10 Future Technologies Useful for Space Colonization
We live in a new golden age of conventional space exploration and travel. Through the efforts of both private and governmental entities constructing new launch systems and continuing the development of old ones, at no time in history has space been more accessible, even to the point of tourism. And there have been many other developments that are helping to make space more open, from the potential of cubesats to dramatically dropping launch costs, it seems clear that we are in a second great space age, or perhaps a resurgence of the original one It’s difficult to predict the ins and outs of where this will lead over the next 50 years, but there are visions ranging from the colonization of the moon and Mars to getting glimpses of the nearest star system to us. So here are ten future, or underdeveloped current technologies that should prove useful for space exploration and eventually colonization. Number 10. Light Sails
There was a time, not that long ago, in fact, where humans across the world made use of sails to harness the wind to push ships across water. Indeed, this was once and may someday again be an engine of trade and economy with thousands of vessels crossing between continents moving goods ranging from tea to cheese, or just about anything that could be preserved long enough to make the trip which is just about anything these days. Sailing, if a bit slow, paid off in free energy to harness. And this is also true for space. Sails in space can work.
There are actually two types of sails that can be used in space. The first is the solar sail. This is a sail that uses the radiation coming off the sun to push it forward. We’ve already experimented with this in the form of the Ikaros spacecraft. The advantage to this method is that it requires only the sun’s light pressure to move.
The disadvantage is that this is a very slow form of propulsion as a result of light pressure being very slight, but it is enough to push the spacecraft along at usable speeds. The other form can be much more powerful. It’s the beam sail, and operates by a laser mounted on or in the vicinity of earth that pushes the sail with a tightly focused laser beam. This option is behind the breakthrough starshot initiative, where light sails with small instrument packages could be sent to the alpha centauri system to explore it, conceivably within a human lifetime and would mark the first time humans have ever been to another star system. While slow, light sails offer us the first realistic opportunity with today’s technology to explore outside the solar system. Number 9. Nuclear Propulsion
The idea of using nuclear energy to power rockets seems futuristic, Fusion energy is just around the corner type of thing that will never happen, and if it did it would come with inherent dangers. But the reality is that while the latter is true, nuclear rockets have been devised, built and tested but never launched, going back to the original ideas regarding it in the 1940’s. And it’s been looked into multiple countries, and still is.
While launching nuclear materials into space on chemical rockets does come with its dangers, they can be mitigated and indeed a number of interplanetary probes launched over the years have made use of the decay of plutonium ingots for energy, when solar power wasn’t enough. This includes the Voyager probes, which still run to this day on the decay of plutonium far away in the outer solar system and beyond. So nuclear powered probes, or at least a form of them, have already been used. But in the end the reason we didn’t make more use of this technology in the past is that it just wasn’t practical for what we were doing. Chemical rockets have filled the niche, and we just didn’t need to pursue this avenue. But there is an advantage to using nuclear energy for space missions, and that’s speed. You can get anywhere in the solar system, and even conceivably
another close by star system, at much faster speeds than chemical rockets can produce. Some of the best ideas here have been concepts for a hybrid Mars mission that launches on a conventional rocket, or several and may be assembled in space, and then uses nuclear thermal rocket technology to get to Mars more rapidly than what we do conventionally. But again there’s always the question of safety and launching nuclear material into space.
Materials have gotten significantly better, and it may be more safely done these days, but there’s bound to be resistance to it. But once it’s in space and outside of Earth’s magnetosphere, then it ceases to be a problem since space is a radioactive environment itself. So it may well be that in the future nuclear thermal propulsion may see its heyday.
