Planetary Terraforming Strategies

Planetary Terraforming Strategies

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In order to forge new worlds under alien suns,   we’ll need to be both patient and clever,  but billions and billions of planets could   be made into new homes for humanity if we  can master our terraforming strategies. We recently were looking at strategies we  might use for interstellar colonization,   and that was such a big topic we decided to  save discussing what we did when we arrived   in a solar system for a second installment,  and today we’ll be talking about how an   interstellar colony arriving in another solar  system might go about making it a new home.  As of today we know of no life on other planets,  and while there may well be many habitable worlds   out there in the galaxy, the odds aren’t  good any of them will be fully compatible   with us and our own terrestrial flora and fauna.  Even if the perfect new planet were out there,   it might not be wise or ethical to colonize  such a world, just considering how damaging   invasive species can be here on Earth,  just from one continent to another. 

Terraforming a rocky planet to be like Earth  is not the only option our colonists will have,   as we’ll discuss today, indeed doing something  like this will likely be a later operation.  Once your ship or fleet has arrived in a new  solar system, your first goal must be resupply.   You’ve probably been traveling through space for  decades or even centuries without a pit stop and,   while in theory you could have carried all  you need to establish your colony and more,   I think we have to assume no interstellar colony  mission would ever be sent unless we were already   pretty experienced with in situ production of  equipment from locally available raw materials.   I feel like that’s a safe bet considering it would  be tantamount to cruel experimentation to send   colonists out except in grave desperation  without the ability to manufacture things   from local materials when they arrive. Barring some desperate attempt at a first   interstellar colony in the next century or two  because of some solar system wide catastrophe   like an inbound rogue black hole, I just can’t  imagine anyone sending out interstellar colony   fleets until we have had some practice on the  various planets, moons, and asteroids of our   own solar system. Furthermore there are billions  of stars in the galaxy awaiting to be colonized,  

so we might imagine a handful of first attempts  being done with limited knowledge and skill,   but this episode isn’t on our first interstellar  colony, but rather general strategies.   And even if we send a colony ship out  tomorrow, we still have a long time   before it arrives to figure out how to do some  in situ mining and manufacturing on arrival.  This assumes no FTL, faster than light travel, and  we will keep this assumption for the rest of the   episode, but as an example, if tomorrow someone  knocks out a portal device in their garage like we   see in Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga, so we  can just step onto new planets right from Earth,   Stargate style, then we can expect to see a lot  of reckless, half-baked colonies get attempted.   However, from there they can just ship you what  you need through a portal right from Earth,   possibly even a perpetual portal with  railroads, cables, and pipelines running   through it, so things get easier. Indeed much easier, instantaneous   transfer of material doesn’t just make shipping  in gear cheaper and at-need, but it also opens   doors to options like terraforming a desert  planet by opening wormholes up to some water   planet or frozen moon and draining it onto that  other planet. Or warming a planet by opening a  

wormhole directly next to a star on one end and in  a 24-hour orbital period above the target planet   so that it had a sun and normal Earth-like day.  Even merging two planets together for added mass,   or the targeted addition of matter with high  momentum to increase or decrease a planet’s   angular momentum to change its day length  or year length become viable with portals.  Options like this, often overlooked in sci fi,  are reasons why I always say the Fermi Paradox,   the big question of where all the aliens are,  is only exacerbated by faster than light travel   options, as they just make endless space  colonization so much easier and faster that   it’s hard to imagine why someone doesn’t  do it, let alone why everyone doesn’t.  Those sort of options are cool to contemplate but  I just don’t see FTL being in the cards. However,  

there are other technologies which would  seem outside the realm of known physics now,   but which might not be and which might be  very handy for terraforming. As an example,   we tend to assume gravity manipulation options  are limited to either ignoring real gravity and   simply replicating it with spin or creating the  sort of gravity we want with lots of dense mass.   Instead, we may get artificial gravity of  the sort ubiquitous in science fiction on   board space ships that just “pulls you down”  as if you were on the surface of the Earth.   And while we have no idea how to do it, it  would seem like stimulating the emission of a   graviton should be in the realm of the possible,  much as it is for photons or other particles.  But even without that option, we might be able  to make a micro-black hole and place it in a   hollowed out chamber inside an asteroid, and to  give it Earth-like gravity we could feed it on   some cheaper source of matter like ultra-abundant  hydrogen or helium. Or maybe even dark matter,   which at the moment appears to have little use as  a material except for generating gravity. Indeed  

