From Wi-Fi on steroids to colonising Mars, the most exciting advancements in space technology
Let’s be frank – we’re going to waste Earth like a pre-imploded Krypton: it’s just a matter of when, and our soft, meaty bodies probably won’t fare very well once we’re forced out into harsh new environments. Good thing that space is experiencing a well-deserved renaissance, with new types of commercial spaceflight, space food tech, space, space movies, and overall, a ton of…well, space in the news. Space exploration is, in fact, the real gift that keeps on giving. One of the most interesting new space things is The Gemini Planet Imager, a car-sized camera tasked with taking pictures of new exoplanets – planets in deep space that we previously were unable to touch. On its test run, Gemini produced infrared pictures of glowing-hot, newly formed planets 600 trillion light years in mere minutes: it’s almost like Tinder for new places to conquest and ruin. Okay, not quite. We’ll get there eventually, but for now, here are ten developments to keep an eye on in our quest to cheat planetary death.
Our burgeoning love for automata is going to lead to an unprecedented explosion in the tiny little bots that run our lives. With the contentious ongoing problem of military drones, the rise of commercial drones, and the twin frustrations of physical clutter and pollution, what will become of free, open space – both physical outdoor space that we all take for granted, and the infinite black above us? What will precipitate governments to adopt nanny state nano-tech to regulate open space for advertising, delivery, surveillance, and so on? For example, Silicon Valley’s new interest in startup spy satellites is the latest commercial development to clog up our skies (but the truth is, we already have lots of space garbage). Fast forward ten years: we’re going to have an astral junkyard on our hands, and it’s probably going to smell like regret.
So far, unmanned space flight has been the best method to explore planets and stars, for obvious reasons – without technology, we’re wee pink fleshbags with zero survivability skills. Unmanned marine voyaging is a whole new matter, but shipping is a nice, relatively “safe” industry in which to test the limits of artificially intelligent ship systems. An unmanned long-haul “smart ship” voyage, for instance, offers much opportunity for scientists to test the limits of artificial intelligence in terms of navigation and survivability under adverse conditions. For one thing, robots don’t get hungry or sleepy, and since we’re still in a pre-singularity age, let’s assume they don’t get cabin fever, either. The consequences of a smart ship piloting itself across the globe would be tremendous. Of course, the idea of a crewless ship presents a humorous conflict to the previous point (see: robot smog), but remains a transitional necessity in our ongoing interstellar exploration until manned commercial space transport is the norm.
Once our crewless ships have laid the groundwork for cheap, ubiquitous orbital living, space is going to get crowded. This is supposed to be the year that space tourism really takes off, and if Richard Branson gets his way, 2014 is very much going to be the year of Virgin Galactic. Branson has already announced his intention to put people into sub-orbit by 2015, and plenty are paying for that opportunity. Later this year, VG is set to launch their first passenger flight from its Spaceport America base in New Mexico, and has already triggered the beginning of space travel agents to make space travel seem more accessible.
THE RISE OF SPACE ENVIRONMENTALISM
As previously mentioned, space is already full of crap; specifically, low earth orbit is home to 100 million pieces of crap, of which 22,000 are deemed large enough to pose a threat to human space activity – and Japan is going to do something about it. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is teaming up with a fishing company to create a massive magnetic net to “catch” the metal debris clogging up earth’s orbit. We’ve heard talk about space nets to keep out asteroids (possibly one in Armageddon) but this one seems like a sensible, practical use of giant interstellar nettage with an eye toward keeping space “clean” and safe. As Japanese press reports, space trash, even at a mere 10cm wide, are “uncontrollable, unpredictable, and near impossible to accurately monitor. A single metal bolt could become the cause of a catastrophe if it somehow collides with a satellite or the International Space Station.” If it’s that bad now, it’s going to get exponentially worse…soon.
