If anyone has read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quadrilogy they would have been struck by some of the big ideas hidden within Douglas Adams’ deadpan humour. One of the heavy concepts that stuck with me was the idea of planet building. According to the story, Earth as we know it today is a planet sized super computer, built to perform one task: to figure out the meaning of life. A planetary architect named Slartibartfast is entrusted with overseeing the rebuild of Earth after it’s destroyed due to a galactic scale clerical error.
Possible? Why not? According to prevailing theories, planets mainly form via the process of accretion. Simply put, particulate matter adrift in molecular clouds clumps under the inexorable pull of gravity, forming ever larger clumps that clump to ever larger clumps and so on. Eventually a planet or star is the inevitable result.
Why couldn’t this be done artificially? Would it be even possible? If it’s just a matter of throwing lumps of crud at other lumps of crud and hoping they stick, then why couldn’t it be?
It’s the future. Humanity lives and works in space. The asteroid belt is the new frontier or wild west. Chunks of formerly useless rock are now homesteads or villages. Distances are not overly tyrannical. An asteroid is typically only a few light seconds from another. However, asteroids can be moved. Bigger asteroids like Ceres, Vesta or Eros would comprise the main hubs of commerce and trade in this new world.
Smaller settlements such as these “homesteads” could make life easier for themselves in terms of travel times (and therefore fuel costs) to larger, more important settlements by moving closer. In the frictionless, zero gravity environment that is space this wouldn’t be too technically difficult.
Time has moved on. The asteroid belt is a thriving collective of trade networks and conglomerates of smaller settlements. Smaller asteroids now cluster around larger ones like space junk in low earth orbit. Economically, this proximity is making things easier for everyone, and lots of people are getting rich.
Just imagine though if humans disappeared. The zombie apocalypse hit outer space and spread to all corners of the solar system.
(That’s the fun explanation)
Every living human is gone, and the asteroid belt is now a vast ghost band, forming a wreath around the sun, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. There are all these swarms of asteroids now adrift, all artificially brought closer together by generations of enterprising human beings No course corrections keep them from colliding and so many of them are doing just that. Orbits decay, and tiny chondrite specks plough slowly into larger planetesimals.
See where I’m going with this? Over time, natural accretion would naturally lead to planets forming, or at least a large moon sized object. In millions of years the solar system could have a tenth planet (let’s just sneak Pluto back into the club. Don’t tell anyone!)
Planet Building! Essentially a garbage planet could form from the artificially placed asteroids and other objects now in very close proximity and drawn by the slow but inescapable pull of gravity.
I think it’s an exciting idea: a real megastructure! The ultimate megastructure!
This post was inspired by a chance statement in a video discussing space colonies on Isaac Arthur’s Science and Futurism youtube channel. Check it out. Isaac has a huge catalogue of lengthy discussions on some really interesting concepts. Here is a link to the relevant video if you’re interested:
Last but not least, here are links to the social media for Maciej Rebisz, the talented artist behind some fantastic space artwork, including the asteroid colony about halfway down the post.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
It’s a story that began 20000 years ago, and has been waiting for you. Like something out of a “Star Trek” episode. The vista before you hangs in the black like a portal into the fiery underbelly of all that’s good in the Universe.
“Star Trek” You remember it now. The Battle of Wolf-359. It was a classic episode, in which a tattered human military force took on a vastly superior foe: the Borg. These creatures were bloodless and implacable. Truly unsettling bad guys.
This monster is just as unsettling. Wolf-Rayet-124 is real. It’s huge. You’ve come a long way to encounter it. A small fleet of drone-sats has been dispatched to get up close and personal with this Wolf-Rayet star, to see how extreme extreme sports can get.
As soon as humans got comfortable in space and started calling all kinds of dark corners and odd rocks home they were up to their usual mischief. As soon as all the laws were decreed and the soapboxes were all put away, humans got back to the serious business of finding new and bizarre ways to enjoy themselves.
