Interstellar and Intergalactic Travel Help
Water, Air, And Food—again
All the challenges of interplanetary travel will exist in interstellar space on an exaggerated scale. In addition, there will be new problems and inspirations.
The essentials of life will be harder to come by on interstellar missions than on trips to other worlds in the Solar System. This will open up new avenues of technology. There should be no lack of work for people who want to design star-wandering ships.
Hydrogen exists in the voids between the stars, although it is at extremely low pressure, comparable with the best laboratory vacuum ever obtained on Earth. This hydrogen (H 2 ) can be combined with O 2 to provide H 2 O. But where will the O 2 , necessary not only for H 2 O but for a breathable atmosphere, come from? Some scientists think it exists bound up in icy rocks floating among the stars. The distant Oort Cloud, the belt of comets that surrounds our Solar System and hopefully other star systems, can be expected to provide a source of H 2 O, and therefore of O 2 as well. The challenge will be snaring the comets while traveling through the cloud at speeds of many kilometers per second!
Another way of getting breathable air is to split apart the CO 2 exhaled by the astronauts, mixing the O 2 with the ever-present nitrogen gas, and setting the carbon residue aside. No one has yet figured out an easy way to do this, but optimists believe that this problem eventually will be solved.
Food on interstellar voyages will be grown in the form of plant life, as well as carried along in the form of protein, vitamin, and mineral supplements. Exhaled human CO 2 will be a blessing here. Plants convert CO 2 into O 2 , which is released into the air; the residual carbon is used by the plants to build their own living matter. Special gardens will be provided for the dual purpose of supplementing the O 2 stores and obtaining food. The gardens also will serve an aesthetic purpose. Astronauts will find psychological and emotional respite from the rigors of their artificial environment by sitting or strolling on the “garden deck” among the plants.
The Sun is not the only source of high-speed subatomic particles. All the stars in the Universe emit them. The cores of galaxies are intense sources, some more than others. Supernovae can produce great quantities of radiation. There are x-ray and gamma-ray objects scattered throughout the galaxies. During a long interstellar or intergalactic voyage, astronauts will be exposed to unknown quantities of this radiation.
In the long term, we should not be surprised if long-distance space travelers have an above-average incidence of cancer. If multigeneration space voyages are carried out, the later generations will be subject to more-often-than-usual occurrences of birth defects. In the extreme, high-intensity cosmic radiation will shorten the life spans of space travelers, and they will be sick for much of their lives.
Hopefully, some scheme will be found to protect interstellar astronauts from cosmic radiation. Radiation shelters, mentioned earlier in this chapter as a means of staying safe from the perils of solar flares, may serve as sleeping quarters to minimize long-term exposure. The deadly cosmic particles may be deflected away from interstellar spacecraft by devices yet to be invented and perfected.
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