Earth Out Of Orbit: The Past and Future Prophecies of the World

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Other on-orbit manufacturing projects underway on the ISS include bio-printing, industrial crystallization, super alloy casting, growing human stem cells, and ceramic stereolithography. The potential travel time savings using this technology is enormous, allowing access to anywhere on Earth in less than one hour.


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Space tourism: There are now several start-up companies whose sole mission is to provide low-cost access to the edge of space. Some are using suborbital rocket technology that affords a few minutes of weightlessness about kilometers above the surface, while others use high-altitude balloons to more inexpensively provide access to high altitudes without becoming weightless.

The desire among ordinary people to travel into space is strong. A recent survey indicated that more than 60 percent of Americans would do so, if they could afford a ticket.

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While an early-warning system is an obvious first response to this threat even this capability is nowhere near operational , some asteroids may pose so deadly a threat that deflection is the only way to avoid devastating loss of life on Earth. Several technologies to accomplish this task have been studied, but the capability is still in its infancy.

Such a system can provide electricity much of the day. An early application could focus on supplying power to isolated communities or for disaster relief. With reductions in launch cost and mass production of SSP modules, SSP has the potential to eventually become less expensive than wind or solar electricity is today, i. Moreover, with SSP providing baseload power, there will be less need for energy storage using batteries or other systems that could negatively impact the environment.

Today, data centers are often being located in cold climates to take advantage of lower operating temperatures and cooling loads, and there have been serious discussions of locating data centers underwater for similar reasons. Another option could be to place servers and their power supplies directly in space, using the virtually unlimited solar energy see earlier discussion on SSP there to remove the burden of Earth-based electricity systems to power them.

While cooling may be more challenging the vacuum of space is a very good thermal insulator , there are several advantages , including increased physical security, decreased signal transmission times, and superior performance of spinning disk drives in microgravity. It is possible that space-based data centers could eventually become cost effective, resulting in lower electricity demand and carbon emissions on Earth.

Space mining of high-value elements: The focus of most space mining companies today is targeting water that will provide rocket propellant in Earth orbit, helping lower the cost of deep space operations. Other plentiful materials such as iron and other metals will be valuable for in-space construction, avoiding the expense of launching structures from Earth. However, space mining could eventually mature to the point that other valuable elements could be obtained as a natural byproduct of the large amounts of processed material, justifying the high cost of producing them in space.

A History of Earth's Climate

Delivering large amounts of material from space can be inexpensive if they are returned using space-manufactured ablative heat shields that can be recovered from controlled landings in shallow water. Space mining techniques will be also different from water-based approaches frequently used on Earth, and instead would mainly rely on thermal separation and multistep processes to aggregate small percentages of metal typically found in terrestrial ores into higher and higher concentrations.

For example, some asteroids may contain high concentrations of high value metals amenable to mechanical separation. Closed-loop ecosystems, material recycling, and in situ resource utilization: Limited physical resources and the inherently high cost of operating in space naturally pushes system designs toward efficient utilization and recycling of gases, water, nutrients, and other materials, both for life support and other uses. Moreover, there is a need for large-scale space operations to rely as much as possible on in situ resources, literally using the rocks and regolith around which the rockets land as the raw materials for construction, life support, and other needs.

If such processes can be developed in space with a high degree of efficiency and reliability, there is also potential for them to be customized for use on Earth for construction and processed goods. Intensive organic agricultural techniques: As the size of crews in space increases, and especially as bases are constructed on distant worlds such as Mars, it will be impractical to sustain these populations using imported food.

This will require the development of high-density, water-efficient, low-energy, fully organic agricultural methods that operate on a closed cycle. Such techniques can be anticipated to have widespread application back on Earth to increase food production. Science projects and programs that can only be or better be done in space: Beyond the science and technology projects and programs listed above, there are others that can only be carried out in space.

The lunar farside is protected by the Moon from electromagnetic emissions coming from the Earth.

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For that reason, with the proper precautions and infrastructure in place, it could be an ideal location to monitor low-frequency radio waves from space. Finally, risky biological experiments could be carried out in isolated laboratories in deep space or on the Moon, protecting Earth populations with a vast expanse of hard vacuum.

Orbital debris management : While not a technology of direct benefit to Earth, the removal of debris from spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, and all other manner of space junk in Earth orbits poses an increasing hazard to space operations and must eventually be dealt with. With lower launch costs and space infrastructure investments, it may become feasible to manage debris cost-effectively at least one company, Cislunar Industries, plans to melt down and refine orbital debris into useful materials for use in space.

