(Image: A prototype of the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster. Credit: Donna Coveney / MIT)
Out “in the black” where the suns rays are much dimmer, future explorers will have to come up with innovative ways to travel to and from the gas giants, dwarf planets and the various moons that dance around their parent worlds.
Since mining hydrogen directly from gas giants is suicidal due to their deep gravity wells and veryfiercewinds (with the only exception being Uranus), colonists beyond Jupiter may look towards nitrogen to solve their space transport needs.
(Space Travel) Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers say their new rocket — called the Mini-Helicon Plasma Thruster — is much smaller than other rockets of its kind and could consume just one-tenth the fuel used by conventional systems. [...]
The scientists said the Mini-Helicon is the first rocket to run on nitrogen, the most abundant gas in Earth’s atmosphere. Batishchev noted, however, it could be years before the technology can be used commercially.
If future settlers could find ways to harvest this element from these worlds, then humanity may discover a means to travel not only throughout the outer planets, but perhaps beyond the Kuiper belt as well.
Regardless whether one intends to dwell upon a dusty world, or an icy one, living on another planet, moon, or dwarf planet is going to require energy. Without a dependable power source, off world settlements will become nothing but fantasy, regulated to the imaginations of Star Wars, Star Trek and Serenity.
While a few worlds such as Mercury, Luna (aka the Moon) and Saturn’s Titan are blessed with an abundance of energy in the form of solar energy, helium-3 and methane-ethane lakes, respectively, most of the other spheres that dance around the sun (or their respective planets) seem to lack an ample supply of energy.
Without an lush supply of energy nearby, colonists living on other worlds will be forced to import energy from abroad, making these outposts not only expensive, but also small (as increased energy demand may make large cities unreasonable).
In order for our species to truly create independent colonies elsewhere, we may have to drill down beneath the soil in order to acquire the neccessary energy to power our future interplanetary cities.
Despite the fact that this technology is a little over a century old, geothermal energy has the potential to not only power our own home world, but the other globes that “roam” the vacuum of space as well.
For those unfamiliar with the technology, a geothermal power plant basically uses heat from the Earth’s core to turn water (or a “watery mix”) pumped from above into steam. This steam in turn spins the turbine engines, creating electricity for nearby communities to use.
While the technology may not be as glamorous as solar power satellites, it does have the potential of fueling our energy dependent world.
(Video: Scientists explaining how geothermal energy works, as well as its potential. Credit:Google.org)
While this technology is promising, one may wonder whether or not this technology would be feasible off world. After all, in order for geothermal power to have any relevance, it would have to reside on a world that is not only somewhat geologically active, but also contains water (or another liquid substitute) to turn the turbine engines.
Fortunately for our species, it seems that most of the worlds in our solar system seem to be blessed with both.
Upon first glance, the surface of the red planet appears to be (for lack of a better word) dead. While boasting the largest volcanoes in our solar system, the crimson globe apparently changes little, aside from a “global-cane” that covers the surface every six (earthen) years.
Despite its passive appearance, the Martian depths may be more active than we think beneath the surface, as evidenced by its semi-active core that seems to be generating a “lumpy magnetic field” that barely pops up above the surface (in some spots).
(Image: Artistic drawing of Martian geysers, Credit: Arizona State University / Ron Miller)
Mars also is known to host geysers in its southern pole, which may indicate that the red planet may a lot warmer underneath than we can imagine. Combined with the abundance of water, Mars may become fertile ground for future geothermal power plants.
While future “Jupiterans” would have to live within “aquarium houses” in order to survive the intense radiation surrounding the moon, their ability to “tap” into the Jovian moons center, providing enough energy to turn this frozen globe into a second Earth.
Saturn’s Icy Moons
Despite its size, the tiny ice world of Enceladus contains geysers that are spewing icy crystals above its surface.
While scientists remain baffled on how such a tiny world can contain a core warm enough to produce geysers on top, this tiny world could become a prime candidate for a geothermal power plant (by tapping into the “warm crevices” beneath).
But Enceladus is not the only ice world orbiting Saturn with geysers. Last year scientists discovered that both Tethys and Dione are also spewing ice particles into space, which may hint toward a warmer than anticipated core underneath.
But before colonists can exploit the blue gas giant for profit, they will need to find a way to acquire energy upon that frozen world. Fortunately, Neptune’s “favorite son” does boast nitrogen geysers, whose erupting pressure may help keep an advance turbine engine spinning (thus keeping “the lights on” for a future colony.
While the debate rages on whether or not its “bigger brother” can join the planet club, scientists suspect that Pluto’s moon Charon may also have geysers on its surface, which could point towards a warmer core underneath.
Even though off world colonies will probably have to adjust their technology in order to make geothermal power plants feasible (perhaps by using the geyser pressure from the worlds to turn the turbine engines instead of simply using steam heat), future settlements may consider it more reasonable to power their cities from energy below, rather than importing it from afar.
Even though orbital stations will probably be constructed above Neptune’s atmosphere in order to harvest its helium (similar to the ones seen in Star Wars), colonists may prefer to have their families raised upon Triton’s surface, lest they see their loved ones accidentally descend into “the blue abyss” of Neptune’s clouds.
While Neptune’s helium-3 may make the system attractive, the Lagrange asteroids sharing the planet’s orbit could “seal the deal” for establishing cities on that cold, frozen world.
Despite the dangers of mining asteroids, Neptunian colonists could use resources mined from these numerous floating space rocks to not only build up their tiny frozen world, but their economy as well.
Despite the fact that future colonists will probably have to live within aquarium homes (due to radiation) and wear gravity suits, settlers living upon Triton will probably find life to be fairly comfortable (at least financially), despite the fact that they are over 4.5 billion km from humanities Earthen homeworld. (Image Credits: NASA)