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."
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