Closed Ecosystems

As Star Trek put it, ‘Space: The Final Frontier’. It’s not all make believe. We have travelled in space. However, building a sustained human presence in space is a whole other level. Effectively, we’d need to create and protect a sustaining ecosystem; a system akin to the one that’s keeping us alive on Earth. An obvious challenge to achieving this is knowing what’s essential to keep us alive while we explore the nether regions.

Looking at our current tentative forays into space, it would be easy to assume that all we need is a secure container full of breathable air. But if we want to live up there for more than a few hours, then we need to bring along food and water. And eventually, we’d need to dispose of our waste. Thus, to sustain ourselves over a long time, we’d also need to process our waste into something useful. With such a sustaining, closed ecosystem, we could travel to other solar systems or build bases upon Mars.

Vitally important to our planned, closed ecosystem is the energy that enables all these processes to perform. On Earth, the Sun provides nearly all this. And this also makes the Earth ecosystem an open system. Now, imagine travelling to other solar systems. Then, we expect no appreciable energy from our Sun. Instead, we’d need to gather and store all the energy before we departed. As we can’t gather anything in the void of space, our space-faring ecosystem has to be closed; except perhaps some radiant heat energy losses.

There is no manifest destiny drawing us into space-based habitation. We could remain on planet Earth. Our species could endure for many tens of millions of years, as did the dinosaurs. But we would always be limited by what’s available on Earth. After climbing every mountain and descending into every trench, writing every story and singing every song, then we’d live simply to relive the past. There would be nothing new to our destiny.

In space, there is no known limit. However, our current capability is nowhere near a sustaining, closed ecosystem. Further, we seem to be radically, negatively affecting the existing ecosystem on Earth. Why do we prefer to build roads, to play video games and to engaging in warfare on this functioning ecosystem? What do these preferences say about the development of a sustaining, closed ecosystem for humans in space? And what do they say about our future on Earth?

Solar Power Generation

Solar power generation is on a growth spurt. In 2018, it produced over 584 TWh of energy. Its capacity is nearly doubling every two years. Some see solar power as being the solution for global energy needs.

However solar power comes with costs. For one, there’s the need to fabricate panels, construct the collector facilities and then maintain operations. For another, all life forms below the solar panels will die-off as the Sun is their only source of energy and the panels capture all the sunlight. Thus, solar power usage needs to be rationalized with costs of other energy supplies.

Can we scale our energy challenge? Certainly; let’s see. In 2018, we consumed over 160,000 TWh of primary energy and it is increasing by about 1.5% annually. If solar power supplies all this then we’d need cover about 14 million square kilometres of land with solar arrays and then maintain operations.

This operational area is huge, greater than all of Europe. Further, implementing this solution would drastically, negatively affect the Earth’s biodiversity. Thus solar power generation has its place in the global energy supply mix but we need other, less costly, means to satisfy our energy challenge.