Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Colonizing Mercury

(Note: this is a continuation of the The Space Colonization Series)
I'll be honest; a colony on Mercury is out there--waaay out there. Many would naturally assume that Mercury could never be colonized or that even if we could it would be highly impractical. Right now I would most definitely agree with that statement but, in the future, as we expand our horizons and colonize our solar system that first rock from the sun may prove to be one of the key locations for supporting a space-fairing civilization.

What Does Mercury Have to Offer?
Image of Mercury orbiting around the Sun. Source: NASA.gov
Quite a few benefits actually. One of the biggest is solar energy. The close proximity to the sun could allow for Mercury to be a potential location for harvesting solar energy. The solar constant near Mercury is 9.13 kW/m² or 6.5 times that of the Earth or Moon. Now, with this extra energy it would be possible to power mass drivers (similar to a maglev launch system) and launch folded up solar sails carrying any sort of cargo or mined resources from the planet. Once deployed into space and unfolded, the solar sail would receive an added boost from the stronger solar constant--6.5 times the thrust to be specific. Mercury could also be used as the starting point for either interstellar travel or simply travel into the outer solar system using the added solar boost to speed the process along.

Launching mined materials from the planet could prove to be lucratively advantageous considering the composition of it. Mercury is the second most dense planet (behind Earth). As a result it indicates that anywhere from 60-70% (by weight) of the planet is composed of metals with the rest primarily being silicate. In addition, it is theorized that Mercury may have some of the highest concentrations of several valuable minerals and metals of any surface in our solar system and in extremely concentrated ores on top of that. Other predictions include the possibility of the soil containing a large quantity of helium-3--an essential ingredient in a future fusion power plant.

Lastly, due to Mercury's prime location near the Sun, it could provide an excellent site for monitoring solar activity. A base could warn any traveling ships, other various colonies, or even Earth that a solar flare is approaching or a burst of solar radiation could make a certain area dangerous for the time being. A constant close-up watch of the Sun would definitely help us learn more about it and perhaps allow us to forecast any solar activity. Learning more about the Sun is definitely important and Mercury is the closest place to it.

How Could it be Done?

Colonizing and creating the necessary infrastructure would likely be both very difficult and very dangerous. This is not to say that it can't be done though. Long days (176 Earth days), no real atmosphere, and a lack of organic materials/elements requiring importation make it difficult but not impossible. This is because of the relatively static climate of the polar regions. It would avoid the extreme variations of temperature that are hot enough to melt lead during the daytime and the nighttime bone-chilling lows of -180 degrees Celsius. In fact, the polar regions may also harbor the ever essential water-ice in permanently shaded regions inside craters.
Magnetic field of Mercury. Source: NASA.gov
Mercury even limits a couple of other major, ubiquitous problems involved in space exploration and colonization. Perhaps its most important advantage towards allowing for a habitat is its magnetic field. Though only about 1% of the strength of Earth's own magnetic field, Mercury's field deflects solar wind about 1000 km from the surface and this may be more than enough protection for colonists. The strength of Mercury's gravity is also another asset that places like the Moon or asteroids can't provide. At about .377 g's, Mercury has twice the gravity of the Moon and approximately equal to that of Mars. This is especially important because some scientists believe that .33 g's is all that is necessary to be acceptable to the human body over an extended period.

As a colony establishes itself the non-polar regions of the planet may end up providing more room for habitats and mining operations. Underground bases could potentially insulate itself from the extreme temperatures on the surface above. Traveling outside of the underground base could easily be accomplished during times of twilight. Due to the planet's very slow rotational period the window of time for exiting or exploring the surface would also likely be significant.

In the end I do believe that the colonization of Mercury is inevitable. Whether it is used to support some lucrative mining operation, outsource power, be the starting point of journeys to the outer solar system and beyond, manufacture anti-matter with fusion reactors, as a futuristic Alcatraz/Australia, or some combination of all them, it definitely holds a future and purpose for mankind. How long that is before it is I can't answer you but, regardless, it's still fun to imagine it. Personally, I think it would just be fun to watch a giant sun rise above the horizon during the Mercurian morning. What do you guys think?

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Simmons said...

"A base could warn any traveling ships, other various colonies, or even Earth that a solar flare is approaching or a burst of solar radiation could make a certain area dangerous for the time being."

Would colonists be able to get the message out? Wouldn't a solar flare be even more powerful on Mercury?

Pat said...

During the time of a solar flare there is not much warning (about 15 minutes) but if they are able to closely monitor the sun they could perhaps better forecast the activity and provide warnings akin to tornado warnings of today.

As for flares hitting Mercury, the magnetic field should provide ample protection for those on the surface but orbiting craft would likely need to get out of the way. Magnetic fields on planets aren't very common and that gives Mercury a big advantage over many other places. (Only Earth, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, and Ganymede have magnetospheres)

Bruce said...

I really like this idea, and would think it is perfect for a mining colony. But couldn't we just send robots at that time to do that, some that don't need to worry so much about extreme temperatures?

I too have pondered seeing the big sunrise. Truly a sight to behold, I'd imagine.

Pat said...

Sending robots will likely be important and necessary first steps in establishing an infrastructure on Mercury but inevitably humans will be required to maintain this system. I personally believe that humans will always be needed to at least oversee such complex operations as mining Mercury. There are too many variables to account for for a simple program to react to. Of course this is all speculation but I'm sure you could see the possible shortcomings of AI.

Also, with the need for a human presence and Mercury's relative distance from the rest of civilization, operators will be required to stay for long periods of time. There is no doubt that operators would work for timed shifts but, with the time being so long it will essentially serve as a colony. Workers could bring family along and this would set up the need for schools, hospitals, and a local market. I'd imagine that the colony would be similar to living in a company community (i.e. Hershey, Pennsylvania).

Jonathan said...

What about tidally locking Mercury to the Sun? Theoretically, if you had an object with enough mass pass close enough to Mercury in a counter-rotational vector enough times the net gravitational effect would be enough to slow down and eventually stop Mercury's rotation. I seem to recall that the Magellan probe did just that when it passed by the Earth on it's way to the outer solar system. It's mass was just enough to slow the Earth's rotation by a second or so.

Once Mercury's rotation is stopped a mirror or series of mirrors could be set up in orbit to raise the temperature of the dark side to habitable levels. Even without a mirror network, tidally locking Mercury to the Sun would likely create a ring of habitable temperature around the planet.

Of course any civilization on Mercury would have to be subsurface or structure-bound in nature because a sustainable atmosphere would still be impossible to maintain. In addition, a Mercury colony would likely still lack many of the basic compounds necessary to support life. But once a habitable temperature is achieved Mercurian colonization may one day be commercially viable.


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Anonymous said...

Sorry, but that sunrise might not be so impressive. The sun as veiwed from the earth is the same size as a ping pong ball 13 feet away, whereas from Mercury it would be about 5 feet away. Try it! . Another way if you live in the Midwest is tovisit the Michigan Space Center in Jackson,MI. They have an outdoor display of the innermost 4 planets as seen if the Sun was near the size of a Basketball. Either way, you quickly realize the sun doesn't appear much larger from Mercury than it does from Earth.

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