For all the great work that he has done over the years, Stephen Hawking has become more known for his grim, apocalyptic predictions about the future of mankind. According to Hawking, it is imperative that humans become a multi-planetary species in the coming century. Unless we achieve this, we face the possibility of extinction. In 2016, Hawking predicted that humanity has some 1000 years of life left on Earth before we are forced to switch planets.
Before such a feat, scientists need to conclude what exactly is needed for an expedition like this to succeed.
As Stephen Hawking suggested in his recent documentary about colonizing Mars, the red giant has captivated researcher’s minds for years. The first reason for Mars being chosen is its vicinity to Earth. Even though Earth and Mars are relatively close, the climate on Mars is far worse than the one found on Earth. Additionally, the air on Mars is completely unbreathable. If Earth was completely taken out of the picture (for example, by a comet/asteroid) Mars is not viable because of its reliance for supplies from Earth.
So if not Mars, then where? Well, The Milky Way consists of billions of planets. There is a strong possibility that at least some of them are inhabitable, if even to a small degree. A planet needs to have breathable air, water, and land. No planets have been found so far that at least somewhat mimic Earth’s surroundings. Even if a promising were to be found, there is no way for telescopes to determine the quality of the planet’s surroundings. The exoplanets remain a mystery until we can explore them thoroughly and close up. Another issue is that traveling to far-away planets may take hundreds of years, as the technology we currently have available is not capable of taking us there faster.
A large number of people need to be sent to any of the potential planets. Colonies with a small number of people may be susceptible to genetic anomalies induced by inbreeding. Large-scale accidents are also capable of wiping out smaller colonies.
At this time, shuttles are able to transfer only six people to Mars at a time. The SpaceX program has been suggested as a possible solution, as it promises to take a hundred people at a time, but at this time, it is as much fiction as it is a reality.
An interstellar route is even more unlikely at this time, as we do not have a spacecraft capable of carrying thousands of people over a period of a few hundred years.
Probably the biggest issues with missions such as this are political in nature. Who goes, who stays, do you factor in the wealth or education of potential travelers, do people with medical disabilities get immediately crossed off the list?
The next major step in colonizing a planet such as Mars is terraforming it to suit human inhabitants. The issue here is that terraforming a planet like Mars may take anywhere from 50,000 to over 100.000 years. And this is just for the air to become breathable. Constantly wearing a mask and worrying about oxygen levels may become annoying fast.
An Expensive Endeavor
Another big hurdle to cross is the funding needed to support an endeavor such as this. The first crews of NASA’s Journey to Mars expedition may cost close to two trillion USD. After those initial launches, the launches needed to bring supplies to Mars could cost a few hundred million dollars each time.
The Interplanetary Transport System is also a far way away from being utilized, and Elon Musk, the brain behind this idea, says that there is no way to determine the cost of a system such as that.
The financial viability of an expedition like this is suspect at best. No country is eager to spend money on the possibility for a planet to support human life. It is very important to determine whether Mars, for example, is able to deliver valuable goods, apart from the scientific breakthroughs it may provide.
On the other hand, there are enough insanely wealthy people on Earth willing to fund missions such as this. Even now, there are individuals ready to pay millions of dollars for a brief ride around the Earth. The issue is that most people wish to return to Earth when an expedition is finished. Moving to another planet does not offer that opportunity. Visiting an alien home world is going to bring even more interested parties and even more funds that can later be used to finance new missions to different planets.
Even if we were to colonize a new planet, the same problems on our new home are still going to appear. The technology that is currently damaging Earth’s climate is going to have the same effect on the new home world. The diseases we have here are sure to be present on the new planet as well. Asteroids are also more likely to destroy a small colony on the Mars as opposed to destroying humanity entirely. Even a medium scale epidemic may be able to wipe out every living being on the new planet.
But as it is stated at the beginning of the article, this is all just a prediction by one of the best theoretical physicists to have ever lived. Fixing the issues on Earth are probably a much better course of action than simply abandoning the planet that has all the necessary requirements already in place to sustain human life for a long time.