Space tourism didn’t become big business. It became exponentially big business. Extreme sports fans weren’t interested in scuba diving with great white sharks anymore, or parachuting.
Ha! You recall the stories. The One-G-ers were those quaint old extreme sportsters who couldn’t let go of old mother earth. Most of them were toothless and half nuts decades ago, but they still harped on about climbing Mount Everest or wrestling crocodiles.
You look upon Wolf-124, blazing with a luminosity several million times greater than Earths sun back home. Wolf-124 is huge. How huge? These kinds of stars are rare. Of the millions of stars known to humanity only around 500 Wolf-Rayet stars are known to exist in this galaxy.
Wolf-Rayet stars are thought to be the powerhouses driving many planetary nebula or stellar nurseries. How does this work?
Your little drone sats are tasting the cloud of ionised gas and interstellar gunk that swirls around the star. This cloud is nearly 6 light years across; a dusty miasma flung outwards by the intense solar winds radiating from the star within. From your vantage point out here, looking down into this slow maelstrom you see chunks of the star heading outward. Earth sized pieces of WR-124 soar through the cloud like the volcanic rage of a demon tearing itself apart.
You write that last line down. The tourists will love it.
Sometime around 20000 years ago, when human beings were first discovering Europe WR-124 began tearing itself apart. Scientists never really ascertained why, but it’s made for some great observations over the years. Tourists will love this. You got here first, to set up the first fleet of solar sailing yachts. The winds from the star crack along at 1600 km per second, fast enough to twist the most iron stomachs.
These stars have unusual emission spectra. Many of the space tourists won’t care what this is, but there’s always someone in every group who just has to understand what they’re leaping into. Fair enough. What it means is that like any other star a Wolf-Rayet star burns up fuel. Our star, a relatively youthful star somewhere near middle age, is still burning hydrogen via the process of stellar fusion. As a star ages it’s supply of hydrogen becomes depleted, and it must burn heavier elements in order to survive.Wolf-Rayet stars are often seen to have high levels of quite heavy elements or “metals” such as carbon or nitrogen in their upper atmosphere. This is due to nearly complete depletion of hydrogen fuel so as a result heavier elements are being used up.
What does this have to do with spectra? Well, as elements transition from higher to lower energy states, ie when they’re being burned up inside a star, photons of particular wavelenghts are given off. It’s possible to tell just by analysing the wavelengths of light radiating from a star (it’s emmision spectra) what’s going on in and immediately around the star. This is why scientists know WR stars are old, and what they’re burning off in place of hydrogen. It’s also the reason they can infer the presence of extreme solar winds. The luminosity and heat given off by a WR star is extreme. At it’s surface a WR star can reach temperatures of between 30000 and 200000 Kelvin; hotter by far than most other stars. Such radiative pressure literally manifests as a “wind”, with the abilty to exert pressure on objects, such as solar sails!
Most of the drone sats are keeping a safe distance from WR-124. This might just be an imaginary blog post, but you have imaginary operating costs, you know?
So you’ve staked your claim here. Now, all that’s left to do is wait for the money to fly in!
Still, you’re thinking of your next venture. There’s an exoplanet out there somewhere: HD 189733B where it rains glass! Now that sounds like fun…..
While you’re here, join me on the AstroBiological YouTube channel. I’m hard at work sprucing it up. What do you think of this intro sequence?
One last thing!
Hop onto WeCreateEdu: an online community for educational you tubers. There is a galaxy of stuff to learn and explore here. Very much worth a look:
My newest video features the bizarre metal asteroid 16 Psyche. This improbable chunk of iron and nickel may one day be mined, yielding metals worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars! No, that figure doesn’t seem real to me either.
Here is the transcript for said episode. I had some fun experimenting with effects for this episode, and I think it works well!
“G’day metal heads!
Do you think you’re rough and tough?
Do you believe you’re made of metal?
