Interstellar colonization tips
Posted by aogWednesday, 24 January 2007 at 15:03 TrackBack Ping URL

Never let it be said that I won’t jump on a bandwagon once it’s sufficiently loaded. Deep Black had a post about SETI which ended up shifting topic in a long running comment thread. His post was about how we might expect aliens to act in a universe with FTL travel.

I, however, would like to touch on what the comment threaded ended with. Let us presume that lightspeed represents a true upper limit to velocity in the universe. Consider a scenario where you live in a Type I.5 civilization, that is one that effectively uses most of the resources of a star system. However, you want much more than your share of those resources, so you organize a colonization expedition to another star system, where you will be able to claim a share of resources more appropriate to one of your stature. So, what do you pack in your colonization fleet1?

Personally, I would strongly favor tools as meta as possible. I.e., tools that build tools that build tools … as long a chain of that as possible. Secondarily, large amounts of computing power. The convervgence of technologies into mostly digitally computation based ones is a trend I expect to continue, making computational resources very fundamental.

I would aim for systems to make it possible to extract any necessary resources from airless but self-gravitating bodies (e.g., small moons and planetoids). In particular, targeting Jupiter like worlds and their satellites would be the primary design criteria. Systems to capture solar energy would also be key. My plan would be for a society with as much industry in space as possible, to have the habitable planet as basically a park and living quarters. All industry will arrive in space, I don’t see any good reason to put it back on a planet. In addition, It’s likely that the planet will require some amount of terraforming, which would necessitate an intially space based industry.

And there you have it, AOG’s guide to interstellar colonization.

1 Fleet because it doesn’t seem prudent to travel light years from home in a single ship.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
David Cohen Wednesday, 24 January 2007 at 19:34

I wouldn’t bother to bring computing power. It’s pretty easy to make, especially in vacuum. I would bring lots of digital storage space, stuffed full of the sum of human knowledge.

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 24 January 2007 at 20:53

It’s easy to make more computing power if you already have plenty. It’s a lot harder to boot strap. In addition, computing power is useful for a variety of tasks and is likely to be even more so in the future. I think stocking up on it before leaving is a smart move.

cjm Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 00:54

guns, and lots of em.

given that this is pretty much a one-way trip, and restocking isn’t likely, i would put equal emphasis on the fancy stuff already enumerated — and on things like books, axes, etc, that are guranteed to work and be useful (no matter what).

seems like you could pre-fab a small town and then “unfold” it on-site.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 08:53

Ah, see, that’s the argument we got in to over at Deep Black’s. I would bring a very minimal amount of weaponry because you can build it if needed and useful.

I am not sure pre-industrial back ups make sense. I think it likely that the planetary conditions will be such that the colonists wouldn’t survive without technological support, so it would be like packing an umbrella on a helicopter.

cjm Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 09:26

only slightly OT, have you seen the announcements for cameron’s next epic sci-fi flick ? it’s called “Avatar” and if it gets made, it will be amazing. part of the script is online and is very compelling.

why would an ax be useful on one planet, but not on another ? my point is that primitive tools are guranteed to work, whereas modern technology will always be more fragile. if i have the only weapon, i guess i am the de facto “king” :)

once you have interstellar drives, and replicators, colonizing even an airless moon is also going to be pretty easy. the real trick is doing it with less than ideal technology, ala columbus or cook.

Michael Herdegen Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 09:30

Depending on what’s in your target star system, humans might never live on any of the planets, just use them for raw materials.

It seems likely that true “Earth-like” worlds are few & far between. Although we could terraform, living on planets has its drawbacks. If none of the existing planets are close enough to Earth, we might think that it’s quicker, cheaper, and more convenient to just ring a planet with space stations, whichever one is prettiest, and/or has the most useable resources. It shouldn’t be any problem to construct plenty of living space ahead of population growth, since we’d have almost unlimited power available from the sun.

