Location, Location, Location

“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” — Carl Sagan

1970’s Torii exterior rendering courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center

Last month I started writing about planning a realistic space colony as a setting for a story. I still find myself obsessed with this inquiry instead of getting down to making the story. Procrastinate much? Moi?

In that post I mentioned that Mars and Earth’s moon are generally considered to be the front-runners for planetary colonies, although the moons of other planets in our system and the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter orbits have their share of both cheerleaders and fictional depictions.

Tossed in space

Some space aficionados don’t want to put a colony on a planetary body at all. They prefer the idea of a free-standing space habitat – in crude terms, a giant version of the International Space Station. For example, the LaGrange Points, five equilibrium points in the Earth-Moon and Sun-Earth orbits, have been researched as possible space habitat locations.

1970’s Torii interior rendering courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center

A surprising number of people and institutions have already designed torii, cylinders, and other forms for such a habitat.

The advantages of this approach include Earth proximity and lack of a gravity well to enhance trade and travel; potential for resource utilization from other bodies such as Mars and the asteroids; and access to abundant solar energy.

The solution shares many of the challenges of creating a colony on a planetary body, such as protection from radiation, the need for an artificial atmosphere, and the creation of a sustainable food system. However, like all options, the habitat has its own downsides.

For example, a body like Mars would supply some gravity, while a free-standing colony would need to create all its own. Is there a benefit to having zero-g conditions available, such as for sports? It’s hard to see why that would beat the low-g conditions of small planetary bodies. But it’s another fun thought for writing a story.

I’ve also been musing about whether or not having a solid body beneath one’s feet would be comforting, no matter how alien that body might be.

Water, water anywhere?

One of the prime practical considerations for colony building is water. It would be helpful to have some naturally occurring H2O accessible, even if our colonists have a sophisticated recycling system. Astronauts on the ISS extract every possible drop from human breath, sweat and urine, and re-use shower water. 

So of course, scientists get excited about indications of potential water ice on other bodies (as opposed to other kinds of ice, e.g. the frozen methane dunes of Pluto). Water ice could theoretically be extracted and melted, not only as drinking water for explorers and colonists, but also as a component in the manufacture of rocket fuel.

Recent re-analyses of hydrogen signatures on Mars has indicated the possible existence of equatorial water ice deposits. While this is not the first time water has been detected on Mars, these new analyses give scientists hope that water might be present at much lower latitudes than was previously thought.

Image of moon’s polar region courtesy of Sky & Telescope

And just this past summer, a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claimed a clear confirmation of the presence of water ice in the moon’s polar regions.

There appears to be widespread acceptance of this proof; however, I recently read about a top expert in the field who disagrees. At some point in the future, perhaps a lunar mission will acquire first-hand data. Until then, we get to enjoy a little poetic license about water in space.

Sometimes it seems insensitive to be wondering about water on distant celestial bodies when an adequate amount of drinking water is still out of reach for many on our own planet.

Why travel?

Of course, being obsessed with the where of this story doesn’t mean I can avoid those other pesky W’s — who, what, when, and why.

In a novel, the author can slowly develop a rich scenario for the why. In a short story, it has to be quick and immediately relevant.

The obvious answer is that we are well on our way to using up the planet we have. I’ve also read some great stories that feature a push out there catalyzed by political conflict. Also not hard to imagine. It might even be that indomitable human spirit, seeking knowledge.

For this story, I’m feeling a pull toward less Buck Rogers, more every-day life; after all, that’s why I’m looking for near-Earth locations rather than some fantastic orb in Alpha Centauri. (My inspiration is probably an old fascination with the dark, rather grubby ship Nostromo in the 1979 classic Alien. So much more engaging, for me, than gleaming silver.)

So I think my colonists will come from an Earth where someone has simply figured out how to make a lot of money in space. Cynical? Moi?


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