Astronomers of the Future Club - March 2018 Meeting Report

by Duncan Lunan - 21:05 on 13 April 2018





Astronomers of the Future Club - March 2018 Meeting Report

by Duncan Lunan




At the Astronomers of the Future Club meeting in Troon on Thursday, 29th March, the guest speaker was Dr. Matteo Ceriotti of Glasgow University. From Milan, Dr. Ceriotti has been working with previous AOTF speakers including Prof. Colin McInnes, and was recommended by November’s speaker, Dr. Nicolas Labrosse.

Dr Ceriotti’s title was ‘The Science and Engineering of a Space Colony’, and he suggested that because the Earth is finite, civilisation would need to expand into space to survive. Initially the asteroids passing close to Earth might meet our needs, but eventually we’d have to go to much further – possibly to other planetary systems, like the one orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 which was discussed at the October AOTF meeting.

In a sense the International Space Station is already a space colony, but it needs constant resupply from Earth and repositioning in orbit. Further afield, the Moon and Mars are the obvious first targets, with surface conditions in some ways like Earth’s, and although Mars is much further away, it has the resources which could allow settlements to become self-supporting. Presidents Obama and Trump have both committed NASA to sending people to Mars, and there are already private proposals by the Mars One group and by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company for longer-term occupation. Mars One has focussed on choosing volunteers, with four British finalists among them out of an initial 200,000. Musk is focussing on the 100-passenger Interplanetary Transport System, using his informally named BFR (‘Very Big Rocket’), even bigger than the Falcon Heavy which recently had a successful test flight putting an electric car into space. Comparing it to the Soyuz ferry currently used to take people to the Space Station, Dr. Ceriotti remarked, “There’s a bit of a technology gap to be closed here”.

For interstellar travel the gap is even larger. At Solar System escape velocity, it would take 77,000 years to reach even the nearest star. The Breakthrough Starshot proposal backed by the late Prof. Stephen Hawking would send microprobes powered by laser beams from Earth, but even they would take 50 years.

Dr. Ceriotti closed with a long list of the problems to be solved even before the Moon or Mars could be settled. Air pressure and radiation shielding are two crucial ones, before we start on on-site resources such as water and the types of food to be grown. Nevertheless, many studies are ongoing and many of the core technologies are in place. Life on an extraterrestrial settlement might not be comfortable, but it should at least by possible – and there’s always the possibility that some new ‘disruptive technology’ may suddenly make it feasible.

The next meeting of the Astronomers of the Future Club will be on Thursday April 26th, 7.15 to 9 p.m., upstairs at the RSAS Barassie Works Club, 4 Shore Road (off West Portland Street), Troon KA10 6AG. The speaker will be Robert Law of the Mills Observatory in Dundee, talking about his recent visit to Kennedy Space Centre (on which he saw the prelaunch test firing of the Falcon Heavy) and the changes there since his last visit in 2016, which he described to the AOTF Club early last year.