See if you can outmetal THIS monster! A ball of metal mayhem 200 km across! Let’s go check out 16 Psyche!!!
Long long ago, in a molecular cloud not so far away….
The Solar System: Episode 1
It is a time of turmoil in the newly formed solar system. Planets, moons and other heavenly bodies have coalesced from the primordial cloud. As larger bodies fall into orbit around a blazing new sun, smaller worlds are caught up in a system wide spree of destruction known as the Late Heavy Bombardment.
It is a perilous time for a planetesimal or moon, and many smaller planets are destroyed in the cataclysm.
A lone youtuber known as Ben has ventured out into the Big Empty, to visit the long dead core of one such world. Upon reaching it, he sends in a gallant drone to investigate….
Yes Sir! Here we are. Welcome to 16 Psyche. An oddball world really. This place is special for a few reasons.
Discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, 16 Psyche was named after Psyche, a figure from ancient Greek mythology. The word itself means “Soul”.
16 Psyche is pretty big: a ball of metal over 200 km in diameter! It’s almost entirely nickel and iron to be more precise, although about 10 percent of its surface is strewn with silicate rock much as you’d find here on good old earth.
So this ball of tinfoil from hell comprises nearly one per cent of the mass within the asteroid belt where it lives. It actually lies roughly halfway between Jupiter and Mars, about 3.3 AU from the sun.
What’s an AU?
AU is a very common astronomical term. It means “astronomical unit’. 1 astronomical unit is defined as the distance between Earth and the Sun. This is about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometres. At 3.3 AU this means 16 Psyche lies some 308 million kilometres from the Sun.
Wanna know what’s really special about this metal asteroid?
First of all, 16 Psyche is extremely valuable. All of that iron and nickel within has been valued at over 10000 quadrillion dollars!
Obviously that means a lot of folks would love to mine it for all that metal. A whole bunch of companies have sprung up in the last few years, looking to cash in on asteroids: the next big thing!
Personally, I don’t care about all that. You wanna know what’s really cool about 16 Psyche?
It’s the exposed core of a long dead protoplanet; the remains of a tiny world maybe 500 km in diameter. This tiny planetoid took a beating during the Late Heavy Bombardment, some 4 billion years ago. In fact, this nameless world may have been impacted by other large bodies up to 8 times. This pounding shattered the outer crust, sending scattered fragments out into the newly forming asteroid belt and leaving behind an exposed core. Scientists would love to study 16 Psyche, because it can teach us a lot about planet formation and how planets work- including our own.
Just look at it! Imagine walking on the core of a planet. 16 Psyche gives us an opportunity to see into our own world in a way. It’s like a time capsule: a snapshot of a newly forming planet, frozen in time for ever.
This is the real value of 16 Psyche, this frozen soul. Let’s take one last look and imagine actually being there….
I hope you’ve enjoyed watching this episode. It was super fun to make, and if you got something out of it, then subscribe to this channel for more. Join the astrobiological Facebook group, find me on Twitter. Links in the description.
AstroBiological: giving you the universe in plain human. See you next time!”
Hi all. It’s been a while I’m ashamed to admit. I’ve been working on a new Facebook group to raise the profile of my channel. It’s been fun. Here is the link (hint: join the group!)
Here is my newest video. A basic breakdown of what exactly the Goldilocks (or circumstellar habitable) zone is, and it’s importance to life on Earth. If you like the channel please subscribe!
I’ve also provided the script/transcript for my upcoming episode of “Astro-Biological:”, which introduces us to the concept of the Goldilocks Zone….
G’day! Welcome to Astro-biological:!
Ben what the heck are you talking about? What’s the connection?
Let’s go check out THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE!!!!
Life, as I like to remind you, is really special. Here on earth, life exists only because certain conditions are met. Today, we’ll consider water. Everything needs it, but it only exists as a liquid at the surface here on Earth.
So? Big deal right?
Well it is actually!
