A Backpacker’s Guide to the Solar System- Part 1!
Going backpacking across the inner Solar System. Where can we pitch our tents?
Life. Let’s talk about life. To a scientist, life is that which can breathe, move, grow or reproduce. We can think of several exceptions to these at once, but laypeople will agree on what it vaguely means to be “living”. Before we go any further, this article is not of a metaphysical bent. We won’t talk about the purpose of life and other grandiose musings. Instead, let’s speak of survival, of the fastest way to get that which we deem indispensable, of how to find food, water, air, shelter and aid during a crisis, and of how to do it far from home. Pack a bag, toss a few potatoes in, for we’re going backpacking across the solar system!
Named after the Roman messenger god, Mercury revolves around the Sun at a breakneck pace. A year on Mercury flashes past in 88 Earth days, the shortest time in the solar system. Before jumping at the idea of living on a planet-sized roller coaster, let’s check our new digs out. Bad news, Mercury is tidally locked. This means that one side faces the Sun all the time. And the other hasn’t seen the Sun in well, forever. This, in turn, means that one side would make Will Smith go “Ah… that’s hot”, and the other would be as cold as a seen zone on a group chat, by everyone. Also an oversimplification.
Any life there would have to perch on a narrow band along the poles to evade the extreme temperatures. I say perch because its position is nothing short of precarious. Mercury doesn’t have a strong enough atmosphere to hold heat, nor can it offer protection against incoming meteors. And thus Mercury is inhospitable, and the Guide strongly recommends that you don’t pitch a tent there. Moving on,
Venus is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. A probable reason behind this is that during sunset and sunrise, Venus is one of the brightest objects in the sky. It is one of the planets spotted with ease and is frankly rather eye-catching, like its namesake. Venus has been long considered Earth’s twin, because of how similar it is to Earth in terms of mass.
Before we look into a Venusian settlement, we must take a few things into account. One, a day on Venus is longer than a year there. So on the ground, we would face protracted days and nights. But since Venus’ atmosphere can retain heat and deflect radiation, the long days and nights will not cause trouble. The catch? The atmosphere does its job a little too well. Brimming with heat-trapping greenhouse gases, Venus is the solar system’s hottest planet. With surface temperatures that can melt solid lead (which we use to contain radiation), dwelling on Venus seems like a pipe dream.
Here’s where science fiction helps out: let’s take a step back to a time long since the past, in a galaxy far, far away. In Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, the heroes journey to Cloud City, a city that floats on the gas planet Bespin. If we could withstand the acidic, abrasive conditions typical to the Venusian atmosphere, we could utilise the resources available in the atmosphere. Venus has carbon dioxide, liquid sulphuric acid and nitrogen, all of which are vital to life as we know it. Concerning how living in space would affect humans, we note that Venus’ gravity is around 90% of Earth’s. This means that the complications we face in micro- or reduced gravity would become nonexistent. This actively makes a case for a Venus settlement.
Right past our local watering hole, we end up at Mars, the Red Planet, named after the Roman God of War. Being blood-red in appearance, the war god — red planet connect isn’t that hard to make. Mars gets its reddish-brown tint thanks to the iron in its soil in various oxide forms. It also has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, named after the two sons of the God of War. Both moons are rather small and look desolate when compared to our own. That said, Mars’ gravity is a tenth of Earth’s, and retaining a larger satellite can tax the planet’s capability.
Mars happens to be a land of extremes. The tallest known land feature in the entire solar system, the Olympus Mons, is a volcanic mountain that stands at a massive 25 km, close to two and half times the height of Mt. Everest. At the other extreme is the Valles Marineris, a system of canyons on Mars appearing as a humongous crack on the Martian surface, making the Grand Canyon look like a papercut.
Mars’ atmosphere can deflect a meagre amount of radiation, but a lack of greenhouse gases means it cannot retain much heat. In addition, Mars does hold a pocket of water ice at its poles, which is quite promising for life. This, along with the relative proximity of Mars to Earth makes it an ideal candidate for theories. There is much speculation about the possibility of being there, both indigenous and sent along from Earth. The difficulty that Mars poses is somewhat different from other planets. While its atmosphere can deflect some radiation, Mars is close enough to the Sun to take in some real ray damage. In addition, Martian winds are much faster than a gale on Earth. That, picking up the arid soil becomes deadly, as Matt Damon’s Mark Watney found out in ‘The Martian’.
Several solutions have been proposed regarding a Martian settlement. The most radical one came from the part-time visionary, full-time meme lord Elon Musk when he suggested constant nuclear bombardment of the poles of Mars. This would cause the dry ice there to vaporise and create a greenhouse effect of sorts. Musk felt it would be the fastest way to induce artificial climate change. This is an example of “Terraforming”, a deliberate modification of an Earth-like planet to support Earthly life. The problem with nuking the ice out of a planet is the various side effects it brings with it. Humans, being as fragile as we are, stand little chance of handling the residual radiation. Moreover, Mars’ feebler gravitational field would be unable to hold the sudden influx of gases. As well-planned as it all sounds, it’s all hypothetical.
Speeding away from Mars, we encounter the asteroid belt. Can life flourish here? It doesn’t seem probable since most asteroids are nothing but large clumps of rock floating about. Of course, they’re chock-full of ore, and we’ve sent expeditions to mine them, so they’re useful to us on Earth, if not an ideal camping spot.
Ceres, the largest body in the belt, is an exciting candidate to look at. It’s a dwarf planet, and in 2015, NASA sent the Dawn spacecraft to look for life there. The similar land formations hint at there being life identical to Earth’s, but we’re not sure enough to conclude.
We’ll move on to the outer planets in the next article, A Backpacker’s Guide to the Solar System II. Allons-y!
Do follow Nakshatra to join us in our exploration of the cosmos. Looking Beyond The Stars!