given that what little we know about dark matter  implies it doesn’t even interact with itself,   it’s a material that should be able to be made  ultra-dense if you learn any way to manipulate it,   making it ideal for adding mass to smaller bodies  like Moons or Asteroids to raise the gravity.   Such tricks can also be employed to raise  or lower gravity in a local area, as we   discussed more in our episode Moon: Mega City. The degree of the technology available to a   civilization definitely controls what sort of  colonization strategies they will be using. For   instance if they can open wormholes to entirely  separate Universes and suck matter and energy   out of them, they might mass manufacture  planets and stars, simply because they have   infinite access to matter and energy, even if  seemingly more economical options like rotating   space habitats apparently made more sense. There’s also a lot of question marks on what  

humans, and our various plants, microbes, and  critters, actually need in terms of a planet. We   tend to assume life will do well on planets that  are decently like Earth in Gravity, Temperature,   and Day Length. This assumption is partially  justified since our Sun was a good deal dimmer   when life began on Earth and the atmosphere and  day length was a lot different too. We believe the   Earth used to have a day that might have been as  little as 4 hours long, until being smashed into   by another smaller planet and the Moon forming  from part of the scattered debris. As the Moon  

coalesced and slowly tidally locked to always show  Earth the same side, Earth’s own day slowed too.   One of the better models I’ve seen suggests that  when basic life emerged, earth’s day was 12 hours   long, 18 hours long when photosynthesis emerged  and allowed life to directly use sunlight to   fuel itself, and only 21 hours long 2 billion  years later when eukaryotic cells emerged.  All of this implies that life can handle  different day lengths, since it used to,   and we already know some lifeforms can thrive in  low pressure or zero gravity. But we should take   this all with a grain of salt, or maybe an entire  ocean of saltwater, because most ecologies are a   fragile balance constantly at risk of sliding out  of that balance from minor changes. A specific  

lifeform - and therefore life at all - might be  able to handle a slight change in ocean salinity   but an entire ecosystem where that happened  might rapidly crash as this or that organism   inside it gains an advantage -- or hindrance  -- that allows it to become a super-predator   eating all its food supply and killing it off,  removing a feeding base for other life forms.  This is another reason why you need to resupply on  day 1 as you enter a new system, because in order   to start getting ecosystems going, you’re going  to need large spaces to start generating rotating   habitats precisely calibrated to mimic Earth where  you can put those ecosystems. Rotating habitats   are going to be way better than trying to spawn  new ecosystems under domes on some planet you’re   in the process of terraforming. Terraforming is  inherently destructive to the local planet, even   modest terraforming efforts on the typical planet  would make a nuclear war, dino-killer asteroid, or   CO2 rises look rather embarrassingly minimalist.  You can do some serious terraforming using atomic   explosions or redirected asteroids and comets but  those aren’t trivial uses of materials either.  As we discussed in Nuking Mars, where we  looked at using nukes to terraform the planet,   that would require far more megatons worth of  explosions than the peak warhead supplies of   the Cold War. Redirecting mountain-sized blocks  of rock or ice isn’t easy either. Nor are options  

like producing a few billion square kilometers  of solar mirrors or shades to adjust a planet’s   temperature to a higher or lower level. Though  in that case there are some simpler options. You   might only need a lens or dish at a Lagrange point  as you may already have deployed some vast amount   of solar mirrors or collectors as part of your  slow down maneuver on entering the solar system,   and to allow follow up manned missions or  robotic supply ships to come at far higher   speeds than your ship came in, cruising  along vast interstellar laser highways.   The power supply from that could be redirected in  whole or part, or part-time, to warming up your   planet or powering your initial industries. Everything is very dependent on your goals,   your technology, and the specific star system  you are in, but by and large the most probable   strategy tends to converge toward deploying a  large laser and power beaming array near your   sun and selecting a gas giant or ice giant with  a large numbers of moons as your initial landing   point for your colony fleet. An outer moon with  plenty of ice and rock which is safely outside  