Check out the sun. Giver of life! Driver of climate! Pumping out some pretty respectable energy. How much?
1 yottawatt equals 10 with 26 zeroes after it!
Brutal! And the sun is a pretty average star! Nothing special about it!So there’s plenty of sunlight for everyone!
Could other planets benefit from the sun’s golden goodness the way we do? Let’s take a look at the inner planets. They’re the only ones that really matter in all this…
Let’s see…Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. The rocky planets. The so called “Terrestrial Planets”.
Mercury is 58 million kilometres from the sun. That’s really close. This close proximity has turned Mercury’s surface into an oven, where liquid water couldn’t possibly last.
Let’s visit the next in line: Venus. Venus is similar to Earth in composition, gravity and size. Long ago Venus might have had oceans just like Earth, but again the planets closeness to the sun and other factors saw all that water disappear into space. Venus is now the hottest place in the solar system. Definitely no liquid water there anymore!
Wanna know more about what happened to Earth’s twin? This guy I know made a video!
Earth! Beautiful Earth. Our home. Every thing’s home actually. Eighty per cent of earth’s surface is covered by liquid water. There’s so much spare water here that our bodies are mostly made up of it! It’s absolutely everywhere, even locked up deep in the earth’s crust! Enough of earth. We’ve all been there.
Next planet out:
Mars. The cool planet. Every one wants to go here. Pity it’s so cold! Liquid water may exist here in tiny amounts, but most of the red planet’s water is locked up as ice or permafrost just below it’s surface. Plenty there for future colonists to use, but nothing readily available for biological processes. Pity. It’s a beautiful planet. Just ask Matt Damon!
So what is the Goldilocks Zone then?
Here’s the inner solar system. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. Let’s visit a special guest who can explain the Goldilocks Zone for us…
ChefBenbit. (Watch the video when it’s up!)
Nice work Chef! So, if Earth was a bowl of porridge it would be the one Goldilocks ate: the one that was just right! it’s that simple! Earth is lucky enough to be at the perfect distance from the sun, where water likes to slosh around in liquid form. Things would be a lot different here if that wasn’t the case.
So that’s it for now! A simple but important piece of information. The Goldilocks Zone!
How am I going so far?
If you thought I was alright, then subscribe for more. If you thought this video was useful to you, then give it a like! Likes help this channel get noticed. That little notifications bell is just the thing if you want to see more. Go on. You know you want to.
Thanks for watching astrobiological. Giving you the universe in plain human. Ciao!
There’s an old theory known as Panspermia, which hypothesises that life got its initial leg up on Earth (around 4-3.5 billion years ago) after a long journey across space. According to this theory, (which at the very least is quite reasonable) the ingredients and precursor molecules for life hitched a ride on comets and asteroids and reached earth early in its history, when these objects impacted our planet. As for where these molecules and ingredients came from…well, that is a real chicken and the egg type question, and one I will be exploring in more detail in future posts as well as videos.
Not all astrobiologists agree with this of course. Each to their own. Science and seeking the truth is all about disagreement. I’ll leave the debate alone and for the purpose of this post assume that Panspermia is a pretty valid idea.
This post (and the YouTube video it will eventually give birth too) is essentially a piece of speculation. Looking into the future of space exploration, what is waiting for us out there?
Europa has been the hearts desire of many an astrobiologist for decades now. Ever since the Pioneer 10 probe rushed past back in 1973 and sent back the first pictures it’s been a bit of a rock star. Why? Because it ticks a whole lot of boxes on the “Things could live here because…” checklist.
Things could live here because….
Let’s look at some of those boxes. And why they’re important. First of all:
1: Europa is now widely believed to harbour a substantial subsurface ocean: of actual honest to gosh water. How have we come to this conclusion?
Take a look at the surface of Europa.
It sure is striking. Huge channels and streaks criss cross the moons frozen exterior.
And that’s about it.
