Way, Way Out There

When you look out at the stars at night, it’s amazing what you can see. It’s beautiful. But what’s more amazing is what you can’t see. Because what we know now, is that around almost every star there’s a planet, or probably, a few. There are so many amazing things, that we are searching far and wide to find things that are like that. And when we’re searching, we’re finding such things, here on our own planet earth.

One of those amazing things that are found on earth is that, every minute, 400 pounds of Hydrogen (H2) and 6.6 pounds of Helium (He) escape from earth to space. And this is the gas that’s never coming back. And these gases, Hydrogen and Helium, are major components of the earth’s atmosphere, mainly the ones that form the thin blue line, that preserves and protects the life that we now have on earth. This process, which must (at least a little bit) scare you, is what is called as the Atmospheric Escape. This phenomenon is not just limited to our planet earth, but instead is found to be a characteristic of each and every planet in our universe.

The fundamental driving force for this phenomenon is found to be the Star (in our case the Sun), around which the planets are tending to revolve around. This can be closely related to the scenario of a hot air balloon, where hot air can propel gases upward. Similarly, the Heat from the sun causes the gases such as Hydrogen (being very light in weight) and Helium to escape away from our atmosphere.

Taking the example of our nearest neighbour, Mars, which is much smaller and has less gravity than earth, also undergoes atmospheric escape. In fact, it’s called ‘The Red Planet’ due to the same reason. We believe that Mars had a wetter past, and in fact, when this water had enough energy, it broke up into Hydrogen and Oxygen. The Hydrogen escaped from the atmosphere and Oxygen that was left oxidised or rusted the ground into the rusty red colour it is of today.

In the far future, the Sun would get brighter, causing tremendous amount of gas to stream off from the earth, causing it to look more like mars. So, what next? What is it that we got to do, once the earth unveils its wrath on us?

While mars and all the movies made in its name has invigorated the ethos of space travel, what we fail to realize is our species’ fragile constitution is unprepared for long, distant journeys into the outer space. From what has been found yet, the maximum amount of time that has been spent outside, in space, falls around twelve to fourteen months, and spending a lot of time in the microgravity environment means bone loss, muscle atrophy, cardiovascular problems, and many other complications.

In short, our cosmic voyages will be fraught with dangers both known, and unknown. As we depend on the mechanical giants to ensure our safe transport, it’s also due time that we have to start depending on other resources as well. So, instead of depending on something that we created, such as the machines, we can also look forward to make ourselves an important resource. Synthetic biology, is what this focus is called. It mainly revolves around a single cellular, self-replenishing, self-generating, organism called The Microbe. Using the tools of Synthetic Biology, we can now edit the genes of nearly any organism. Given the limitations of man made technologies, synthetic biology, will help us to engineer not only our food, but our fuel, our environment, and even ourselves, to compensate for our physical inadequacies to survive in space.

Humans, as a species, were evolved uniquely for planet earth. And if we were to be put on mars immediately, even with ample amount of food, water, and even a suit, we’re likely to experience health problems from the ionizing radiations from the atmosphere. Deinococcus Radiodurans, is the name given to a species of bacterium, for its well-known ability to withstand cold, dehydration, vacuum, and most notably, radiation. Even if we borrow a tiny fraction of its ability to tolerate radiation, it’ll be infinitely better than just the melanin in our skin. But for this, we need to invest some time and ingenuity.

Mars is ‘a’ destination, but definitely not our last. Space is cold and brutal, and our path to the stars will be rife with trials that will bring us the question not only who we are but where we will be going, and if we put to use the technology in the proper and more global way, that future is not very far.

-Devan Rajendran

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