"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."
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