A mainstay of science fiction—the long-term survival of human explorers in deep space—may be harder to achieve when it comes to real life, according to research outlining a novel “Pancosmorio Theory” that reveals the limitations of human sustainability in future space missions.
According to a paper recently published in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, a new theory points to the challenges of survival in the absence of access to oxygen, water, food, and even gravity, all of which are among the reasons humans may find it harder to endure for long periods in deep space than popular characters in science fiction films have done.
Authors Lee G. Irons of Norfolk Institute, Virginia, and his daughter Morgan Irons, a doctorate student and research assistant at Cornell University and the Carl Sagan Institute in Ithaca, New York, say that while the likelihood of future human migrations into space seems inevitable, decades of research seems to show that it may not be as simple as popular fiction, and even some scientists, may hope.
According to the authors, the unique conditions under which life evolved on Earth make the potential for long-term space travel potentially quite difficult.
“The science indicates that life-sustaining conditions on Earth could be the very things that inhibit our ability to live off-Earth,” the authors write, arguing that the absence of self-restoring resources that have been afforded humans throughout our evolutionary history on Earth “will result in settlement sustainment challenges.”
Looking to history, in their study, the authors looked at past examples of disrupted ecosystems, citing the disappearance of supply chains, market sources, and other issues that, in some instances, have led to the collapse of societal and governmental systems.
Given similar conditions future humans may face while traversing great distances in space, the authors say that “human population numbers would decline, genetic diversity in the human genome would be lost, average human individual biomass would decrease, and human knowledge and understanding would be forgotten.”
The authors present their research as the pancosmorio theory of human sustainability, which describes the “all-world limit” for human endurance in space, as determined from the application of abductive reasoning to ecological thermodynamics theory. The Irons say their theory has relevance to future prospective efforts to colonize the Moon and Mars, as well as to the Fermi paradox and the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
Morgan Irons says that sustainability for humans in space would fundamentally rely on factors that include technology, infrastructure, the development and sustainment of society in space, as well as the requirement for a “self-restoring, Earth-like, natural ecosystem to back them up.”
“Without these kinds of systems, the mission fails,” Morgan said in a statement.
However, even more fundamental to the success of human settlements in space will be the presence of gravity, a component of fundamental significance that humans often take for granted.
“Gravity induces a gradient in the fluid pressure within the body of the living thing to which the autonomic functions of the life form are attuned,” said Lee Irons in a statement. One example Irons provides is the pressure gradient that human eyesight relies on in order to ensure proper vision, which is affected under conditions where gravity differs from what we are used to experiencing on Earth.
“There is just no other place in space where there is 1G of gravity,” Morgan Irons adds about our uniquely suited evolutionary disposition on Earth. “That’s one of the first problems we must solve.”
Other factors include our reliance on oxygen and the problems associated with producing enough of it in environments where plants that generated it naturally on Earth do not exist.
Energy generation under similar conditions will also be problematic, Lee Irons says, likening the power production requirements for a human outpost in space to “trying to run your car on a cell phone battery.”
“You’ll need a lot of energy,” Irons says.
The Irons’ paper, “Pancosmorio (world limit) theory of the sustainability of human migration and settlement in space,” appeared in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences.