An Accidental Ecosystem in Space

astroarchaeology, astroarcheology, astrobiology, Biology, ecology, scicomm, science fiction, Uncategorized

Update:

I’m always interested in podcasting, and I’ve created an episode of a tentative series on the Anchor app. It’s just this blog post read out. Convenient for those whom listening is a better way to digest content. Here’s the link:

Listen to my segment “Abandonment among the stars” on Anchor: https://anchor.fm/astro-biological/episodes/Ecosystems-in-an-Abandoned-Megastructure-e1e59n/Abandonment-among-the-stars-a3bp5i

Imagine this. It’s the distant future. Space travellers have discovered a huge structure in deep space. Let’s assume the travellers aren’t human. These beings have stumbled upon the greatest discovery in their history. A vast megastructure, hundreds of kilometres long, it’s a huge cylinder spinning slowly across interstellar space. The structure is a riotous collection of cyclinders, and other smaller structures seemingly thrown together. Tests on the structure reveal it’s very old: several thousand years at least. No signals or signs of current occupation can be found, and it’s determined after several years of examination and debate that the structure is abandoned.

An O’Neill cylinder, adrift in cyberspace.. A 3D model of a physical model I plan to build.

The very first team is sent on board…

What do they find?

The structure is derelict, to say the least. The team can safely determine this. There are no signs of intelligent life.

Mechanisms keeping the cylinder habitable are still somewhat operational. By some miracle of engineering the cylinder still has gravity as well.

But that’s not to say that life hasn’t found a way.
The structure is exploding with life!
The structure is essentially intact. It continues to rotate, driven by some unknown energy source and mechanism. It orbits a medium sized yellow star, lying just beyond the orbital path of the second planet out from this sun. The second planet is completely uninhabitable.

Image: Pixabay

There is a third planet from the Sun which seems habitable. Other expeditions are already exploring that world, and it seems this cylinder was built by whatever sentient beings once lived there.

Image source: Unknown

The structure is an oasis of life, all alone in the night. The builders may have long vanished, but the other organisms they brought on board: whether they be pets, food or pests, don’t seem to know they shouldn’t be here claiming this place as their own. It’s become an accidental ecosystem that has no business being out here and yet out here it is.

….

A couple of weeks I decided to do something different with all the video stuff I do. I did a livestream on facebook and periscope. The topic of my stream was the very question addressed above: what new ecosystems and organisms could arise in an abandoned, livable space station were the human occupants to disappear?

abandoned-factory-1513012_1920

Image: Pixabay

It actually really got me thinking. The whole thing began as a random question on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism facebook group. To my surprise there were a lot of great comments and ideas in response to this question.

I’ve addressed this subject matter before. A blog post explored the nature of interactions between the natural world and those sad, abandoned places on the periphery of civilisation. It’s like discovering a completely new world when I stumble upon these “transitional” places. Imagine finding such a world like the cylinder orbiting Venus. Just how and in what direction would any life on board manage?

It’s a really interesting question, and ties into the nature of life and how it has spread across our own planet. Most life existing today hasn’t arisen spontaneously from the firmament. Nothing’s done that for around 4 billion years. No, life has migrated, hitched rides or been tossed about by catastrophe and happenstance. It has essentially gone where the wind blows, and taken root wherever it has landed. The theory of panspermia relies on this vagrancy to offer an explanation for how life might have appeared here in the first place. I personally think Panspermia is very plausible.

In some ways we’ve seen panspermia in action, from a certain point of view.

This is of course, a very tenuous observation I make, but the principle is the same, using the example of Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. This tiny little mound of dirt popping up from the waves is a giant ecological lab, an ongoing experiment that began over 150 years ago. All manner of species: some introduced, some native, were thrown together, on a barren little rock. Within decades, the island was a lush green paradise, with new ecosystems and new equilibriums. Quite amazing really, and Ascension Island represents a window into the greening of a dead planet such as Mars.

So. To return to the premise of this post. Explorers find a derelict space colony, now overrun by non human life. We’ve seen this on Earth too. Life is especially good at exploiting new niches. When the dinosaurs perished, the mammals that had lived in their shadow for 180 million years suddenly had an entire planet all to themselves. This resulted in the Tertiary radiation, a speciation event rivalling the Cambrian Explosion in the profusion of new species of mammal that suddenly appeared to exploit all this open space. Disaster ecology is an area of study devoted to this knack life has of adapting to catastrophe and finding new balances. Places like Ascension Island are one example of this. Others, like Chernobyl, are another.

03-Chernobyl-animals.ngsversion.1493139603170.adapt.676.1 (1)

Life is doing nicely in the radiation soaked wilderness of Chernobyl. Image: James Beasley and Sarah Webster, National Geographic Creative

So what of my superstructure, adrift in orbit around Venus? It would take several posts to really give it some justice, and so that’s what I’m going to do. A few posts on the post human world in a self contained semi functional space colony.

I must admit I have not been active with this blog lately. I have been busier than usual with new work and things in personal life shifting and changing constantly. It’s never forgotten. This will be attended to, and posts are going to start going up on a more frequent basis. Stay tuned, keep reading and I’ll be writing soon.

Ben.

Have we beaten ourselves to other planets?

astroarcheology

Sometimes, science and a love for science begins with a story or two. I’ve always loved stories, be they in the form of books and movies. My favourite books of all time were C.S.Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Micheal Ende’s “The Neverending Story”.

What drew me into these particular stories so deeply was their references to cosmologies; to other realms and universes. For me the most alluring stories create not just intrigues and conflicts. I don’t really care about The Hero’s Journey, complete with it’s checklist of stages in a story. I don’t really care who’s the protagonist or antagonist. I care about the world these tales take place in. When I’m immersed in a story, I want to be  immersed in the story. A universe, with all it’s history,  is a key element of imagined worlds. To borrow a line from “The Dark Tower” by Stephen King:

Beyond the reach of human range,

a drop of hell, a touch of strange. “

Again this tale was heavy with cosmology; alien yet familiar.

These stories were life changing for me in ways. They each provided pieces of a picture, of a universe I’d come to explore. The Narnia books were about other dimensions. “The Magician’s Nephew” featured travel between alternate realities. “The Neverending Story” showed us a universe created by imagination and perception. “The Dark Tower” was about a post apocalyptic world where the laws of space and time were unravelling, where the natural order of things was succumbing to a slow heat death.

But what about our own personal stories?

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time inside my head, visiting other worlds and other times. It was easy to imagine a beach as a coastline on some alien planet, or national park as some dinosaur infested part of Earth’s distant past.

Good times.

The point I’m getting to here is that imagination and stories are important for science because they show us other worlds we’d like to explore.

But what about our own worlds and stories? As I’ve mentioned I spent a lot of my childhood immersed in imagination. If I couldn’t find someone else’s world….I’d provide my own.

I harp on about these other worlds, because the ability to imagine leads to the ability to ask questions. It enables you to speculate. It enables you to perform thought experiments..

Imagined scenario:

An international mission to the outer solar system; the culmination of countless thousands of hours of diplomacy, frustration and determination finally reaches it’s goal.

A lone robotic probe has inserted itself into orbit over Europa. This moon has had the hearts of astrobiologists beating faster for a long time now. They’ve been curious about a global ocean ten times deeper than our own, lying beneath a cracked ghostly shell of ice. Oh yes, Europa could be the culmination of so many dreams..

The probe has been asleep on it’s long journey, stirring occasionally in the deep night to whisper to it’s masters. Digital murmours head home across a solar system filled with shrieks and moans: electromagnetic noise emitted by the planets themselves.

Who knows what the planets are saying?

The probe doesn’t care. It’s staring down at it’s new home. It fusses and frets, seperating and sending a lander down.

Vast sheets of rusty ice buckle and shift. The slumbering moon rolls in its sleep and a geyser of salty water erupts, pelting the lander with ocean spray as it prepares to land. Sensors coating  the probe’s metallic hide taste the spray, sampling the alien cocktail for signs of life….

The moon is permanently encrusted in a shell of ice several kilometres thick. Below lies a deep salty ocean, warmed by constant tidal squeezing from Jupiter. This causes friction and tectonic stresses that render this moon a place of interest.

The probe takes a look around. The sky is eternally dark, and Europa is beholden to mighty Jupiter, which rolls and boils slowly across the night. Excited chatter from home has the probe going straight to work. Sophisticated AI takes over. Arms and legs extend and the probe stands. The days of ugly little rovers belong to antiquity now. Now a tall humanoid drone stumbles across endless Europan permafrost. Shattered ridges of glacial ice reach into the frozen sky like broken continental plates.

The drone walks. The drone sees. It picks up handfuls of snow. Sensors and chemical testing labs are woven throughout it’s frame; the very best nanotech taxpayer and corporate money can buy. The drone tastes the snow with it’s hands, looking for life. It’s masters believe it to be here.

Powder gently falls from the sky, leaving pock marks in the dark snow. There are organic molecules and precursors to life here. The drone tastes them. It looks for openings in the moons icy shell. If it can find a fissure it will climb down, until it reaches the watery underworld. Then, it  will swim, exploring a place that up until now has only been a dream.

Then, it finds something unexpected.

A metallic gleam in loose shards of icy ejecta catch the drone’s eye…

The drone bends down and tastes tarnished copper. What is this?

The drone is not prepared for this.

It is programmed for the chaos of the real world: a state of the art descendant of  the old survey/search and rescue bots. Protocol kicks in, and the drone dutifully sends images to it’s masters…

The machine is patient-as is it’s wont. It continues to explore the ice canyons and expanses of rusted ice. Life is here. The drone’s masters believe this fervently. Onboard mettalurgical analysis by the drone is now being carefully studied back home.

Back home the drone is all but forgotten. All attention is on the artifact it has found. Dutifully the drone sends back reams of data. Most of it is of incredible scientific value, but outside Mission Control no one is really noticing.

Instead, the world’s eyes are on a piece of the ancient world. Rome, to be exact. A speartip, broken away from it’s wooden haft, and buried in alien ice, 628 million kilometres from the Eternal City.

How did it get there?