No craters? Callisto is part of the Jovian family as well, and is the most heavily cratered object in the solar system. Compared to Europa Callisto is a teenager with weapons grade acne.
Europas surface is geologically new, having been resurfaced recently (in geological terms). Something is wiping the slate clean on Europa, and this is our first clue that Europa is special. Something under that icy shell is acting upon the surface and rearranging it.
Astrobiologists think it’s water. A lot of it. Europas surface is basically a shell of ice, rafting and fracturing like pack ice on Earth. Essentially vast swathes of pack ice remodel the Europan landscape and are thought to be it’s version of our plate tectonics.
2: Some time ago, none other than the venerable Charles Darwin postulated that life began in a “warm little pond”, whereby the right combination of mineral salts and energy resulted in the first biomolecules. Ever since this first speculation, forwarded in a private letter from Darwin to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1871, science has placed an emphasis on water as the likeliest birthplace of life on Earth. Darwin believed in a warm little pool, many other theories have thought bigger, fingering the ocean as the culprit. Whatever the case may be, and whatever supporting evidence gives testament to it, water (for now) is the one thing no life can exist without.
And Europa has a lot of it. The deepest point on our planet lies at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, some 12 kilometres below sea level. That is deep to be sure, but the abyssal plains of the world’s oceans are on average about 4 kilometres beneath the waves. Europas subsurface ocean averages a cold dark 62 kilometres deep!
Where do the minerals fit into this? Patience, grasshopper!
Jupiter pumps out extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation. This is, of course, a constant engineering hurdle for the various missions that have paid the gas giant a visit. It’s extensive family of moons: some 67 in total are constantly immersed in this field, which interacts with various bodies in various ways. Europas magnetic field is no different, and is an induced magnetic field. This is a special kind of magnetic field produced when an electromagnetic field is passed through some kind of conductive material. In the case of Europa this material is believed to be an ocean, brimming with conductive mineral salts. Such an ocean would be a vast salty brew, fulfilling Darwin’s vision somewhat.
What of Darwin’s energy source? To understand this a little more, and to see what it means for Europa, we need to understand that all life requires an energy source. On Earth, the vast majority of life is solar powered. What does this mean? You can’t just go outside and photosynthesise! You need to go to the fridge and get a snack. Food keeps you going, right?
Absolutely. But where did that food come from? Whether you’re a vegetarian or a carnivore, ultimately every single thing in that fridge of yours exists because of the sun. Either it grew from the ground, something came along and ate it, or something bigger came along and ate that something. The sun is at the base of this very simplified food web, and it’s been doing it forever of course.
No solar power is not some fandangled idea. Renewable energy has been around, well, since before life began. The sun provides energy not only for Earth’s climate and hydrological cycle, it also fuels all photosynthesis on Earth. Plant life not only provides food and oxygen for animal and fungal life, it also contributes to climatic processes. Yes, the Sun is really important.
Ah, you think, how does any of this relate to Europa? The frozen moon is a bit further out from the sun than warm little earth, at about 485 million kilometres. Not much use for solar power out there! Well it turns out that not all life on Earth is completely dependent on the Sun after all.
These are exciting and mysterious places, home to a bewildering and diverse array of lifeforms. They are found where life seemingly has no business existing, and yet there they are: on the vast abyssal plains of the ocean floor. Miles away from any sunlight, subjected to pressures and extremes that would kill us instantly life thrives in a hostile alien world.
These ecosystems are based not on photosynthesis, whereby sunlight is converted into a food source for plants, but chemosynthesis. Down here life has found a way, to steal a phrase from “Jurassic Park”. Literally, bacteria have evolved to survive at the hellish temperatures and pressures around these hydrothermal vents, where the water can reach temperatures of over 350 degrees Celsius. With nothing but a rich mineral brew spewing from these vents out onto the ocean floor, these bacteria have learnt to make use of this brew. These bacteria then form the basis for some of the most intriguing ecosystems on the planet. These vents are an oasis of life, all alone in the abyssal night.
