Movies like The Martian and shows like The Expanse are proof that our collective space euphoria is being revitalized. Why, even possible supervillain Elon Musk has announced his intention to colonize Mars -- almost certainly to build some kind of enormous bowel disruptor. But there are problems with interplanetary colonization that sci-fi doesn't warn you about. For example ...
In shows like Star Trek and Firefly, humans generally have no trouble running around on different planets in nothing but suspenders and unitards. This makes for more exciting phaser battles, but in reality, even if we reach the stage of colonizing the galaxy and warping from one planet to the next, we're not exactly going to be dressed for comfort.
The atmosphere on Earth at sea level contains 20.9 percent oxygen. By astounding coincidence, the ideal amount of oxygen in the atmosphere for human survival is also around 20.9 percent. Any less, and we start having problems.
Hell, we can't even go everywhere on Earth. Try climbing a large mountain without an oxygen supply. For reference, the U.S. Dept. of Labor's OSHA defines 19.5 percent oxygen content as the minimum safe concentration for humans. So, beyond the very unlikely event that your alien planet has a size and atmosphere practically identical to Earth, you're going to spend your whole holiday in a space suit or tightly controlled habitat.
That definitely applies to Mars, which has a pressure less than 1 percent of that on Earth and an atmosphere that is 95 percent carbon dioxide. While your eyes probably won't go all Rodney Dangerfield and explode like in Total Recall, you're never going to be able to flounce around in a loincloth like in John Carter.
Walt Disney Pictures
And if you can't wear a loincloth on Mars, really, what's the point?
Of course, in Firefly they explain this away by mentioning that all these planets have been terraformed to harbor an Earth-like atmosphere. But that's probably not a likely solution either -- the kind of atmosphere a planet can support is dictated by many factors. In the case of Mars, you could pump all the oxygen you wanted into its atmosphere, but its gravity is so weak that oxygen will just float away into space.
Those are just a few of the factors that make alien colonies more difficult than the movies portray. The most recent example, The Martian, pulled no punches in showing what an absolute bitch of a time you would have trying to live on Mars. But even the author of the novel admitted that he had to ignore a few scientific facts to make it work -- namely, the fact that radiation is so high on Mars that Matt Damon would be dead from cancer in a matter of months. We assume that ending wouldn't have tested as positively in early screenings.
20th Century Fox
No audience wants to see Matt Damon jimmy-rigging chemo drugs from his own poop.
If interplanetary colonization ever becomes plausible, we're going to have to revise everything we know about land and property law. After all, these laws currently operate on the basis that every inch of available land on the planet is owned by somebody. The moment someone establishes a permanent colony on another hunk of celestial rock, it's the goddamn Wild West all over again.
Though the prospect of being Chief Space Justice on the Galactic Supreme Court
would send law school enrollment through the roof.
The Martian makes a point of this when Matt Damon's character remarks that, technically, he's living under maritime law because he's outside of any nation's established borders. And he's pretty much right, because human law has yet to establish any rules for what happens beyond the seven known continents, and until Atlantis is discovered, that's pretty much it for the age of exploration.
There are international treaties that address the space issue, and they currently dictate that no nation can claim any land or resources beyond Earth. But that of course relies on the presumption that we're not leaving Earth's atmosphere anytime soon for any purpose but to take some cool photos of Pluto, some soil samples from Mars, or to land a probe on a comet on a drunken dare.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"The United States cannot claim ownership of the moon."
"Hey Vladimir, we're willing to share the land; just show us where you planted your flag ...
Oh, that's right. *mic drop*"
Robert Heinlein's sci-fi novel Stranger In A Strange Land explores the legal ramifications of human beings landing on another planet and how the law is currently ill-equipped to handle who owns what outside of our currently Earth-centric prison. But if we're optimistic, we're probably going to need to look into establishing some Star Trek-style Galactic Federation laws.
If we're going to colonize other planets, then we're inevitably going to have to farm them. And unless we turn entire continents into carefully controlled greenhouses, that presents a smorgasbord of problems. In The Martian, Matt Damon's character creates a potato farm on Mars by mixing the soil with bags of his own poop as fertilizer. Author Andy Weir strove to make this scenario as scientifically accurate as possible, but one thing he either missed or, more likely, ignored (because goddamn; he's gotta tell a story here) is the fact that the Martian soil is actually toxic as fuck. In reality, Martian farmers would have to heavily rinse the soil to make sure crops would even grow in it, let alone not kill you when you ate them.