Number 8. Space Elevators The idea of a space elevator in speculative science fiction is typically one connecting earth’s surface to an orbiting station essentially by lowering a cable, and using another cable and counterweight to balance the system and hold it stable. This would allow the transfer of materials from the ground to the space station easily, and cheaply, without the need for a rocket. In principle, this would allow for the transfer of massive amounts of materials into space that could be turned into giant space stations, O’neill cylinders of unprecedented size, and so on. Such a system could even be built to recover much of the energy put into lifting it, as gravity pulled it’s carriage back down to earth. This was the concept
behind the space elevator in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Fountains of Paradise. But there’s always been a serious problem with the space elevator idea. We didn’t have a suitable material in which to build one. We need far more than steel to hold this together. Now we do have a material that can do it in principle, using carbon nanotubes or similar technology for the tether, but this material has so far proven not very easy to make, you basically have to do it atom by atom still. And even if you did get enough material for the elevator, there’s always the question of calamities here on earth, human or natural, destroying the space elevator. And that in a nutshell is why we don’t have space elevators. But maybe someday, with enough development.
But there is another option that may come onto the table, even if we never build one here on earth. That is the idea of space elevators on much lower gravity bodies like the Moon and Mars. Here the conditions are different, especially in regards to lower gravity.
The stationary orbits for both these worlds are much lower due to the lower gravity, and as a result you don’t need as long of a tether for a space elevator. As a result, this could be done with materials we already have. But at the same time, they’d still likely need to be manufactured on the moon or Mars. This could look like mining the moons of Mars, perhaps even completely to get them out of the way and for their carbon and metals, or even using phobos as a counterweight. The moon is even easier on the materials issue, but it doesn’t rotate fast, so an elevator must use the L1 lagrangian point to balance out the gravitational forces, if you run out a much, much longer tether pointing towards earth in comparison to the other tether anchored to the moon.
This has the added benefit of not only being able to raise and lower materials to the surface, but also shortens the distance needed to travel from earth to get to the top of the tether. Again the problems, calamities and such and and even the very nature of where we live actually make this one one of those scarce potential human technologies where earth may never see this technology, but the moon and Mars may. Number 7. Skyhooks This is a sort of variation on the idea of a space elevator, though there are key differences in how they can be used. While a space elevator can be said to be a type of skyhook,
these variant ideas of skyhooks are different in that they do not anchor to a planet. The main use for the variations of the skyhook idea are to essentially gain speed for spacecraft without the need to carry more fuel to accelerate it out to its destination. You still need a launch vehicle, and you need faster launch systems than we use currently, but you do gain efficiency with skyhooks, the main variations being one that sits stationary in orbit of a planet, and one that rotates while it orbits the planet. Skyhooks also use the concept of a tether, where you have a cable and a counterweight around a center of gravity. The spacecraft in question would dock at the bottom of the tether, essentially ride it upward like an elevator into space, reach the top and gain an advantage of increased speed. If this whole tether is rotating like a slingshot, then it can work even better and catapult a star ship at even greater speeds. Experiments with tethers have been done in space,
and because you’re dealing with an object in space as opposed to something anchored to earth, it’s more doable with current materials. But the trick is in docking with the bottom of the tether. Here the tether can only get so close to earth, if you dip it into the atmosphere the bottom will burn up. So you have to keep it from dipping too deeply. That means your spacecraft wishing to gain advantage of the tether has to rendezvous with it very fast, and at very high precision or it will miss it. That can be done, we do some very precise things in space already, but we’d need to do a significant amount of research and development on hypersonic space planes that can accomplish this.
The other concern is that the tether will transfer its momentum to these spacecraft and have to be maintenanced to keep it at the right speed, requiring the development of advanced stationkeeping of a type a bit further than what we currently do and also the capture of incoming vehicles imparting momentum to the tether. But in the end, the advantages offered by skyhooks do seem to form a niche we may use some day, especially in regards to our colonization of Mars and other places. Once again, the circumstances of Mars, should we found a colony there, would make this very useful indeed. Number 6. Rail Guns and Mass Drivers This technology is something that isn’t in the future, it’s already here and has been for a very long time. The idea of moving something using electromagnetism is something we take advantage of extensively, and have since the age of electricity began.
If you turn on a fan, you’re using electricity to move something. This also applies to accelerating a projectile, and extensive research has been put into developing rail guns to replace things like old school chemical naval guns. There is a huge advantage to that, despite development challenges, which is safety so long as you aren’t on the receiving end. There is no explosive magazine
on a ship equipped with these, which was the demise of many warships throughout history. But there is a very extensive use for this technology in regards to space travel. Here the concept is typically termed a mass driver, or some variation thereof. And how you use it really depends on what you want to use it for. Firing mined metals off the surface of an asteroid is a different use than launching humans to the moon with one of these things. For humans, you have to make sure the humans inside the craft can handle the g forces.