Does Europa have the capacity for such vents, far beneath the ice? On Earth, the vents are geothermally heated. Earth posesses a core of molten iron, heated by slow radioactive decay of elements from the formation of the planet 4.6 billion years ago. This internal heat eventually reaches the upper mantle of the planet, seeping through in more threadbare regions of the Earth’s crust, Europa is heated by Jupiter itself. As the moon orbits the gas giant, tidal forces act upon it, squeezing and massaging. Resulting frictional forces are believed to sustain a heated core, which, just like earth, could provide energy to keep systems of hydrothermal vents running on the abyssal plains of Europa.
So. Europa may tick some really important boxes, for the existence of life. Water: definitely check. Minerals and organic compounds: check. A source of heat, to power possible life: check.
Now the only thing for it is to visit; to get through the icy shell to the ocean beneath….
To be continued….
Next post takes a ride beneath the ice.
17th November 2017:
And here is the video for which this post formed the script:
Soundtrack: something from Blade runner. If not that, then “Worlds in Collision” by God is an Astronaut
Someone will die in space. Some day someone will be killed whilst working on an offworld colony or space station.
Perhaps more to the point; space will not be devoid of crime. As humanity begins it’s gradual ascent beyond low earth orbit everything that makes us human will follow us out into space: our drive to explore, to look upon new vistas, and our darker side. It makes sense really. The corporate world will be at the forefront of the conquest of space. Big money will be planting it’s flag whether it can. Wherever money goes, corruption soon follows. One day someone will unwittingly join a select group of other human beings who have achieved a first in space. They will be the first murder victim.
Law enforcement will extend its reach to the other worlds of the Solar System. I don’t think to speculate on the finer details and brushstrokes of law and order beyond Earth. I do think it would be an interesting thought experiment to wonder just what may await the very first space cop to come across the very first murder scene in space….
Ceres comes around, drifting into view as your transport approaches. The mining facility on the dwarf planet and the transports AI exchange pleasantries; handshakes, exchanges of code and other silicon bureaucratica dart across several thousand kilometres of vacuum. The transport is on old Tesla: a pilotless model now used as a taxi between outposts in the asteroid belt. Ceres is of course the largest settlement out here. Ever since the Asteroid mining business took off in a big way in the 2050s, this stretch of space between Mars and Jupiter is the new Wild West. 16 Psyche; the remnant metallic core of an ancient protoplanet is the real prize. Ceres is the main stop off point to 16 Psyche and scores of other frontiers out here. Now it’s the first crime scene in the Asteroid belt.
You’re quietly amazed it’s taken this long. 16 Psyche has seen plenty of action. It’s heavily guarded. It has to be. It’s worth over 10000 quadrillion dollars. Plenty of skirmishes. Ceres is quieter, but people will be people. Get a few hundred thousand together in an enclosed space and they begin acting funny.
Not funny haha either.
See, cops on Earth have it real easy. People have been killing each other there since before they were people. There’s a lot of knowledge to draw upon, because forensics and taphonomy have several thousand years of crime to study. All of it earthbased. Up until this day outer space has technically been a Utopia. No killing. You feel like you’re investigating a murder in the Garden of Eden.
Boy, that would be a story and a half….
So what does happen to a body in space? What happens to a body on another planet? Every single environment we can think of beyond Earth is utterly hostile to anything larger than a bacterium, and even they have only managed to hitch rides on spacecraft. Life isn’t at home in space. So how would death work there?
That sounds like a dumb question. Death doesn’t work. When you die you stop working, right? Huh!
Death is messy, but it’s actually a process, with discrete steps. Of course all living things cease functioning eventually, but for all multicellular organisms death is akin to synchronised swimming: hard to figure out with a lot happening beneath the surface.