And, sadly, it's not because Martian soil would turn them into mutants.
Even then, the idea that you can survive indefinitely on potatoes is another liberty Weir had to take to make the scenario plausible. In any real-life colony, we're going to need a variety of plants and animals to make up a healthy human diet. Unfortunately, just like humans, other Earth organisms have difficulty living in conditions they're not accustomed to. And, unlike us, they can't MacGyver their way out of stressful situations.
Firefly is one show that addressed this issue, establishing in a few episodes the reality of an interplanetary livestock trade. But they also don't imply that the transported animals have any problem with this. In reality, animals much more than humans rely on senses highly tuned to standard Earth conditions to get by.
Tyler Olson/Hemera/Getty Images
Have you ever seen a fucking cow in space? No? Now you know why.
For example, there's evidence that chickens orient themselves in part by an internal compass that detects the Earth's magnetic field. And a chicken is an animal that basically has only two modes: Normal and Maximum Panic. We can only imagine how they would react on a planet that has a different magnetic field than that of Earth, and most scenarios can best be described as a blood orgy.
When scientists talk about colonizing the solar system, they often look to moons rather than actual planets. For example, Saturn's moon Titan has been cited as one of the most habitable places in our solar system, and that's where the humans are said to have retreated to in the movie Oblivion. And NASA has considered the possibility of moving to Jupiter's moon Callisto. In Return Of The Jedi, much of the action takes place on the moon of the gas giant Endor.
However, living on a moon provides an extra dimension of complications. After all, you're not orbiting the sun anymore; you're orbiting a much closer object that has a much larger impact on the physical conditions of your world. For example, tides on Earth are caused by the gravitational pull of our moon on the ocean, but because physics is a two-way street, the Earth's gravity has a much larger pull on the moon, to the point where NASA recently observed a 20-inch bulge in the moon caused by Earth's gravity. Now imagine what the tides are like on the forest moon of Endor. Presumably, those Ewoks live way the hell away from the coast.
But, hopefully, they don't.
Gravity also plays a larger role in moon conditions thanks to the fact that giant planets like Jupiter tend to have a lot more moons than our pitiful collection of one (in Jupiter's case, 67 and counting). Jupiter's moon Io is another contender for possible human habitation, but thanks to its position, the gravitational forces from its 66 siblings also make it one of the most volcanically active places in the solar system. Make sure you take your lead umbrella.
There are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year, but all that's based on how fast the Earth spins and the length of its orbit. You can throw all that stuff out the window when it comes to other planets. Despite everything we just said about Mars, one thing that makes it pretty comfortable is that the length of its day is pretty close to the same as ours.
But, inevitably, some asshole will insist on implementing daylight savings time there too.
If you lived on Jupiter, though (like, in a zeppelin or something, we guess), you would have to adapt to a 10-hour day. That means you'd see the sun rise and set twice in the course of one Earth day. Or you can try to live on Venus, which hardly spins at all, and not see sunset for around 243 Earth days, which is longer than the planet's entire year.
Measuring time is one of the most crucial elements of our daily life, and we rely on it to be standard. Our sleep cycle is controlled by our body's circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells our brain when to get tired, when to get hungry, and when to wake up. Unsurprisingly, it's programmed for a 24-hour day, and messing with that even a little causes big problems -- our health measurably suffers just from dealing with jet lag.
"The sun set at 5 a.m. ... it just doesn't make sense. IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE!"
Science-fiction occasionally tries to deal with this concept in an offhand way. Star Trek, for example, has some kind of standardized system called a stardate, which basically involves rattling off a bunch of random numbers and hoping the audience doesn't think about it too hard. But for a civilization living on multiple planets, the problem becomes ridiculous fairly quickly. Do we standardize all time based on Earth's rotation? Then good luck trying to keep a schedule on a planet where the sun rises three times a day. Alternatively, we could have different time systems for different planets, but that would be a nightmare for any kind of multiple-planet civilization, not to mention you could lose track of smaller details like when your birthday actually is or how old you are. Even worse if any of these planets have goddamn daylight savings.
Ready to have all your other sci-fi hopes shattered? Like traveling through time will kill you pretty quickly and that moon dust should be more appropriately named murder dust. Learn more in 6 Time Travel Realities Doc Brown Didn't Warn Us About and The 6 Weirdest Dangers Of Space Travel.
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