October 5, 2011
100 Year Starship Conference: Sex In Space
Experts, gathering at DARPA´s 100 Year Starship conference in Florida which ended Oct. 2, discussed the possibility of making space flights to distant planets within the next 100 years.
But the next closest star to Earth -- Alpha Centauri -- is more than 4 light years away and would take any conventional spaceship thousands of years to make the journey.
NASA´s Voyager I probe, the furthest-traveled object man has ever put into space, has made it only one percent of the distance to the light-years-away star in 30 years.
With that said, scientists are still optimistic, especially DARPA, the US military´s technologies arm -- whose goal is to make interstellar travel a reality within the next century.
But one major drawback of such a goal is that nobody would survive long enough to make it. So, experts say, reproduction in space would be essential. But many scientists are not sure that is even possible.
“Giving birth in zero gravity is going to be hell because gravity helps you,” biologist Athena Andreadis of the University of Massachusetts, told Space.com. “You rely on the weight of the baby. Sex is very difficult in zero gravity, because you have no traction and you keep bumping against the walls.”
“It is still unknown, if you want kids and you want reproduction, what gravity has to do with successful development, ” MIT researcher Dan Buckland told LiveScience at the event.
Researchers have speculated that living in zero gravity could harm children or prevent conception. Medical experts already know that spending just months in environments such as the International Space Station (ISS) can damage the human body. Longer periods away from the safety of Earth´s gravity can result in damage to muscles, bones and organs.
It would be necessary to develop some form of “synthetic gravity” to allow humans to survive in space for such long periods of time, and that space ships would need to be self-sustaining environments in which generations of people could live and die -- technologies that are well beyond our current reach.
Humans would also be exposed to prolonged interstellar radiation, which also cannot be stopped with today´s technologies.
But that could only be the start of it. “Space travelers could face unseen problems,” said Andreadis, author of To Seek Out New Life: the Biology of Star Trek. “Something will come up that we simply haven't thought about. We have to be prepared for casualties.”
Even if we solved the problems of how to reproduce and thrive in space, we will need entirely new technologies to get us there. Conventional rockets and fuel used to propel us to the moon and the ISS simply would not suffice for deep space travel.
“You would need more fuel than exists mass in the known universe,” says physicist Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, speaking at the same conference.
Possible alternative fuel sources would be nuclear fusion or antimatter. DARPA is no stranger to such odd ideas as well. The agency, in the past, looked into antimatter weapons and using Einstein-Rosen bridges (wormholes in space-time) to travel, without success.
“DARPA and the NASA Ames Research Center have teamed together to take the first step in the next era of space exploration–a journey between the star,´ DARPA wrote in a statement.
“The 100-Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,” Paul Eremenko, DARPA coordinator for the study, told the Daily Mail.
DARPA said technologies for such a goal would involve “physics, mathematics, biology, economics, and psychological, social, political and cultural sciences, as well as the full range of engineering disciplines to advance the goal of long-distance space travel, but also to benefit mankind.”
Experts also weighed in on what it would take to colonize other planets. Humans would most likely need to construct a dome-like structure that could simulate Earth´s atmosphere in order to survive. And hybrid humans may need to be bred and raised to withstand the new atmosphere. A topic that has brought up some ethical questions as well.
“We will have to grow up and do self-directed evolution, realizing that what comes out of the other end may not be human,” said Andreadis. “If we stake our future among the stars, we must change for the journey and the destination.”
Skeptics were quick to point out that humans have yet to travel to one of our own planets -- and no survey of space has discovered a truly habitable planet.
But it is clear, that if we can survive such a journey, making a new life on a new planet might be easier than the process of getting there.
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