Another company, Star Technology and Research Corporation, i s developing a non-fuel consuming, electrodynamic debris eliminator EDDE , which can also be useful for monitoring debris in orbit. Widespread space manufacturing and industrialization: Eventually, the falling cost of space-based manufacturing, and the rising cost of Earth-based manufacturing due to increased scarcity, environmental impacts, labor standards, etc.

The impact of such a change would be profound, as it would shift the side effects of these activities to locations in space without biological ecosystems, endangered species, or human populations to negatively impact. The vastly larger domain of outer space would provide virtually unlimited space, energy and materials with which to operate.

Provided that such industrial activities are done responsibly so as not to pollute or otherwise compromise the ability of future generations to use space resources an example of which is described above under orbital debris removal , this could be critical to permanently preserving and restoring the health of the Earth. Waste disposal in space: As the reliability of space launch improves, it will be possible to dispose of toxic substances away from Earth.

Storing nuclear waste on Earth for hundreds of years is a much simpler problem than the current much greater challenge of storing them for tens of thousands of years. This change in perspective could make the cleanup of nuclear debris much more tractable. First suggested three decades ago,[9] the concept of placing a fleet of spacecraft in orbit near Earth to reduce incident solar radiation and thereby lower surface temperatures received increased attention after Roger Angel published an influential paper in Research in this area is still in its infancy, due to the almost complete lack of funding for artificial gravity centrifuges in orbit to study these effects in humans.

If funding materializes and positive outcomes are found, spending time in low gravity could become highly desirable, driving significant numbers of people to visit or even live in space. Food production in space for people on Earth: Once space technology advances to the point where self-sustaining space settlements of many millions of people are possible, the vastly larger resources of space could be used to grow food for people on Earth as well. Indeed, the current tension among the uses of land on Earth for human habitation, agriculture, industrial activities, and preservation of nature could be broken, providing ample room for all these competing needs.

Migration of the human population into space: One of the main drivers of space development is provide new locations for people to live, work, and explore.


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While currently only very few people have been able visit space, the space community today is on a clear path to grow a commercial space tourism industry and establish small but permanent human bases on the Moon and Mars. Very large space hotels would be similar to small space settlements in Equatorial LEO close to Earth and near the equator where radiation levels are very low by space standards. Such small habitats may lead to very large space settlements e.

Opportunities for social, economic and political experimentation: As space settlements would be physically and environmentally separated from each other, there is the possibility of trying new ideas without negatively impacting others. Current understanding suggests that, while a Stabilized Earth pathway could result in an approximate balance between increases and decreases in regional production as human systems adapt, a Hothouse Earth trajectory will likely exceed the limits of adaptation and result in a substantial overall decrease in agricultural production, increased prices, and even more disparity between wealthy and poor countries A Hothouse Earth trajectory would almost certainly flood deltaic environments, increase the risk of damage from coastal storms, and eliminate coral reefs and all of the benefits that they provide for societies by the end of this century or earlier In the dominant climate change narrative, humans are an external force driving change to the Earth System in a largely linear, deterministic way; the higher the forcing in terms of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the global average temperature.

However, our analysis argues that human societies and our activities need to be recast as an integral, interacting component of a complex, adaptive Earth System. This framing puts the focus not only on human system dynamics that reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also, on those that create or enhance negative feedbacks that reduce the risk that the Earth System will cross a planetary threshold and lock into a Hothouse Earth pathway. This requires that humans take deliberate, integral, and adaptive steps to reduce dangerous impacts on the Earth System, effectively monitoring and changing behavior to form feedback loops that stabilize this intermediate state.

There is much uncertainty and debate about how this can be done—technically, ethically, equitably, and economically—and there is no doubt that the normative, policy, and institutional aspects are highly challenging.

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However, societies could take a wide range of actions that constitute negative feedbacks, summarized in SI Appendix , Table S5 , to steer the Earth System toward Stabilized Earth. Some of these actions are already altering emission trajectories. The negative feedback actions fall into three broad categories: i reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ii enhancing or creating carbon sinks e. While reducing emissions is a priority, much more could be done to reduce direct human pressures on critical biomes that contribute to the regulation of the state of the Earth System through carbon sinks and moisture feedbacks, such as the Amazon and boreal forests Table 1 , and to build much more effective stewardship of the marine and terrestrial biospheres in general.