If we assume that humans will be very long-lived by the time we have the ability to mount such an expedition, somewhere in the 200 - 500 year range, then maybe it’s not a one-way trip.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 10:36


why would an ax be useful on one planet, but not on another?

Because one planet has trees and the other doesn’t. If you assume that the target star system has planet that’s effectively a duplicate of Earth, including the biosphere, then pre-industrial tools make sense. I am not willing to make that assumption. Suppose, for instance, the target planet hasn’t yet evolved multi-cellular life. What are you going to do with that axe?

Mr. Herdegen;

Life spans are a key issue in all of this, along with the level and type of space colonization in the source star system. The longer people live, the “closer” other star systems become. Additionally, if people end up colonzing open space (via constructed habitats of some sort), the more likely they are to colonize, because traveling to another star system, even generationally, isn’t much different than normal life.

P.S. I haven’t seen that “Avatar”, only bits of this one.

cjm Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 15:19

the door to the holo-deck is jammed, and you use the axe handle to open it.

colonizing an uninhabitable planet is never going to be a big seller, to anyone. maybe as prison planets or for jonestown type cults. is it really ever going to be worth it, to travel to another system, just to collect rocks and so forth ? if you aren’t planning on populating a planet and sticking around, then what really is the point ?

my boys watch that cartoon series, but it is a blur to me.

Ali Choudhury Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 17:48

I wonder if human colonisation of space is possible without some large-scale bioengineering or sending robots out to do the work insread.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 25 January 2007 at 18:34

It’s unclear, but I suspect not. I expect small groups of humans overseeing massively automated (if not AI run) facilities, with almost everyone living on a park like Earth. Longer term, we might see large scale habitats that rotate to simulate gravity, but those always struck me as a bit fragile.

It’s possible that medical nano-tech will make it possible to live in space with our current genome. I don’t know if you’d count that as bio-engineering or not.

Michael Herdegen Friday, 26 January 2007 at 14:10

Yes, robots will do all of the grunt work. That’s one of the many faults of Star Trek - for dramatic value, they have humans go on away teams, when really we’ll just be beaming down robots, and exerting tele-presence control from a holo-deck.

Michael Herdegen Friday, 26 January 2007 at 14:16

We’ll be sticking around the colonized systems, but we may not be living on the actual planets. We may end up building our own habitats, fragile or not.

Some will go for the adventure of it, and some will go, as AOG has suggested, because you get a much bigger slice of the pie if you’re sharing an entire system’s resources with a million other people, rather than ten billion other people.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 26 January 2007 at 15:08

Mr. Herdegen;

That reminds me of an anime involving human control mecha with a plausible control system. Most of the time, pilots are depicted as controlling mecha via joysticks and buttons, which seems just a might inadequate for the gymnastics the mecha perform. One of them, however, had the pilots stand in a hemispherical room where everything above the floor was display, as if looking out from the head of the mecha. The pilot then moved as he wanted the mecha to move, watched by the computer control systems, which then duplicated his movements in the mecha. We can already do this in a primitive way, it’s not much of stretch to envision that kind of system. I also suspect that’s how you would exploration of potentially hostile environments. Your remote lands, while you stand in such a control room.

Robert Duquette Sunday, 28 January 2007 at 17:40

I’m doubtful that you will get that many people willing to live indefinitely aboard a spaceship or in orbital space colonies. The closest earthbound analogy is life aboard a nuclear submarine. Submarine candidates go through psychological screening to ensure that they won’t go nuts in an enclosed space for 6 months on end. But we’re not talking 6 months, but a lifetime. Just think about how small and cramped even the largest space stations would feel like. It would be like living your whole life inside a shopping mall.

I once thought that living in space would be a great adventure. It would, for about two weeks.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 28 January 2007 at 18:29

Mr. Duquette;

What do you mean by “that many”? You’d only need a few thousand out of billions and frankly, I doubt there’s any activity for which you couldn’t find a few thousands volunteers if you had the entire world’s population to choose from.