This essentially eliminates any conventional gun, as early science fiction envisioned, rather a very long launch system, 50 kilometers or so, to gently accelerate the manned spacecraft to speeds needed to get into space. The advantage here again is that while your construction needs to be enormous, so does a highway, so we already do things on this scale. And you save costs here, but again the more practical use is in space and involves transferring raw materials into space from the surfaces of worlds, especially if you need to put them into orbit from the surface of earth. Number 5. Spacedocks One use for launching raw materials from earth is the construction of space stations, but also spacecraft. We are limited right now in just how large of components we can send into space,
to then build things like the international space station which required multiple launches from several countries over a period of years to build it to the size that it is, which isn’t that big in comparison to what we could build in space. But building in space from materials and components launched from earth is something we have successfully done on an international scale, and it’s something we can expand on using some of the technologies mentioned on this list. One of the things this would plausibly allow for however is the construction of space docks and star ships in orbit of enormous size, much like those envisioned in star trek. One thing that has hampered exploratory space missions is the dual problem of energy availability and the weight of a spacecraft along with its size. Take the James Webb space telescope, it had to weigh a certain limit and go no further, but it also had to fit inside of a predetermined fairing on a rocket, which played into the decision to launch it on an Ariane 5 rocket because it has one of the largest fairings out there. Even still, Webb has to operate on the total energy supplied by its solar cells,
and it had to unfold itself in space in a sort of space craft version of origami. All of this could be eliminated if you had two things. One, better energy generation methods in space. This may come in the form of compact fusion reactors, which while they are being developed, they’re not there yet. But if we get them,
then we will have all the power we could possibly want for missions into space The second is available size, there is no limit to the size of something you can build in space within reason, allowing for enormous spacecraft that could look more like moving cities in space than Voyager II. This opens up the eventual world of generational starships that can travel to other star systems at slow speed over generations of humans, or very long lived humans through life extension. It also would allow for probes of a type we can’t yet even dream to build, such as giant self-replicating probes sent across the galaxy. Once the limits of being able to construct objects in space expands, so do the possibilities of what we can do. Number 4. O’Neill Cylinders and Giant McKendree Cylinders
As with the space elevators, the biggest challenge we face is in the materials that are needed to create them. They barely exist, in the form of carbon nanotubes which are very difficult to make, but offer a glimpse into a future of ultra-strong materials that make our currently very strong materials like kevlar seem pale in comparison. It’s even possible, and some foresee this, that carbon nanotube technology might be the strongest material anyone in the universe can reasonably make, so far as known chemistry is concerned. Whether this is true or not, or if we can ever make carbon nanotube materials on an industrial scale remains to be seen. But say for a moment that we can, and these materials are our future. This opens up a
very interesting possibility above and beyond a space elevator. Rather it allows for a true, space nation in every sense of the word. Before we get to that, we have to cover the basics of a specific type of space habitat. That of the O’Neill Cylinder, first envisioned by Gerard K. O’Neill, along with variations thereof. This is a habitat that produces a kind of artificial gravity through
centrifugal force that in principle would allow for a somewhat earth-like existence for anyone wishing to live in one. We could hypothetically build these now with current materials, but only up to a certain size. We can make one of very large size, but there comes a limit. But O’Neill Cylinders give us a way to go beyond a mere space station, which can also be spun to simulate gravity. Rather we can have a self-enclosed space city, perhaps sitting at a lagrange point, or a group of said cities where people can work and live in space.
And while this idea may not be too far in our future, or at least some form of it, the idea can be scaled up with the right developments in materials. And here we get into human megastructures. This variation of O’Neill’s idea is called a McKendree cylinder, and through the use of carbon nanotube technology it can be constructed in principle on a titanic scale. It too would rotate and produce artificial gravity, or rather a gravity analogue, and could be built on the order of hundreds of kilometers in radius, but thousands as far as length. In fact, you can hypothetically outdo all but the very largest countries on earth in land mass and support hypothetically billions of people with large-scale agriculture driven by transparent areas of the cylinder allowing sunlight in, or conceivably using solar power to provide artificial lighting.
