The system is designed to ultimately be self-sufficient, so it could support human life for generations.

Within 100 years, humans may venture beyond the solar system. What would it take to actually live there?

Icarus Interstellar, a project run by a global team of scientists, wants to achieve interstellar flight by 2100--and one of the questions they’re trying to answer is how to create an artificial environment that could support people indefinitely.

Scientists and architects are designing an ecology from scratch. x

“Rather than treat the interior of the starship like it was the pot for a plant, and just hack out a piece of earth and stick in inside a tin can, the proposal is to design from the bottom up an ecology that sustains itself within a particular space,” says Rachel Armstrong, lead researcher on Project Persephone.

The early iterations of the design include tunnels made of a synthetic soil recycled from space debris; the “soil” artificially supports life and recycles waste, and forms a structure to support buildings and cities.

Sensors in the soil monitor activity and communicate with plants and help the system evolve.

“We don’t build ecologies, we garden them--we take existing systems and we stitch them together in practices like agriculture and gardening."

"If we can’t build a sustainable ecology on Earth, we’re going to find it impossible to make one in space. So our design involves reconceptualizing our relationship to ecology.”

It looks nothing like the visions of space from the 1970s, which essentially put American suburbia on other planets.

“That was nearly 50 years ago,” says Armstrong. “There seems to be this nostalgia for the lost Apollo age when we were thinking about mining the moon, and I honestly think we can do a lot better than that.”

She hopes that project will inspire more true innovation, both on Earth and farther away.

Some of the work for Persephone may help directly solve issues on Earth, like an "augmented plant ecology" Armstrong is creating that considers how to use computers to help plants survive in areas of desertification or other difficult environments.

"We urgently need to challenge the global developmental conventions that are holding us in an environmental gridlock here on earth and find new ways of imagining our survival as a species."

Though the project is based around a sense of urgency, it's also fundamentally optimistic.

"Personally I think that an interstellar mission will come from a prosperous, forward-looking culture that actually has established the building blocks for interplanetary existence."

"I don’t think it’s going to be the last act of humanity before we die on Earth. I think that we’re seeing a different kind of thinking, a different boldness of vision."

"I don’t think it’s going to be the last act of humanity before we die on Earth. I think that we’re seeing a different kind of thinking, a different boldness of vision."

"I don’t think it’s going to be the last act of humanity before we die on Earth. I think that we’re seeing a different kind of thinking, a different boldness of vision."

2014-06-04

If This Is What Spaceships Will Look Like In 100 Years, You're Going To Want To Get In Line Now

If we're going to ever settle down away from this planet, we're going to need spaceships like these—essentially living systems that can fly through space—to help get us there and keep us alive.

Within 100 years, humans may venture beyond the solar system. What would it take to make it possible to actually live there? Icarus Interstellar, a project run by a global team of scientists, wants to achieve interstellar flight by 2100—and one of the questions they’re trying to answer is how to create an artificial environment that could support people indefinitely.

Scientists and architects are designing an ecology from scratch. "Rather than treat the interior of the starship like it was the pot for a plant, and just hack out a piece of earth and stick it inside a tin can, the proposal is to design from the bottom up an ecology that sustains itself within a particular space," says Rachel Armstrong, lead researcher on Project Persephone, the part of the Icarus work that considers how to create an environment.

Trying to just reproduce Earth doesn’t work, as another project already proved. In the early 1990s, Biosphere 2 sealed a crew of eight people inside a biome filled with plants and food, but things didn't go as planned: The crew couldn’t grow enough food, they ran out of oxygen, and the soil failed.

"It proved that we don’t know how to build ecology on a life-bearing planet," says Armstrong. "We don’t build ecologies, we garden them—we take existing systems and we stitch them together in practices like agriculture and gardening. If we can’t build a sustainable ecology on Earth, we’re going to find it impossible to make one in space. So our design involves reconceptualizing our relationship to ecology."

The early iterations of the design include tunnels made of a synthetic soil recycled from space debris; the "soil" artificially supports life and recycles waste, and forms a structure to support buildings and cities. Sensors in the soil monitor activity and communicate with plants and help the system evolve. The system is designed to ultimately be self-sufficient, so it could support human life for generations.

It looks nothing like the visions of space from the 1970s, which essentially put American suburbia on other planets.

"That was nearly 50 years ago," says Armstrong. "Yes, these designs do look surreal. I can imagine people looking at them and saying what the hell is that, that will never happen. But at this stage that’s not the point. The point is to recruit different kinds of thinking. There seems to be this nostalgia for the lost Apollo age when we were thinking about mining the moon, and I honestly think we can do a lot better than that."

She hopes that project will inspire more true innovation, both on Earth and farther away. "We have some really huge problems to address. I think we need to resist this temptation of just finding incremental change and really radically rethink our existence. Many research grants, even Google Moonshot, are still extensions of what we already know. We need to open up that innovation space for the next generation."