The present dominant socioeconomic system, however, is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use 9. Attempts to modify this system have met with some success locally but little success globally in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or building more effective stewardship of the biosphere. Incremental linear changes to the present socioeconomic system are not enough to stabilize the Earth System. Widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold and locking in the Hothouse Earth pathway; these include changes in behavior, technology and innovation, governance, and values 48 , 62 , Enhanced ambition will need new collectively shared values, principles, and frameworks as well as education to support such changes 67 , In essence, effective Earth System stewardship is an essential precondition for the prosperous development of human societies in a Stabilized Earth pathway 69 , In addition to institutional and social innovation at the global governance level, changes in demographics, consumption, behavior, attitudes, education, institutions, and socially embedded technologies are all important to maximize the chances of achieving a Stabilized Earth pathway Many of the needed shifts may take decades to have a globally aggregated impact SI Appendix , Table S5 , but there are indications that society may be reaching some important societal tipping points.

For example, there has been relatively rapid progress toward slowing or reversing population growth through declining fertility resulting from the empowerment of women, access to birth control technologies, expansion of educational opportunities, and rising income levels 72 , These demographic changes must be complemented by sustainable per capita consumption patterns, especially among the higher per capita consumers.

Some changes in consumer behavior have been observed 74 , 75 , and opportunities for consequent major transitions in social norms over broad scales may arise Technological innovation is contributing to more rapid decarbonization and the possibility for removing CO 2 from the atmosphere Ultimately, the transformations necessary to achieve the Stabilized Earth pathway require a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective governance at the Earth System level 77 , with a much stronger emphasis on planetary concerns in economic governance, global trade, investments and finance, and technological development Stabilized Earth will likely be warmer than any other time over the last , years at least 83 that is, warmer than at any other time in which fully modern humans have existed.

In addition, the Stabilized Earth trajectory will almost surely be characterized by the activation of some tipping elements Tipping Cascades and Fig. Current rates of change of important features of the Earth System already match or exceed those of abrupt geophysical events in the past SI Appendix.

With these trends likely to continue for the next several decades at least, the contemporary way of guiding development founded on theories, tools, and beliefs of gradual or incremental change, with a focus on economy efficiency, will likely not be adequate to cope with this trajectory. Thus, in addition to adaptation, increasing resilience will become a key strategy for navigating the future. Generic resilience-building strategies include developing insurance, buffers, redundancy, diversity, and other features of resilience that are critical for transforming human systems in the face of warming and possible surprise associated with tipping points Features of such a strategy include i maintenance of diversity, modularity, and redundancy; ii management of connectivity, openness, slow variables, and feedbacks; iii understanding social—ecological systems as complex adaptive systems, especially at the level of the Earth System as a whole 85 ; iv encouraging learning and experimentation; and v broadening of participation and building of trust to promote polycentric governance systems 86 , Our systems approach, focusing on feedbacks, tipping points, and nonlinear dynamics, has addressed the four questions posed in the Introduction.

Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions—Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed. The impacts of a Hothouse Earth pathway on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive. Avoiding this threshold by creating a Stabilized Earth pathway can only be achieved and maintained by a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System, recognizing that humanity is an integral, interacting component of the system.

Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia How credible is this analysis? There is significant evidence from a number of sources that the risk of a planetary threshold and thus, the need to create a divergent pathway should be taken seriously:. First, the complex system behavior of the Earth System in the Late Quaternary is well-documented and understood. The two bounding states of the system—glacial and interglacial—are reasonably well-defined, the ca.

Furthermore, we know with high confidence that the progressive disintegration of ice sheets and the transgression of other tipping elements are difficult to reverse after critical levels of warming are reached. Third, the tipping elements and feedback processes that operated over Quaternary glacial—interglacial cycles are the same as several of those proposed as critical for the future trajectory of the Earth System Biogeophysical Feedbacks , Tipping Cascades , Fig.

We suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies is required.

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Even so, the pathway toward Stabilized Earth will involve considerable changes to the structure and functioning of the Earth System, suggesting that resilience-building strategies be given much higher priority than at present in decision making. Some signs are emerging that societies are initiating some of the necessary transformations. Our initial analysis here needs to be underpinned by more in-depth, quantitative Earth System analysis and modeling studies to address three critical questions. We thank the three reviewers for their comments on the first version of the manuscript and two of the reviewers for further comments on a revised version of the manuscript.


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  5. These comments were very helpful in the revisions. We thank a member of the PNAS editorial board for a comprehensive and very helpful review. The participation of D. Author contributions: W. This article contains supporting information online at www.