COLONIES IN SPACE
We haven’t even managed to put a man on Mars yet, but more than 200,000 people have already signed up for a one-way trip to a private Martian colony scheduled to happen in 2025. Mars One, a Dutch private venture company, has whittled that list down to about 1,000 people, most of whom are wealthier educated men from the Americas and Europe. The final pool will comprise 24 to 40 people, all of whom will spend their final terrestrial years as full-time salaried employees of Mars One, learning how to cope with medicine, basic engineering, biology, and other useful life skills in space (also, possibly, a reality television show). This raises all sorts of interesting questions about space elitism, social hierarchies, and even the dreaded specter of eugenics (imagine, if you will, that these people were left to their own devices in terms of population). A Lord of the Flies situation suddenly looks really good right about now.
POST-POLLUTION FASHION DILEMMAS
Pollution is a tenuous concern for everyone who lives on the pale blue dot, and in a worst-case scenario, it’s certainly something that could drive us out to seek refuge among the stars. The basic act of breathing will become a critical concern, inextricably linked to wearables and fashion. Designer Chiu Chih has created a simple plant-based breathing apparatus, which she calls “voyage on the planet,” to explore what will happen to us when our air is toxic soup. It’s not entirely functional, because of the sheer volume of plant matter required to sustain one person in said fashion, but it raises questions about what we’re going to do in a world on the cusp of going full WALL-E. Adaptability and survivability are the driving forces behind this project, calling attention to our fragile state in a constantly changing landscape.
WHITE SPACE SYSTEMS: THE NEW INTERNET
Neul, a new British white-space company, has unveiled its NeulNET system that will be tested by BT for the next few months. NeulNET is a new platform that allows our internet to operate on low power via unused radio frequencies. White space is basically the unused radio spectrum that exists in varying frequencies in different geographical areas. Using white space broadband, smart devices can tap into these unused frequencies by detecting when and where they are available – it’s especially interesting to note that white space doesn’t care about niggling problems such as solid objects, harsh environments, or long distances. It has been described as “Wi-Fi on steroids” and shows much promise as a cable-free means of connecting isolated places that aren’t open to “line-of-sight” technology like satellite communications. The company describes its own tech as “the machine-to-machine connectivity glue for the ‘smart cities’ concept,” which suggests its far-reaching wireless capabilities are the new way forward for smart living in fully-connected, quasi-sentient cities. White space tech has already been successfully used in a small-scale project in Wilmington, North Carolina, where city officials used a white space network to control public electricity, monitor water levels, and provide public internet. The bottom line: it’s a new way for us to shape our surroundings, over longer distance.
NUCLEAR AWARENESS 2.0
It’s not quite the cold war again, but it seems that one Michael Dillon, a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, is concerned that current dwellings aren’t going to make it through a nuclear fallout. Dillon has penned a guide to minimize radiation risk, mapping out an ideal route for fleeing victims and describing the basics of “adequate” shelter from nuclear fallout. It goes without saying that a nuclear wasteland is one extremely undesirable scenario in which we’d have to really rally to survive. Dillon’s publication is certainly not an optimistic reflection on the world’s sociopolitical status quo, but nuclear survival seems like a useful “thing to know” in terms of how we deal with toxic fallout in the environment, especially in light of recent mishaps by unaccountably reckless chemical companies. We’re not one to join the doomsday prep fad, but perhaps Dillon’s intent should be given a little more attention…
WEATHERING THE STORMS
Ah yes, the weather. It hasn’t been a great decade for crazy weather – it’s been a tragic, ruinous ride with millions of deaths and billions of dollars of destruction. Enter a new approach to weather forecasting, modeling, and weather generation (hey, don’t look at us…yet) based on a hybrid of hacking, tech, and design. We’re going to see a lot more creativity poured into modeling weather outcomes, as well as superstorms, fluctuating global temperatures, rising sea levels, and a myriad of other natural developments waiting to murder us at any given opportunity. We’re looking forward to new think tanks like CoClimate, set to launch next month. Look at Google’s recent acquisition of Nest, a digital thermostat and smoke alarm startup that learns how to cool and heat your home. Now extrapolate that sort of tech on a much larger scale for better living in space, micro-terraforming…the future is limitless.
SAVING OUR BRAINS
In a worst-case scenario, when the world is reduced to noxious rubble, our options limited, and we’re all scrabbling for a life-saving trip to the stars a la Elysium, we can always survive earth’s ravages by saving the brain. Nobody is thrilled about the quality of life that’ll come with that, and our minds would age horribly, but at least we’d still be alive?