200 years–that’s how long humans have left before Earth becomes uninhabitable, according to famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.
If such an estimate is true, then it begets one great (possibly the greatest ever) question for humankind: where to next?
Space colonization, however sci-fi it may sound, is far from a new idea. In fact, humans have dreamed of living in outer space since before Yuri Gagarin became the first human ever to leave Earth’s orbit.
The urgency of actually seeing such a concept to fruition, however, has never been quite so palpable.
With global threats like climate change and the mounting impact of Earth’s increasing overpopulation looming ever nearer, some scientists and experts have averted their gaze from our planet, to the extraterrestrial.
But, just how feasible is space colonization really? Below are 4 of the biggest hurdles in the way of colonizing the final frontier, according to the experts.
1. Little is known about terraforming–the process of making land and atmospheres habitable for humans
On the surface, terraforming sounds like a great idea. It would allow humans to enter generally uninhabitable conditions like those experienced on Mars and make them conducive to human life.
The downside is, that little is known about how exactly to do that. While scientists have developed theories for creating habitable atmospheres–which include seemingly insane ideas like smashing ammonia-rich asteroids into planets and building factories that release greenhouse gasses–the plans are currently little more than daydreams.
In addition to developing a breathable atmosphere, prospective terraformers have been tasked with creating a magnetosphere–a magnetic field which protects a planet’s atmosphere from being stripped away by solar winds–out of thin air.
The problem? We don’t even know for sure how magnetospheres are formed here on Earth.
2. NASA’s current process of developing projects may be ineffective
To develop a large scale space colony the support of government would be crucial. This means organizations like NASA, which has been severely underfunded as of late, would play a key part in building such a structure.
Some, however, are unsure that even a properly funded NASA could get the job done.
Ariel Waldman, a committee member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Human Spaceflight, has argued that flaws in NASA’s approach to funding projects may inevitably hinder its success.
Waldman contends that NASA’s current ‘flexible pathway’ approach to developing technology, which pours resources into development with no specific goal in mind, will hurt NASA in the long run. Instead Waldman suggests a ‘pathways’ approach which would develop a long term project with hurdles in between its start and completion.
This, she contends, would mitigate spending waste, and help focus in on developing the technology that’s most important.
3. Funding for space colonization would likely take the cooperation of both public and private sectors internationally
In order to get such a massive project off the ground, the involvement of the national government (if not more than one) would be all but necessary.
The problem is, it may be quite difficult to convince politicians (and people) to fund a project that will likely only come to fruition well after they’re dead.
Additionally, the current cost of launching into space isn’t cheap. Some rockets can cost as much as $13,000 per pound of payload.
Private sectors hesitate to dump money into such developments since there is currently no economic incentive to do so–which is why some have championed space tourism as an answer to help create a market where there is none.
4. Resources will be hard to conjure
One of the biggest obstacles will be weaning a space colony away from Earth’s supply chain, because even if resources can be easily mined on other planets, building things from them won’t be.
To help make such colonies self-sufficient, upcoming technologies like 3D printing may play a key role.