This could allow for a perfect living space, where everything is managed so well that things like crop failures, weather – though this thing would be so huge as to create it’s own weather that would need to be controlled – all fall to the wayside to have perhaps the ultimate in stability for human civilization. There are engineering concerns for sure, many of which would need to be identified and solved while such a thing was being constructed, but in its most rudimentary form it could be designed in counter rotating halves that would control the station's orientation. Such a structure could persist indefinitely with maintenance, and become a kind of artificial populated moon of sorts better suited for human habitation from the start than the natural moon is.
Of course this comes with risks. Such a thing could easily also become a death star, it’s inhabitants and their emperor holding earth hostage with their space laser as they make unreasonable demands on earth’s donut supply. Or vice versa as we build a space laser and point it towards them every time the perfect steel ball bearing prices get a bit too high for our tastes. Such an idea, if power sources, fueling and true self-sufficiency could ever be achieved, could even serve as the basis of a generational starship as has been depicted in science fiction and colonize a star system that happened to be passing nearby.
You could then play with such an idea and envision a kind of Camper RV Park Milky Way where cylinders of various alien cultures form settlements around suitable stars. If the neighbors prove less than tolerable, say some really radio loud aliens next door confounding your astronomical observations, you could use the cylinder as a sort of RV and move to the next suitable star system in hopes of better amenities and more peace and quiet. Or to flip it around, the alien RV cylinders see the humans coming, and all vacate before we get there leaving us forever thinking we are alone, or at the very least the formulation of the alien camper paradox. We should see more of these parked around but we don’t, yet we see ‘em pass by on the highway with not so much as a single friendly wave. Number 3. Artificial Magnetospheres
One of the major problems, among many, with the idea of colonizing the inner planets of the solar system is the lack of an appreciable magnetic field at both Venus and Mars. Earth’s magnetic field is extremely important for maintaining the conditions of this world and its habitability. Our magnetic field protects us from the solar wind, which would otherwise strip off earth’s atmosphere and creating a magnetosphere at Mars would be crucial for truly terraforming that planet, if that is indeed possible. But the dynamo action of the earth’s interior that generates its magnetic field is absent at Mars, and due to Mars interior being cooler, and that’s irreversible for anyone other than perhaps a supercivilization. But the creation of a natural magnetic field is neither the most practical way, nor is it even necessary. It is
possible to create an artificial magnetic field for Mars, and for that matter Venus. There are actually several ways to do it. To create a partial magnetic field, or a weak one, you can do it from orbit or the ground using magnetic field generating equipment. But a more powerful option would be to generate charged particles from the moon phobos to create a kind of particle torus around Mars. But there may be an even more comprehensive way to do it.
The idea goes like this, if you can put a magnetic field in between the sun and Mars, that should be sufficient in getting the planet to start terraforming itself. By blocking the action of the sun, Mars’ atmosphere will start to thicken and warm. If you can do that and maintain it long term, you can potentially get Mars’ atmosphere sufficiently thick as to not be immediately fatal if you were to step out of a habitat without a spacesuit.
It won’t be earth, and there is some question over just how thick you can get Mars’ atmosphere given recent discoveries that dropped the amount of carbon dioxide locked up at its poles, but you can start the process of making it at least a little more friendly to humans. More importantly perhaps is making it more friendly towards plants, more on that in a bit. Venus on the other hand would eventually need such a magnetic field, but it’s atmosphere is already thick and hot. There the better option to start the terraforming process would be to block the
light of the sun with a shield to start cooling things down. With technology that exists today, we can in principle already dramatically alter Venus and Mars if we were inclined to do so. Number 2 Compact Fusion Reactors We often view future power sources in space in the sense of Dyson Swarms or spheres that can collect the entire energy of a star, or most of it, and convert it into useable energy. This makes sense in one respect, stars produce massive amounts of free energy for the taking. But at the same time such far future technologies may be unfeasable from both an engineering and a cost perspective when there is something much easier to do that can generate vast amounts of energy using the most common materials in the universe such as hydrogen.
