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All posts for the month August, 2008

…to Talk about Settling Venus?

A few years ago I had the honor of being invited by the World Science Fiction convention planners to give some science talks and be a panelist in a couple of discussion groups about some intriguing topics. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun and I’ve always wanted to attend a WorldCon, so I said “Yes.”

One of the two panels I participated in was about colonizing Venus.  Yes, you read that right: colonizing a world that astronomer George Abell once described as the next best thing to being in Hell.  It’s a cloud-covered, desolate, volcanic world with atmospheric pressure and temperatures so high (up to 462 C (865 F)) that surface-landing craft are destroyed after a short time. Put an unprotected human on that surface, and he or she wouldn’t live more than a few seconds before being crushed to death by the oppressive weight of the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere that bears layers of sulfur dioxide clouds (not to mention choking on sulfur fumes, enduring sulfuric acid rain, and frying in the heat).

So, what can be discussed about colonizing Venus?  There are a lot of questions, and our panel of distinguished writers tried to tackle some of them.

The first one that comes to mind is “WHY???”  As I’ve just shown, nobody can live on that surface. At least, not without massively protective habitats.  Just getting to the surface would be an exercise in extreme danger.

So, that leaves living in the clouds. There have been some good SF stories about living in those clouds. I’m assuming that perhaps if in the future we have a civilization that has the money to throw at putting a station into the tops of Venus’s cloud decks, it would likely be an orbiting science research facility, a la the ISS.  If so, that answers another question, “What would we do there?”  We’re not likely to be there mining carbon dioxide — we seem to be making plenty of it here on Earth without having to get the expensive imported stuff.  So, my guess is we’d be studying the complexities of the Venus atmosphere, perhaps in an effort to understand what’s happening to Earth’s atmosphere as a result of climate change. Or, because we’re interested in Venus and its evolution.  Both are valid reasons.  Simply going there to live is not likely a good enough reason to spend the money to go there and build stations.

But, let’s say that in the future, we do have a station there and scientists are happily studying Venus and sending back lots of data.  What sort of place would it be?  An ISS-like station?  A huge floating city?  Could such a place grow large enough to support a growing population, or act as a tourist destination?  Who would own it?  What would it cost to go there? What sort of people would live and work there? Or simply want to visit there?

Good questions, all.  No simple answers presented themselves at our panel, and as I write this, I can think of a great many things that would have to happen before humans would take that first step toward a Venus colony. It’s not unthinkable, but I don’t think it’s the first place that humans would want to go once we figure out good ways to travel to other planets. Still, Venus may well yet attact some future adventure travelers, as my friend Paul Hodge wrote in his fabulous book, Higher Than Everest:

And yet, people will go to Venus. It is so close and its surface is so exotic that we cannot possibly resist the temptation to explore it. You might as well be among the first.

If so, then I think the operative question in that case would be: “When?”

Opportunity Moves On

NASA’s Opportunity Rover on Mars is leaving Victoria Crater, a place it has been exploring for nearly one Earth year. It looked back toward Cape Verde, a rock promontory that has intriguing layers of rock that the rover could study. Those layers are treasure troves of information about the environment that existed on Mars when they were laid down, and in the geologic eras after that when the rocks were affected by weathering and other processes.

Now that Opportunity is back on flat ground, it taking off (slowly) across the Meridiani plains to study smaller rocks that were dug up and tossed out during long-ago impacts that created nearby craters. It’s the sort of standard planetary geology that people do on Earth, and we’re lucky to have the Mars rover to do it for us on the Red Planet.  Read more and follow the mission along with the scientists, at NASA’s Mars web site.