any radiation belts of the planet and most of  that planet’s own gravity well. Such moons,   even bigger ones, really don’t have much of  a gravity well to worry about, especially for   anyone able to make interstellar spaceships,  so it would also be quick and cheap to ship   materials back and forth from those neighboring  moons, or to any Trojan Asteroids that planet had.  Our solar system is the only one we can really  speak to in terms of asteroids and moon masses,   the normal may range by whole orders of magnitude  different from this, to moons as big as Earth that   are habitable themselves, to systems almost devoid  of any asteroids we could use for raw materials.  

Our own asteroid belt combined wouldn’t add  up in mass to any of our ten largest moons,   and all ten of those combined wouldn’t come  close to the mass of Earth. Or close to   the mass needed to make a planet like Mars  have Earth-like gravity by adding them in.   So on the one hand, even a star system with  a very modest supply of moons and asteroid   is more than sufficient for some extreme levels  of industry that will let you tackle colonizing   a solar system, while on the other hand  it is still limiting for options like   copying Earth when there’s no planet already  present that’s pretty close to begin with. 

What you need early on is energy and cheap sources  of raw materials, and smaller moons and asteroids   are optimal for the latter. Energy is trickier as  it depends on what your best technology for energy   is. Your best energy source might not be your  cheapest or most technologically advanced. You   might have excellent artificial fusion reactors  yet opt for solar collectors anyway simply as   being easier to mass produce and maintain per watt  of energy. Or you have fusion but the reactors are   so big that for most applications you often prefer  small modular fission reactors running on uranium,   plutonium, or thorium. Or you might have black  hole generators, ones you can feed mass into,   and that might make it preferable to park that  generator in orbit of a gas giant and just slowly   siphon matter off to generate power as it falls  in and beam that out to the nearby moon as needed.  Indeed in those sorts of cases of massive power  abundance, you might even decide the best way   to get an Earth-like Planet is to make some, by  stripping the gasses of a gas giant until only   the core remained to be cooled and turned into  a rocky planet, or creating black holes to just   under Earth mass and building a shell world around  each, using the methods discussed in our episodes   Mega-Earths and Colonizing Black Holes. Abundant  cheap energy offers some impressive avenues,  

and should never be ignored for discussing  interstellar colonization, as opposed to early   interplanetary efforts in our native solar system,  since interstellar colony ships are potentially   so insanely energy intensive themselves. The  arrival of a colony fleet around a distant   star strongly implies they’ve not got a problem  generating lots of energy when they want to,   so we definitely want to contemplate it in today’s  discussions, whereas other technologies are less   strongly implied. The same will hold true of  a great knowledge of genetics and biology, and   advanced automation. In all probability, they’ve  got all of the above, or wouldn’t be colonizing   space, though we examined the slow and low tech  option in our episode Crawlonizing the Galaxy. 

Once you start mining up the local asteroids and  moons, which likely relies on advanced automation   to help build and run the machines your colonists  use for this, you can start building the shells   for rotating habitats and preparing them to be  your incubators for local ecosystems. You may or   may not have had vast zoos and ecologies on your  ship during the trip but odds are even if you did   it was still kept as small as viable and relied  on lots of frozen or digitally stored DNA and   samples. We often talk about how nice rotating  habitats are for mimicking Earth, places where   the gravity and day and temperature can be made  exactly like Earth’s, but they can also mimic a   planet that might be a candidate for terraforming.  For instance, if you had one with a 26 hour day   and 81% of Earth’s gravity, you could use a  rotating habitat to test how a specific ecosystem   from Earth might handle those conditions, and  potentially do hundreds of isolated experiments   at once, each on a cylinder habitat of its own,  to test combinations of terrestrial organisms or   those we’ve slightly modified genetically.  They then become a great place to serve as   nurseries for you to bring in organisms from  as your terraforming of that planet progresses. 