This is of course fusion energy, which also happens to be what powers stars. And, we’re not that far from useful fusion energy for power generation, though the idea has been one marred by slow development. Even today, the biggest efforts in developing fusion involve huge facilities like Iter that wouldn’t lend themselves well to being launched into space.
But that’s where the concept of compact fusion comes in. There are several projects afoot to develop fusion reactors that would produce on the order of a hundred megawatts of energy, yet be the size of a bus, and launchable into space to build things like giant spacedocks and o’neill cylinders with no shortage of energy available. And this is one area where there could be a wildcard. It’s possible through the current projects looking into it, that we may end up with compact fusion reactors before we have full on large scale fusion power plants. There is some reason to suspect that a breakthrough could happen here, and fusion energy simply appears earlier than expected, as a kind of reversal of the trend that’s been going since the nuclear age began. There are no guarantees of this, of course, but the landscape of fusion energy has changed and now looks somewhat different than it did just a decade ago. We shall see.
But regardless, it probably is the future and with widespread fusion energy, and plenty of hydrogen and other potential fuels in the solar system to work with, it may be that the idea of Dyson swarms on a large scale may never come to fruition simply because they’re not needed. This may also be why when we look into space, we don’t see any convincing evidence of those technologies, even though they should be readily detectable as technosignatures. Number 1 Genetic Manipulation for Space Nothing, and I mean nothing, on this planet is truly adapted for living in space. Everything here evolved here, in this environment. And while some species such
as tardigrades and certain microbes can survive in space, at least for a time, it’s a different thing whether they can do well and reproduce as successfully as they do here on earth. As a result, anything we do in space that involves biology whether it’s a space walk or to try to grow food, almost always requires us to basically bring earth’s atmosphere with us. And, to date, we also have to bring the nutrients, soil and water to grow food. And while there are some options for growing food in the soil of Mars, it’s pretty chemically hostile and would at the very least require washing with local water from Mars before you can grow anything. But at the same time, we can already genetically modify crops for various purposes here on earth, and there’s no reason why existing plants here on earth can’t be modified to do better in a Martian environment, at least a partly terraformed one, or in a habitat. But the idea of
genetically modifying crops can be taken a step further. How about genetically modified humans? Humans, or any animal for that matter, can be genetically modified to also do better in a Martian environment. Adaptations to lower gravity, more efficient lungs, vision better suited for dimmer light, and so on can all be envisioned as better for a Martian environment, though they would often preclude any return to Earth. These genetically modified humans would truly
be Martians, even though they hadn’t originally evolved there. And it could also be said that a better reproduction system in an environment such as Mars might be cloning, or custom genetics, to ensure the best level of adaptation in such artificial circumstances. But, as with anything, whether humans actually choose to do this remains to be seen. But therein is another question. If we decide to go full on machine civilization and upload ourselves into a consciousness cloud of some sort, then we can colonize just about anything. The line between robotic and personal exploration of the solar system becomes indistinct. If one could load their mind into a
robotic body, then Mars would be a simple place to explore in the face of exploring the surface of Europa, or perhaps even sky diving in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant and uploading one’s self back to the consciousness cloud at the very last moment before the robotic body is destroyed. That would make for a very strange future indeed, especially in regards to vacations. Thanks for listening! I am futurist and science fiction author John Michael Godier Currently worried about uplifted O’Neill cylinder agricultural crops. Think of modified corn that has an overall sense of wellbeing and positivity and feels great about itself. It’s totally okay with being eaten, at least until a human walks by and everything goes off the rails as this video has at several points. So you walk past a corn field in the O’Neill Cylinder and
the normally happy corn takes on a dark flair and every ear whispers in unison memento mori, the end comes to us all to stoically remind us we are every bit as mortal as corn. I’d say Grab the butter. But then you come up against the idea of corn immortality, I think I’ll just leave that one right there and be sure to check out my books at your favorite online book retailer and subscribe to my channels for regular, in-depth explorations into the interesting, weird and unknown aspects of this amazing universe in which we live.