Initially space habitats will be cramped, However, in the long term life in space would resemble living in a large office building far more than a submarine. And for the truly optimistic, would you object to living on something like Babylon 5?

P.S. There’s always the basement dwelling webloggers as a core staff. Never a violation of the time zone rule, after all.

Jeff Guinn Sunday, 28 January 2007 at 21:02

There is mass enough, and time, to colonize the rest of our solar system with a nearly unimaginable number of humans. What possible reason could there be to go anywhere else?


Life spans are a key issue in all of this, along with the level and type of space colonization in the source star system. The longer people live, the “closer” other star systems become.

Not by my math. With the denominator orders of magnitude larger than the numerator, extending human life spans by even a factor of five is still yields a very small number.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 28 January 2007 at 23:04

Mr. Guinn;

If the last century or two has taught us anything, it is that there is no upper bound to how much stuff people want to own.

Jeff Guinn Monday, 29 January 2007 at 08:59


True enough.

The last century has also taught us that, given sufficient economic development and educated women, there is definitely an upper bound to how many children people want to have.

I don’t think there will ever be enough of the latter to make the former a problem.

Michael Herdegen Monday, 29 January 2007 at 17:54

We need to spread out to avoid being extincted by some system-wide catastrophe. The odds of such an event occurring are quite low, but it’d be pretty silly to have the means to avoid it, not do so, and then have some extreme bad luck.

Robert Duquette Wednesday, 31 January 2007 at 18:58

You’d only need a few thousand out of billions and frankly, I doubt there’s any activity for which you couldn’t find a few thousands volunteers if you had the entire world’s population to choose from.

You’ll get plenty of volunteers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have the psychological traits to be able to survive a lifetime in a cramped structure. It’s a very unnatural thing, living in space.

cjm Friday, 02 February 2007 at 13:50

it people want to live in space they hardly need to go to a different system to do it. no, i am sorry, but short of going to an earth like planet, there just isn’t any reason to make such a trip.. maybe this is a universal constant among alien races, so that they don’t go after each other (since one race’s home planet is inhospitable to another race).

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 02 February 2007 at 14:40

There’s always the possibility of building a new, Earth like world. The technology required isn’t much more than we have now, it would just take a very long time.

There are also experiments (such as various solar engineering ones) that would be unlikely to be permitted in an already inhabited star system.

cjm Friday, 02 February 2007 at 16:22

now those two point i can get excited about :) the road to xeelee

Michael Herdegen Friday, 02 February 2007 at 17:15

There are at least two additional reasons to go, which I’ve already written about above:

  • To spread humanity, so as to avoid being clustered, vulnerable to being wiped out by a single Very Bad Thing
  • For the adventure of it, and the potential riches - the same things that motivated Columbus, Cortez, and Daniel Boone, among a million others throughout the ages.
Robert Duquette Sunday, 04 February 2007 at 09:40


Isn’t the problem with terraforming Mars due to the fact that Mars has no magnetic field like the Earth that would be necessary to fend off the solar winds? Isn’t that why the Martian atmosphere is so sparse compared to Earth? What would it take to generate a planet-sized magnetic field?

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 04 February 2007 at 10:30

No, not really. The real problem is atmospheric loss, which is is more affected by gravity (although lack of a strong magnetic field makes that worse). However, the magnetic field of Earth isn’t really that strong, so I suspect it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to generate the equivalent. Alternative, one could build shields at the star/planet L1 point.

But I was thinking more of building terran worlds. For instance, you could take Mars and drop it on to Venus in such a way as to boost Venus out to a more habitable zone around the Sun. The optimal plan would be to drop it in to the Sun/Earth L4 or L5 point. It might be cooler, though, to place it such that it and Earth would exchange orbits as various Saturnian moons do.

All of that is quite doable, if you have enough time (1Kyear - 10Kyear).

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