Since your telescopes likely told you what  that planet’s mass, day and year length,   and temperature were before you even boarded the  ship to leave Earth, it’s possible we might run   simulations on rotating habitats back here too,  and have good results before the ship arrived   at its destination, or that you might have  additional habitation drums on your colonial   spaceships set to mimic those conditions. You could also mimic its forecasted future   conditions, when you add in a large array of solar  shades at the L1 to cool the planet down a bit,   and begin beaming gigatons of hydrogen at the  planet from the star to combine with local oxygen   liberated from its own rocks to form oceans, which  is probably how we’ll handle terraforming Venus.  None of these is a fast process either, and little  with terraforming moves quickly. Creating an   Earth-like planet, even with the aid of energy  ultra-abundance and smart self-replicating   machines is likely to be a process of millennia.  So a colony that arrived with ten thousand members   in the year 2400 AD, after leaving with  just five thousand from earth in 2300 AD,   might number a hundred million by the time  that planet was really suitable for humans   to live on as a New Earth in the year 4400 AD. In the meantime those cylinder habitats were a   great place to live too, and not a hard adjustment  considering their ancestors were probably living   in similar habitation drums on board their colony  ship for the decades or centuries of flight time   there, and indeed for most future interstellar  colonies beyond our initial first hundred or so,   it would be very likely most immigrants out  from our solar system weren’t coming directly   from Earth but had come from some rotating habitat  built into an asteroid or moon or orbiting Earth. 

Which begs the question of whether terraforming  copies of Earth is really going to be the normal   strategy even in systems which have pretty  good basic copies of Earth to work from,   which most probably don’t. We also shouldn’t  ignore that while we keep talking about   making artificial gravity by spin, many future  humans might be adjusted to far lower gravity,   or even micro-gravity, and indeed settlers out  from Earth might not be human. I don’t just   mean options like post-human cyborgs  or artificial intelligence either.  Consider, it is entirely possible we will  experiment with, and succeed, in making   human-intelligent dogs, dolphins, chimps, cats,  whichever. Or hybrids of, like a werewolf, or  

something more arcane like a brilliant jellyfish  or squid. What then? I won’t say genocide would be   off the table, or sterilizing them or controlling  their numbers and rights, but I’d like to think   more ethical options would be pursued instead.  Albeit it’s rather debatable if an ethical society   would even perform such experiments in the first  place, but if we did, would not that eventually   result in colony ships not just containing humans  but such uplifted animal or abhuman members? Or   entirely composed of them? Indeed they might be  fleeing us if we turned out to be cruel to them   and thus not able to draw on vast supplies of  knowledge, technology, and resources when they   reached their unpopulated new haven as refugees The colonization strategies pursued by a race   of smart dolphins or a race of humanoids with  wings who can fly in a low gravity atmosphere   like our Moon might one day offer would vary from  what you or I would like, and the same for a race   of uploaded humans whose colony is really just a  lot of construction and maintenance drones tending   to the computers and power collectors that run  their vast virtual worlds orbiting some new star.  There would be a different style of  terraforming too, because it’s all simulated,   which doesn’t imply easy either. Being a world  designer, be it virtual or classic terraforming,   is going to be a job where the Devil is in  the details and untold millions of positive   and negative feedbacks can wreck your system.  And in reality it’s never really a lone planet   you’re focused on forging here, but an entire  star system. Whatever your colonists wanted  

when they left Earth, odds are good it mutated by  arrival time, and if not, a few dozen generations   of birth and growth is likely to see you get  arranged into number of different cultures and   emerging civilizations with different interests,  and a fairly obvious way of avoiding conflict is   to avoid conflicting interests by spreading out. An entire planet is pretty spacious for a growing   space colony, but a solar system makes that  look tiny. Remember that our own solar system,   for all that we talk of having 8 planets, actually  contains millions of minor planets and sufficient   resources and options for energy production  to support many millions of times our current   population. Which will be the case for most other  star systems too. The dimmest red dwarf may only   be able to support a million times our current  numbers, several quadrillion people, while the   larger giants may be able to support trillions of  trillions of people, especially with improvements   to efficiency. We often consider such new planets  as the birthplace of such greater K2 civilizations   once seeded around new stars, but it is entirely  possible that the civilization will have grown   to trillions living around all those moons  and asteroids and other minor planets long   before the planet they were planning on  terraforming is ready for habitation.  With that in mind, there are ways to expedite  terraforming, though we need to be aware these   will often have limits too. We can talk  about grey-gooing a planet with smart  