Death comes to us all, from the smallest bacterium to the largest redwood tree. It had one obvious and final result, but this result can be arrived at in many ways. It all depends on exactly what you are too.
When you die, yes, you stop working, but like a cheesy zombie movie it doesn’t really end there. There’s still plenty happening as your body transitions back to inanimate matter. Because that’s what’s happening really. You’re being broken down and cycled back into the firmament.
Okay. So you’re dead. (Just work with me okay?) Your heart has stopped and your body is switching off quickly. About 4 minutes after death your body begins to undergo autolysis. This essentially means that your body is digesting itself. This is as disgusting as it sounds. As oxygen decreases to be replaced by carbon dioxide cellular enzymes in the body are free to roam unchecked. So off they go, breaking down all in their path; rupturing cell membranes and releasing their contents into the mix. It’s like the prison guards have suddenly stopped being paid and so they decide to let all the prisoners loose. Obviously a riot would ensue. Autolysis is your body being broken down by a biochemical prison riot.
Gases are produced inside your body by all of these enzymes and microorganisms: particularly in your gut. Your body swells like an unopened can of coke after being shaken.
This is where the magic happens. Microorganisms are now officially in charge. Further breakdown of tissue turns you into a fetid mess. Those gases produced during the bloat stage? Those ones in your now distended gut? They begin escaping; sometimes violently. We all know what happens when gas escapes our bodies. Sometimes this out gassing is so nasty it ruptures the skin! Putrefaction essentially means that decay is running rampant and you now resemble an extra from “The Walking Dead”. If you’ve ever seen that show, or anything featuring the undead, you’ll notice that often the dead are crawling with maggots. This is an important stage in decomposition. Breakdown by insects and larger animals is part of putrefaction, and a necessary function performed by these creatures. If nothing broke down dead bodies the world would be awash with diseased corpses. Forget “The Walking Dead”. This is nowhere near as cool as it sounds.
The last discrete stages of decomposition are mummification and skeletonisation. Mummification means that whatever is left behind after voracious bacteria have exhausted your body’s nutritional goodness and larger creatures have cleaned you out and moved on just dries out. Usually this is skin. It becomes a dry dessicated shrink wrap around your bones, which are themselves leaching their component compounds into the environment.
So that’s it in a nutshell. Death.
Hang on, you say. I thought this post was about Ceres! I thought it was gonna be detective story set in space, like CSI meets The Expanse! Well it is, but to understand how death works and to understand death in space we only have a single frame of reference: Earth.
Let’s head back to our unfortunate murder victim, sailing serenely around the largest asteroid/dwarf planet in the solar system. You’ve gone out and collected the body, cursing several poor life choices as you bring it into your transport.
Be a space detective in a someone’s blog post they said. It’ll be fun they said.
The body on the slab can’t tell you much. Trying to work out a time of death will be problematic, at best. It’s hard to tell how long this guy’s been floating home. See, the stages of death mentioned before tend to be fairly discrete and take place in a fairly predictable sequence. Of course Earth is one big mess of wildly changing environments and variables. Gil Grissom would have found life easier out here. Space is a little more unchanging.
When someone steps beyond the veil you can almost set your watch (metaphorically speaking) to these physical stages:
Pallor mortis. A paleness sets in within minutes; more noticeably in those with lighter skin.
Algor mortis. Internal temperature regulation is switched off. The body’s temperature acclimatises to that of the external environment. The rate of acclimation can actually be used with some precision by investigators to determine a reasonable time frame.
Rigor mortis. A stiffening of the body occurs around 4 hours after death. This is due to chemical changes in the body causing cellular fluids to gel. This can be affected by the environment. For example, freezing cold can greatly prolong the time it takes rigor mortis to take hold.
Livor mortis. When a body has been prone for some time blood (particularly the heavier components like red blood cells) settle, pooling in the dependent or lower portions of the body. This causes reddish purple discolouration in these lower portions. Livor mortis usually starts becoming really apparent about 2 hours after death.
