-g. With this model, people in the ring would be able to move around much like they would on Earth, although the ‘gravity’ felt at their heads would be lower than what they’d feel at their feet, thus leading to new problems such as disorientation, nausea and dizziness. These effects can be mitigated by having a larger ring, which would mean the gravity would be distributed over a larger area. The technology exists, and the theory is sound. Today, the fact that rotating space habitats don’t exist is largely down to a lack of necessity. Since short-term stays in space don’t have any serious effects on human health and comfort is not a priority, today’s space travellers simply have to do without the luxury of artificial gravity. Currently, the world’s space agencies, as well as some privately-owned companies, are turning their sights to Mars. To that end, one of the major areas of study for the ISS crew is the effects of zero-gravity over long-term exposure. If it’s deemed likely that humans can handle the one- or two-year trip to Mars and back without suffering severe health repercussions due to zero gravity, then it’s unlikely we’ll see artificial gravity become a thing in the foreseeable future. Once we finally start setting our sights to the outer planets and to the permanent colonization of space, it will be a very different story. To that end, there will no doubt come a time when artificial gravity becomes the norm in long-distance space travel and colonization by way of vast rotating habitats. The question is more a matter of when than if but, if manned space travel to Mars is going to become a thing by the 2030s, then it seems reasonable to expect artificial gravity to overcome one of the greatest challenges of space travel in the decades that follow. Six Months to Mars, Eighty-Thousand Years to Alpha Centauri PixabayFuture starships would have to rely on a far more efficient propulsion system than today’s liquid-fuel rockets. The realms of science fiction often disregard the laws of physics, dismissing them as inconvenient facts getting in the way of a good story. Unfortunately, it’s the very fact that nothing can travel faster than light that makes future space travel à la Star Trek highly unlikely. That’s not to completely rule out the possibility of ever finding a way around the Universe’s speed limit; it’s just that concepts such as the Alcubierre warp drive step beyond the limits of accrued physics and are, therefore, not even known to be possible. With that in mind, let’s look at how we might overcome the problem of unimaginably large distances in the foreseeable future. While the Enterprise might be able to zip around the galaxy almost instantaneously, the reality of exploring solar systems of our own will be the product of monumental efforts spread across multip le generations. Current theory suggests it may one day be feasible to build spaceships capable of travelling up to 12% the speed of light, in which case it would take around 34 years to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star beyond the solar system. This would be achieved using nuclear fusion propulsion, which is itself beyond our current technological capabilities. NASA and DARPA are currently looking into the possibility of interstellar travel as part of their 100 Year Starship grant, an initiative that ultimately intends to make human interstellar travel possible within the next century. Far more likely than warp drives, however, the first manned interstellar spaceships will almost certainly be one-way trips owing to the distances and travel times involved. Trips beyond around ten light years, a relatively tiny distance in astronomical terms, would require generation ships, since it would take longer than a human lifetime to even reach the destination. Assuming interstellar travel will take the form of slower-than-light travel, which is currently the only way we know to be possible, the challenges involved in such a trip would be truly immense. For a start, artificial gravity would be a must but, even more importantly, any interstellar spacecraft would have to be fully self-sustaining. In other words, it would need to be an entirely independent ecosystem capable of generating and supporting its own atmosphere, water and food crops. To that end, even with the challenge of distance met, there would still be a whole lot more to think about. Another option, and one that any sci-fi aficionado will be familiar with, is suspended animation. Induced hibernation would help overcome many of the challenges of long-distance spaceflight, such as the consumption of resources and the fact that a lot of trips would take longer than a human lifetime. However, suspended animation might even become a thing long before we start aiming for the stars. In fact, even NASA is exploring the possibility of human stasis during the long trip to Mars. Perhaps, future space travel won’t look like much at all, since we’ll be fast asleep for the journey! How to Build a World PixabayFuture space habitats would be enormous, the result of monumental efforts to make the permanent habitation of space truly viable. If living in space is ever to become anything more than a scientific curiosity, then it will become necessary to literally build a new world; a fully self-sustaining habitat that doesn’t need any help or intervention from us here on Earth. In fact, it seems possible, perhaps even inevitable, that we will one day need to colonize space to save our species from our own destructive tendencies. This line of thinking does, of course, set a very dangerous precedence but, even if it does (hopefully) turn out that we can look after our own planet, the lust for exploration is an innate human trait. With enough motivation, whether by necessity or inspiration upon finding definitive evidence of life among the stars, it will likely one day be technical feasible to build a self-sustaining space habitat. Initially, space habitats would import their resources from Earth but, when it comes to interstellar journeys, recycling would be necessary for maintaining a consistent water, air and food supply. However, even recycling has its limits, since a percentage of the original product will always be lost in the process. In other words, recycling is and can never be 100% efficient. The limits of recycling would require any self-sustaining space habitat to be able to mine resources from things like asteroids, comets and even the surrounding space. Fortunately, the ingredients needed to sustain life, such as water and nitrogen, are widely available throughout the solar system and no doubt beyond, although space missions would still need to be able to stock up for those immensely long journeys spanning the practically empty stretches of interstellar space. If indeed the more distant future, say a hundred plus years from now, self-sustaining space habitats become a thing, they’ll no doubt be vast. Presenting a monolithic scientific and technological endeavour, these habitats will likely come in the form of toroidal or cylindrical colonies built to emulate Earth’s gravity and sustain complex ecosystems that can operate on their own for indefinite periods. Donald David, NASAFuture space colonies could house tens of thousands of people, complete with artificially generated gravity providing many of the comforts of home. * We may still be a long way off from the dreams of science fiction, but I firmly believe there will come a day when space travel does finally become commonplace, and living in space with most of the comforts of home will become a viable option. As for setting our sights on alien solar systems, however… well, that’s anyone’s guess for the time being. 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