self-replicating machines to just turn it into  some instant-paradise, and we know that path   is viable since that’s what already happened  on Earth, and repeatedly considering how many   extinction and replacement events happened.  I often call that an example of green-gooing,   though the first wave of life on Earth wasn’t  photosynthetic and thus presumably wasn’t green,   and later got itself wiped out by those, who  in turn got wiped out by future iterations.  We might think of mechanical machines as being  better but evolution already works to minimalize   things around the idea of spreading life quickly,  so don’t assume anything we design is going to   automatically be orders of magnitude better  in terms of speed of replication and action   or durability. Even super-duper nanotech still  has heat issues, as we’ve discussed before,   some little robot like that isn’t going to  be very durable and a planet can only radiate   away heat produced while changing it so fast. As  we’ve noted in discussion of terraforming Mars,   there’s limits to how fast you can even  add water by dropping frozen comets as the   gravity of the world will be superheating them  as they drop so that the planet would boil if   you tried to give it oceans in mere decades. Such problems might have their own workarounds   too, some easy way to remove heat from planets  is a technology that an advanced civilization   would certainly covet and pursue any plausible  scientific leads to it. So if it can be done,  

they’ll figure out how, but wishing a thing true  tends not to work and for the moment at least,   science tells us the heat removal issue is  a serious bottleneck on terraforming planets   along with bottlenecking so many other things too. Hence, no insta-planet. No insta-habitats either   but the parameters involved on something like an  O’Neil Cylinder or smaller habitat do let them   move heat out a lot quicker than your typical  planet. You also can minimize a lot of that   heat with extensive use of space elevators, space  towers, orbital rings, or tethered rings, as those   let you recapture a lot of your energy entering a  planet’s gravity well as opposed to shedding it as   raw heat the way a spaceship aerobraking does,  like during the shuttle or capsule re-entries.  Again the advantage goes to those who set up their  space-based infrastructure before their planet,   rather than landing on some planet and  then building your space infrastructure   like we did. And we must remember, these  colonists are principally coming from a  

spacefaring civilization, so even if they want  a planet of their own as a daughter of Earth,   they’re not going to just bypass all that  orbital and solar infrastructure and industry,   especially given how useful  it would be for terraforming.  As an example of that, while you can create a huge  network of solar shades and mirrors down the road,   at first, if you want a home on some frozen planet  for instance, a handful of modest parabolic dishes   and lenses in orbit targeting your early domes  provides warmth and power. Not to mention mapping,   after all this is a whole new planet, so an  array of satellites providing imaging, mapping,   communications, and GPS is certainly handy. We noted earlier that since terraforming is   so destructive you don’t really want to live  on the planet while it’s going on, but you   probably could have some permanent facilities. On  an airless world, odds are an equatorial mountain   is your preferred alpha site, and I think that  will generally hold though I could imagine worlds   with thinner existing atmospheres might opt  for a valley where things could be sealed up   and pressure could be maintained higher and air  could be made of a composition we could breathe.   You want a place that’s going to be resilient when  the time comes to start overhauling the planet,   so tectonically active spots aren’t a great pick  nor places that might mudslide once you introduce   oceans and atmosphere, long before you get to put  in organic anti-erosion options, like grasses and   tree roots. Though you may mass produce artificial  erosion control barriers that emulated roots. 

