"Life Beyond Earth" --Astroecology Research Offers New Insights
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May 16, 2014

"Life Beyond Earth" --Astroecology Research Offers New Insights

 

Hr-8799-artists-rendering (1)

 

"We seek a higher meaning to our existence, and these insights allow us to define one," says Michael Mautner, Ph.D., a research professor of chemistry in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, who studies how life might expand beyond Earth. "Belonging to organic gene/protein life implies that a human purpose is to safeguard and propagate life. This purpose is best achieved in space. Astroecology shows that with space resources, life can endure for trillions of future eons and expand greatly in the galaxy in quantity and diversity, and culturally."

Philosophers have realized since antiquity that life is special, and that we have strong bonds to other living beings. Science now gives an even deeper meaning to these ideas. We now know that every organism, from microbes to humans, share the beautifully complex mechanisms of biology, that the laws of nature precisely allow this complex life to exist and that all life pursues common goals of survival and reproduction.

We now have the technology to start expanding life in space on two levels. We can establish large human populations living in comfort in the solar system, and eventually far beyond. We can also seed new solar systems with our family of gene/protein organic life on the path to evolve into intelligent beings who expand life further in the galaxy.

Expansion in space involves technologies that are advancing rapidly. For example, sending microorganisms to new solar systems, or "directed panspermia," requires interstellar propulsion, identifying extrasolar target planets and precise astrometry for navigation. Biology is also key to human adaptation to space, and for developing microorganisms that can survive the long transits in deep space and then adapt to new environments.

Mautner studies astroecology, the relation between life and its potential resources in space. As to human settlement of the solar system, we shall need [food] in space to live and grow there. Mautner's work at VCU addresses two space topics. One, with Professor M. Samy El-Shall and Professor Scott Gronert, concerns basic chemistry and astrochemistry of complex molecules which may contribute to the origins of life.

Carbonaceous asteroids can provide accessible in situ resources, as they contain complex organic carbon, mineral plant nutrients and extractable water. He has been studying samples of these asteroids in meteorites to evaluate their soil fertilities and the responses of microorganisms and plant tissue cultures. A variety of soil bacteria, algae, and asparagus and potato tissue cultures grew well in these asteroid/meteorite soils and also in Martian meteorite soils.

This is important in both aspects of expansion in space: establishing human settlements and seeding new solar systems. It is important that life can flourish on these resources when we seek to secure and propagate life.

Life on Earth is fragile, endangered by nuclear proliferation, genetic misengineering, runaway climate change or major asteroid impacts, and limited by depleting resources. Eventually, Earth will become uninhabitable by the expanding sun. In contrast, life in many independent worlds in space can secure life for trillions of eons.

The first colonizers on Earth were blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) that formed the oxygen atmosphere for higher organisms. They can be similarly the first colonizers of asteroids and maybe Mars and other moons and planets, preparing soils for plants and humans. Mautner's team measured the nutrient contents of these materials. Given the estimated amounts of asteroid materials shows that these resources can support trillions of humans comfortably in our solar system, and eventually, in billions of other solar systems throughout the galaxy.

His hope is for a gradual expansion in space, that has already started. First, we need programs that serve human needs on Earth: communication and weather satellites, solar power collected by satellites and beamed to Earth, possibly a space sun shield against global warming, detection and diversion of threatening asteroids. These programs can start with lunar bases that provide the structural materials. We can then progress to pioneering outposts, followed by large in-space cities and on colonies on asteroids.

The basic technologies for these programs are available or advancing rapidly. It will require foresight and global cooperation to implement these programs, as we are approaching the sustainable limits of the Earth.

The image at the top of the page is an artist's rendering of the planetary system of HR 8799 130 light-years from Earth as it may have appeared at an early stage in its evolution. 

The Daily Galaxy via Virginia Commonweath University

Image Credit: Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics; Mediafarm

Comments

Now what if we would encode information into some redundant microbe-dna and send it to space in different directions. Some of the microbes would land on a habitable planet and start growing. Eventually after hundreds of millions of years an intelligent lifeform would gain knowledge about genes and discover our message... Would it be possible?

The problem with leaving a message in an organism like this is genetic drift will slowly replace the genes you've changed. Maybe if the message was short enough and repeated enough times it might be able to be pieced back together.

A lot of these ideas seem unnecessary, the way our technology is progressing I'm sure we'll find a way to travel to other solar systems relatively soon. We may have to hibernate to do it but even with our current capabilities we could build a nuclear and or solar sail craft that could reach nearby stars in a couple decades.

There is an evolutionary shift in the economic viability for commercial development in our planetary neighborhood. As the United States government relinquishes control over low earth orbit, a constellation of companies are emerging to provide services previously financially inaccessible. With these promising avenues for commercial and industrial development on the horizon, a small, but growing community within the interdisciplinary field of Astrobiology is gaining momentum, the Astroecologist. For true human colonization efforts to proceed we need to define the in situ life bearing resources which can be converted into a digestible biocompatible substrate that in turn can be reintroduced into the ecosystem. With applied astroecology made possible with planned asteroid mining projects and a firm understanding of the technical challenges, our advancing civilization will not just survive in the expanses of the solar system, but thrive.

For permanent manned colonization of the inner solar system to be effectively undertaken, adequate support systems such as bio-regenerative life support systems (BLSS), isolated agriculture (ISOAG) and an entire suite of biological needs for the settlers: eg. food, minerals, nutrients, air and water. As we progress as a technological civilization, we are almost completely reliant on machines to monoculture large areas of land, far beyond the carrying capacity of this planet. This overtaxing of our balanced system is beginning to show itself in the form of rising sea levels and CO2, as our population continues to grow research methodologies for how to thrive in closed ecosystems will have a direct benefit to research on this planet.

To continue to grow safely we must expand outward where, according to some estimates, the resource abundance properly utilized, could hold a number of humans many orders of magnitude higher on this world. Space based farming research (AstroCulture) can only be properly applied when combined with the whole systems understanding of the Astroecologist. Intense surveys and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) will be needed for the conversion of extraterrestrial matter into usable building materials as well as the raw materials organic life needs to self construct via metabolic processes.

Our habitats will be lush verdant environments providing an abundance of resources while sequestering the maximum amount of carbon possible into regolith; turning it from pale grays and pinks our probes have spied, into the carbon rich rich blacks and browns of our most fertile Terran regions. For this to even be discussed as a technological feasibility, a detailed resource assessment must be completed so that all base elements and minerals, to be utilized and processed by metabolic and non metabolic processes must be surveyed. Any prolonged endeavor cannot exist in the sterile environment of a spacecraft in perpetuity, the lifeforms, if they are to remain living, must learn to extract energy directly from their environment in a self sufficient manner using in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). Surely if the settlers of the new world came to North America with only their supplies and had no physical interaction with the land they will perish. Only through an intimate understanding the surrounding environment, can one know its life sustaining secrets.

With the assistance of bacteria and extra nutrients even common food plants can survive in some extreme substrates, I've heard of peppers growing in 100% rock dust. They do however have some pretty specific light requirements. Plants require not only a proper spectrum and light intensity but a correct light schedule as well. We should be able to use artificial lighting and solar shields to create a suitable environment. as long as plants have most of what they need they don't seem to suffer too much from small inadequacies like unusual soil or gravity, and selective breeding or genetic manipulation can improve their adaptability.

Space has all the raw materials e could ever need and more. We have the capability to not only survive in space but proliferate.


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