Some of the work for Persephone may help directly solve issues on Earth, like an "augmented plant ecology" Armstrong is creating that considers how to use computers to help plants survive in areas of desertification or other difficult environments.

"We urgently need to challenge the global developmental conventions that are holding us in an environmental gridlock here on Earth and find new ways of imagining our survival as a species—not just for the next few decades—but also into the deep future, so that we can develop the necessary science, technology, and design skills that will be needed for our collective survival," Armstrong says.

Though the project is based around a sense of urgency, it's also fundamentally optimistic. "Personally I think that an interstellar mission will come from a prosperous, forward-looking culture that actually has established the building blocks for interplanetary existence," Armstrong says. "I don’t think it’s going to be the last act of humanity before we die on Earth. I think that we’re seeing a different kind of thinking, a different boldness of vision. It’s a reassertion of what human beings can do, not an apology for what we’ve done in the past."

[Images: JK Design Studios]

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59 Comments

  • All the wars humanity rage, it's all due to limited resources. Take a look at the inequality within this world, even first world countries have massive income gaps. Anyone content with their luxuries and standard of living will likely defend the notion that where they..(we) are at right now is fine. However, world population growth is exponential and only a short matter of time before Earth's resources cannot sustain us all. Even if it does sustains, all can look forward to a grim living, such as what you see writers depict (Hunger Games, Divergent). Roll your eyes all you want but that is where current levels of inequality and limited resources will take us. Yes, something can be done about it. Those whom have the money and power to do so however are content with the way things are. Only profit can persuade action now days, and no one will invest in such abstract, far-reaching endeavor to get off this rock. We'll get off this rock when humanity unites, under a catastrophic event.

  • avidtrober

    It's going to happen, one day, but not until the reason this world is a mess is fixed: human nature.

    "And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars--all the heavenly array--do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven." Duet 4:19

    We are going to expand beyond earth:

    "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end." Isa 9:7

  • avidtrober

    It's going to happen, one day, but the real problem of why this world is a mess has to be fixed first: human nature.

    "And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars--all the heavenly array--do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven." Deut 4:19

  • Frank Szabo

    Nice artwork - objects designed to appear as a present day organism with a "Dali-type" twist.

  • fastcoexist

    Definitely makes me think of the differences between artists and engineers. What could one be without the other? Different restraints and different results, with one leading fast and the other pulling to slow down. Newton's 3rd law of motion - personified. OK engineers - you're up next!

  • Jeffrey J Carlson

    artists leading too fast ? artists created none of the Apple or PC machines they draw up these pretty pictures with ... artists didn't create the electric grid ... you've got it backwards ... its engineers that are the ones leading ... artists just think their direction is wrong ... based on their feelings and not on science or the real world ... engineers go from A to B to C until they reach Z ... artists think you can jump from A to X ...

  • Walter Adams

    The answer to this question has been provided by Jimmy Cagney in 'Mr Roberts'; "You ain't Never gettin' off this bucket mister." Multi-generational spaceships - warp drive - worm holes, are LIETRARY devices, plot tricks. They have NO reality. Human destiny is here, now. If you are unhappy with this planet; all the air you can breath, water you can drink, the food grows right out of the ground, swims in the seas, flys through the air and runs along the earth; What on earth makes you think you'll be happier with a world you don't even know exists?

  • Jeffrey J Carlson

    Bingo !!! just look at the ridiculous Interstellar movie ... heh, let us left earth because .... and this is great ... blight is killing off all the plants ... so lets take all the smartest folks and try to create a gravity drive to jump thru a wormhole to a bunch of dead planets near a black hole .... riiiiiiight ... just give up on Earth and let the blight have it ... Good lord what a bunch of "artistic" nonsense .... ever heard of a greenhouse morons ? or maybe just figure out how to stop the blight ... too blue collar for Hollywood I guess ...

  • n2rhv

    It's not about us. It's about life. Life, and man, cannot stay in the cradle forever.

  • Don McCoy

    HR Giger is coming back from the dead to design our spaceships 100 years from now?

  • Arthur Joseph Coté

    Earth 'IS' a spaceship. Earth already sustains multiple forms of life and ecologies and has been doing so for billions of years. Everything we need or want is here. The only thing preventing the needs and wants to reach each and every individual is government and monetary systems. Why want what we already have? Is 'having' not enough these days? Can one only find a satisfactory fullness by having delusional desires? Leaving everything that you have and trading it for the prolonged hopes to find it again is a dangerous psychology known only to this generation through distracting propaganda to create 'liberal' thought processes. If anyone feels they need saving from that that is, then going to a 'nowhere' or a void is an act of cowardice to an end that has no means and no escape from yourself. There is no rapture. No one is going anywhere. Eternity exists only here on Earth.