Needless to say, our terraforming options also  vary on our biology and culture. For instance,   a space colony fleet might contain a faction  of the Amish, or a parallel to a different set   of technologies. Which can vary a lot. Many  Amish families near my farm, for instance,   have solar panel arrays to power lighting and  will use a credit card at the store but will not   use a computer, or car nor own a bicycle, but are  also fine with riding in a van they do not own or   drive themselves. Insofar as they generally  make for polite and trustworthy neighbors,   I could easily imagine them coming along as  contingents on various colonial expeditions.  

It doesn’t matter if they can make technology,  just if they’re comfortable with the products.   My first thought was they’d prefer planets but  they may be as happy as citizens on a O’Neill   Cylinder someone else builds and maintains  as on a planet, and as general case, it is   very easy for me to imagine lots of culture or  splinter factions migrating away from Earth with   differing opinions on what technologies they  were comfortable with and in what fashions.  That said if you have a world that’s got an  atmosphere at a pressure and mix that would   kill you or I dead and half-again Earth’s  gravity, it is entirely possible you’d have   factions of humanity that were adapted to  handle such conditions and just preferred   to move in as-is and skip on terraforming.  Saves on effort, money, and competition for   the space. My guess is that by the time our first  colony ships arrive around other solar systems,   humanity will already include a lot of cyborg  or transhuman clades and there’s a good chance   they’ll be highly advantaged and proactive  in space colonization of strange new worlds. 

So too, we might engineer humans to live on  a planet without changing it, by changing   them – what we call bioforming. Given that we  would also need to do that to all the critters   and plants we brought along, my guess is that we  will tend to do terraforming more than bioforming,   but also that each case will be a little bit of  column A and a little of column B, and probably   varying not just by the specific planet but  amongst the various factions there. There would   be those aiming to adapt the world while others  focused more on adapting to the world. Which  

might lead to some interesting and not always  peaceful conflicts as a planet was settled.  In the end it is hard to say for sure how other  solar systems and their planets will be colonized   and what strategies will work best. For now, while  we can speculate and make some informed guesses,   the best way to find out what truly works is to  get out there and explore and see what it takes   to start new civilizations on all those  strange new worlds out among the stars. So today’s episode is a partial sequel both to  our recent episodes on interstellar Colonization   Strategies and Asteroid Ships, but also to our  episode Planets versus Megastructures that we   released as a bonus video last year exclusively  on our subscription streaming service, Nebula,   if you want to see that our any of our other  bonus content. Episodes on Nebula come out 3   to 4 days earlier than they premiere on youtube,  but they also come out ad and sponsor read free,   and around a quarter of them come  out either with extended editions   several minutes longer or with a companion  episode, like Planets versus Megastructures   was for our Megastructure Compendium last  year, or Conformal Cyclic Cosmology was for   last month’s episode, The Omega Point. Nebula’s a great place for creators to   experiment with content without getting penalized  by Youtube’s algorithms. If you like the idea of  

seeing, or listening, to all that bonus content,  by myself and many other creators, and of getting   SFIA’s episodes a few days early and without ads,  then you can join Nebula for just a few dollars   a month, and gain access to all that ad-free,  early, and bonus content, while supporting this   channel and other independent creators. We also  now have Nebula Classes, no additional charge,   from many of your favorite educational shows. If you’d like to join Nebula today, just click   the link in the episode description,  So that will wrap us up for today but we’re just  getting started for February, and next Thursday,   February 9th, we’ll discuss a surprising  candidate for possibly hosting alien life,   large oceanic worlds with massive hydrogen  atmospheres, or Hycean Planets. And don’t forget  

to join us after that for the mid-month  Scifi Sunday episode, on February 12th,   where we’ll look at the concept of Super Soldiers.  Then in two weeks will continue our discussion   from last fall about Time Wars with a look at  Multiversal Warfare and the implications of some   of the crazier aspects of Quantum Mechanics. If you’d like to get alerts when those and   other episodes come out, make sure to hit the  like, subscribe, and notification buttons. You  

can also help support the show on Patreon, and  if you want to donate and help in other ways,   you can see those options by visiting our website, You can also catch all of SFIA’s   episodes early and ad free on our streaming  service, Nebula, at  As always, thanks for watching,  and have a Great Week!

2023-02-05 05:48

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