Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight

Here I thought the Solar Impulse was a breakthrough in solar powered flight, but NASA, the University of Washington, and Elon Musk of SpaceX (among others) have turned it to 11. With a new Fusion Driven Rocket (FDR) design, engineers may be able to cut the trip to Mars from 8 months to somewhere between 30 and 90 days. And what’s more: the engine operates via “magnetic inertial confinement fusion,” which, thankfully its designers explain, means that the rocket’s fusion reactor could be run by solar power alone–200 KW to be exact (an extremely feasible number). If flying from California to New York on solar energy as the Impulse team intends is impressive (and it is), then the FDR team’s plan for solar powered space flight is out of this world.

Colonizing Mars–part of Musk’s plan for making life multi-planetary to ensure that “the light of consciousness is not extinguished”–is undoubtedly among the more fantastical utopian visions of the future of humanity. Moreover, the team hopes to eventually make interplanetary travel so efficient that it’s commonplace. Skeptics and detractors (myself sometimes among them) may question the endeavor on “realist” or ethical grounds, claiming that either resource scarcity or social collapse is likely to preclude any significant opportunities for interplanetary migration, or that leaving the Earth behind is a defeatist reaction to socio-ethical challenges here at home, like stabilizing the modern ecological crisis. Indeed, I still think these points have some validity.

But Julian Simon’s infinite resource of human innovation again rears its head. The FDR is already in the pipeline, so to speak. And I’ll be the first to champion the triumphs of solar technology–especially when space travel is involved. Like so many others I’m sure, the prospect of an interstellar humanity speaks volumes to my inner Lewis and Clark–the passion for adventure and discovery too often squelched by the pervasive impact of human activity on and ubiquitous presence in what remains of natural world.

Interplanetary exploration and colonization promise new environments, mysteries, challenges, and questions–philosophical and otherwise. Should we leave Earth in the first place? What is the purpose of colonizing another planet? What would “environmental philosophy” mean if/when we depart from our environment of origin? What new responsibilities do we have to the non-human if and when we undertake massive martian geo-engineering projects like terraforming? If human beings create a living ecosphere on Mars, should we see ourselves as eco-constituents subsumed by a greater natural cycle as we are here on Earth, or, in a sense, should we regard ourselves as semi-gods, directly responsible for the martian natural cycle’s very existence? How should we organize a new society on Mars? Do Earthly political philosophies still apply? Once society on Mars is established, what responsibility will Martian humans have to their Earth-dwelling counterparts, and vice versa, if any? And should we today move further into the final frontier by small precautionary steps or giant proactionary leaps? Barring any unforeseen fatal design flaws or socio-political roadblocks, we could soon have our generation’s Neil Armstrong moment on the red planet. And we’d get there on solar power no less. To the sun god!



The Solar Impulse! Flight without fossil fuels

Perusing NPR this morning I stumbled across a report about this solar tech gem. The Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered entirely by solar power (with storage tech sufficient to keep it airborne day and night), stands poised to change the very face of aviation: to enable us to travel the world “without fuel or pollution.” Now, needless to say, there is work to be done. The plane itself is still in R&D, as its engineers have yet to pressurize, oxygenate, or heat the cabin–and its top speed is still comparable to a sluggish car (40-50 mph). But the Impulse successfully completed its inaugural flight over Switzerland and plans to fly California to New York in 2015.

Its creators, with Faustian enthusiasm, aim to challenge the impossible; to overturn conventional wisdom about sustainable development and clean energy technology. To be certain, taking to the sky without the help of fossil fuels does exactly that (albiet, I’m sure fossil fuels were used somewhere along the process of engineering the Impulse). In the words of aviation pioneer and Impulse designer Bertrand Piccard, the plane carries not passengers, but a message: one of inspiration for the quality of future of humanity, and our relationship with the Earth and its resources.

I maintain that our relationship with the sun is a special one. Life–energy–the escalation of biological complexity despite the second law of thermodynamics–the sun makes it all possible. And here again we are reminded that with dedication and ingenuity, we need not revert to burning its multi-million year old fossil energy reserves to perpetuate our quality of life. After all, whether we’re talking about coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, or wind–these are all indirect manifestations of solar power: biomass through photosynthesis; coal, oil, and natural gas through the fossilization of biomass; wind through atmospheric temperature and pressure changes as the sun heats the air. Logically, to channel solar power directly to the human energy demand is more efficient and therefore more sustainable than waiting for its conversion into fossilized organic material (or even wind, though the turn around in the case of wind is tremendously shorter than FFs)–we simply need the proper technology to take our consumption to the original source. The Solar Impulse is a strong step in that direction.

Despite being optimistic, I still struggle with my own skepticism about technoscientific utopian progressivism and techno-cornucopianism–that with enough time and technology human beings can overcome the paradox of progress–because it’s not obvious to me that the rare Earth resources we need to continue the flow of technological innovation will be recoverable indefinitely, or that organized civil society will remain stable for long enough to foster such technological advancement. But such skepticism is more of nagging intuition, substantiated by the provocation of John Gray and participants in the Dark Mountain Project, than an empirical problem. Malthus, as we’ve seen, was not correct (at least not yet)–and while I am confident that eventually the Earth’s human carrying capacity will be upon us, we may be able to stay off a painful population negative feedback cycle through (relatively) cheap and emerging energy (shale gas, wind, solar, nuclear) and intentional (e.g. – birth control distribution, family-limit policies, etc. ) and indirect (e.g. – women’s education, resource scarcity affecting reproductive instincts, etc.) population management methods long enough to smoothly and comfortably reach the point of sustainability (sustainable consumption & sustainable population). Human beings, as Lovelock predicts, will find a way to muddle through.

As Gray makes clear, to believe in a human future of technoscientific progress is a matter of faith. Even more so, to believe in progress as sustainability is an even bolder exercise of optimism. Whether such faith is hopelessly naive will be revealed in due course. But in the meantime, advances in solar tech like the Solar Impulse give me reason to keep believing. Or at least to be excited about the future.

Cheers, jmk