Alright then. You’ve read the Wikipedia pages. You know how death works.
But you’re in the asteroid belt. There’s no gravity, no air and no insects or scavengers out here to make short work of this poor sap’s remains..
Time to roll your sleeves up.
A lot of things are confounding your attempts to determine a time of death. First of all being in a vacuum has freeze dried him. He went out for a nice space walk without his helmet, remember? His nostrils and mouth look burnt because they are. In a vacuum liquids instantly boil away. It’s no different to what happens when you open a can of coke. The pressurised carbon dioxide in the drink depressurises, forming bubbles of gas. This is a more extreme example. The saliva and fluids in his nose boiled away instantly. Ouch.
People don’t explode in space. Forget every B-grade science fiction movie you ever saw. Your skin is actually pretty tough- as are your eyeballs. This guy is bloated though. Depressurisation has caused the water in his body, particularly in his circulatory system, to start boiling. His blood vessels have expanded and ruptured. Not to mention the fact that this guy didn’t listen to any safety instructions during his time in space. Golden Rule when being cast out onto the Big Empty: exhale. Do not hold your breath. Have you ever blown too much air into a balloon? The air inside becomes pressurised, more so than the air around the balloon. We’ve all scared enough small kids and cats to know what happens. You’re trying not to imagine what’s left of this guy’s lungs.
So anyway. There goes bloat as a yardstick.
So. Your murder victim is frozen, freeze dried and a purple mess with a case of weapons grade sun burn. No sunblock out here. No pretty blue sky protecting him from deadly solar radiation. Had he survived he would have had a million percent chance of terminal cancer anyway, and soon. Livor mortis is nowhere to be seen. No gravity well down which red blood cells can settle. Algor mortis seems tricky too. He didn’t freeze instantly. Again, forget those bad Sci Fi movies. Heat transfer happens via conductance. Space is a vacuum. There’s nothing to draw heat away from this man’s body. He’s frozen now, but he’s not a popsicle. About the only normal stage of death you notice is rigor mortis. The ion channels and transfers involved in muscle contraction and relaxation don’t seem to be affected by being in a vacuum.
Maggots and scavengers feeding on a body are disgusting to be sure, but they’re also really handy for determining how long a body has been lying around somewhere. Insects are purely driven by instinct, so on finding fresh meat they deposit eggs, or feed or interact with the corpse in very discrete waves or phases. These phases and even their durations are so predictable that forensic entemology is one of the most useful tools investigators have when determining times of death.
Stupid earthbound forensics guys you mutter under your breath. They think they’re so cool, don’t they? Not so much as a tick on this guy. Not even bacteria or fungi. They don’t do well in a vacuum and they’re all in cold storage. Radiation would have wiped most of them out too. This guy is basically perfectly preserved. No pooling of blood, no putrefaction and no chew marks from hungry scavengers!
It looks like you might have to look beyond regular physical and chemical factors surrounding death here, because out in space they mostly don’t apply.
Cause of death? Er, being thrown into space without a helmet! He would have passed out within a minute or so. Blood pressure became essentially nil, resulting in no oxygen getting to his brain at all. In addition exposure to the vacuum caused oxygen to be dumped from his brain. He died of asphyxiation, before ruptured lungs and internal membranes got to him.
Your first instinct as a cop, and particularly as a space cop in this blog post is to establish a time of death. Unfortunately, no such studies have been carried out just yet. Mankind is still stuck in Low Earth Orbit. If the forces of ignorance ever gain control (if they haven’t already) we may never leave LEO.
But, if we do…it’ll be business as usual. Crime will colonise the solar system along with us and wouldn’t it be useful to get some space forensics knowledge under our belts, so we’re ready and waiting for it?
What do you think?
Vass, Arpad A (November 2001). “Beyond the grave – understanding human decomposition” (PDF). Microbiology Today. Spencers Wood: Society for General Microbiology. 28: 190–192.