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Illustration of Venus, goddess of love and beauty

I promised to write about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book which I am planning on reading this year (after bouncing off of its deep moral ambiguity once before).  However before we get to talking about great literature and right and wrong and how to cynically manipulate people, let’s indulge in some completely frivolous daydreaming.

Longtime readers know that one of my favorite concepts for the not-so-distant future is the establishment of a floating colony in the skies of Venus.  A variety of considerable factors make this seem more attainable than the Martian colony which everyone is always talking about (plus I like tropical swamps better than Arctic deserts).

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Alas, I am not an engineer, and I cannot bring my dream closer to reality with a slide rule and a spreadsheet full of atmospheric measurements and rocket payloads…or with a thoughtful treatise about making plastics out of the chemicals present in Venus’ thick atmosphere…or with mention of the seemingly inexhaustible thermal energy on its surface.  Yet I am imaginative, and perhaps I can share a powerful passing fantasy with you.  The other day, while browsing goodness knows what on the internet, I came across the picture above and it struck me forcefully as a perfect structural component of Mary Rose or Constance [astronomical convention dictates that all features on Venus be named after women, so I decided to name my cities after my grandmothers…at least until I know what my billionaire partner wishes to call things]. I had to share the image with you, even though I have lost the real context of the actual inflatable structure 9avionic saftey equipment maybe? That doesn’t actually seem so far off).

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Dangit, this found concept art never looks right. I am going to have to draw my own.

First I imagined that this is the lifting body of the colony, which would be suspended underneath…but then it occurred to me that it might be the city (since breathable Earth atmosphere mixtures of gases float on the clouds of Venus).  or perhaps it is an agricultural pod or a park or a laboratory, or a factory.  Who can say what is in the lovely 4/5th torus, until we complete more of the schematics?  At the moment, it is a concept piece…like the whole colony, but the world is filled with clever people, and some of them read this blog.  let’s keep dreaming big!  Imagine this sparkling with lights as a huge yellow storm boils up beneath and a cloud of drones and gyrocopters approach from a nearby fleet of zeppelin buildings…

surface_area_largeToday features a short but vivid post borrowed from the futurist/science fiction/space blog io9 (which in turn took it from XKCD). Above is a map of all the surfaces of the solar system’s planets and moons flattened out and stitched together. The map was created by Randall Munroe and it does a superb job of explaining the relative size of rocky objects in the solar system. For obvious reasons the gas giants (and the sun!) have been excluded, but so too have small rocks and dust. For fun (um, I hope), the mapmaker also included an area equivalent to all human skin–which, distressingly, seems to be about the size of Hainan.

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

Russian concept art for a cloud colony in the upper atmosphere of Venus, (proposed in 1970s)

This map also emphasizes my most ardent fantasy of solar system colonization: I don’t really want to set up shop on Umbiel or Ceres, but I have a long-lasting interest in colonizing Venus. Sadly most of the rest of humankind is having trouble grasping this concept (possibly because the surface of Venus is a molten hellscape featuring boiling lead, sulfuric acid rain, and crushing pressure).  Remember though, we don’t need to ever go down to the Venutian surface: we can hang around in floating bouncy castles drifting through the balmy spring at the top of the atmosphere. Imagine taking your family zeppelin out for a night on the floating town! All of the people who express such an unwholesome interest in cold resource-poor Mars should pause to reexamine its relative area on Mr. Munroe’s excellent map!

Mars, Earth, Venus

Left to right: Mars, Earth, Venus

jcosmosWhen I was a child, my favorite tv show was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Although the good doctor’s naïveté about cold war politics sometimes dismayed my realpolitik-minded parents, the amazing breadth of his show’s exploration of the natural world–and the wider universe beyond–was a wonder to me.  For the first time I was introduced to quasars, pulsars, and stellar aging. From Sagan’s delightfully filmed documentary, I learned about Kepler, the Kreb’s cycle, DNA pair sequencing, and the great library of Alexandria.  The eclectic scope of Cosmos was a direct inspiration for this blog (although I can hardly claim to be such a polymath). Hopefully the new Cosmos–with a new science hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson–will inspire today’s generation of children to look beyond sports and the internet up to the soaring science of the firmament!

Jovian Life Envisioned by Adolf Schaller for COSMOS, Carl Sagan (1980)

Jovian Life Envisioned by Adolf Schaller for COSMOS, Carl Sagan (1980)

My very favorite segment of Cosmos however, did not involve real science at all, but rather airy speculation about extraterrestrial life on a gas giant planet.  Carl Sagan, his physicist colleague, E. E. Saltpeter, and the space artist, Adolf Schaller, worked together to imagine a floating ecosystem which might exist on a planet such as Jupiter. In the tempestuous atmosphere of such a world, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water are violently stirred together to form organic molecules.  Small drifting organisms might feed on these compounds and reproduce as lighter spores before air currents bear them down to their doom (in a cycle reminiscent of phytoplankton). Giant floating life-forms like living hot-air balloons would stay in the habitable zone of the atmosphere by photosynthesis or by grazing on the microscopic “plankton”.  These beings could be kilometers in diameter and would congregate in vast aerial schools.  Sagan and Saltpeter even envisioned jet-propulsion super predators which would blast through the alien skies feeding on the huge clouds of “floaters”.


It is a tremendously compelling vision! Now, whenever NASA or ESA releases a new list of exoplanets, I pause to wonder whether such alien creatures are actually found floating on the super-Jupiters and strange giant worlds which orbit far-off stars.  However today I would like to present an even more fantastic vision—and one which humankind could actually create!  By combining Sagan’s imaginary vision with contemporary aerospace and biotech research, it is possible to visualize my own fantasy of human colonization of Venus…or even upon other worlds with complex atmospheres.

Ornithopter based on Jellyfish (Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress)

Ornithopter based on Jellyfish (Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress)

Just this year, two aeronautical engineers, Dr. Ristroph and Dr. Childress, crafted an ornithopter based on the swimming motion of a jellyfish.  The tiny mechanism relies on four teardrop-shaped wings oriented around a dome-like apex to achieve stable, directed flight. At the same time a new array of futuristic blimps, zeppelins and dirigibles are being brought to market to transform the skies of earth.  Most importantly Craig Ventner, the bioengineer-entrepreneur, is out there sampling the esoteric genetics of the deep ocean and forging ahead with synthetic genomics (which is to say he is building new living things from scratch).  In our lifetime someone will figure out how to meld Ventner’s synthetic organisms with the advanced engineering and technology which are the hallmark of our age.  The possibilities then grow exponentially out of this world.

“Space Zeppelin” by Rugose.

“Space Zeppelin” by Rugose.

Imagine if the floating ecosphere invented by Sagan and Saltpeter were instead a floating society-economy based on advanced engineering and bioengineering.  There would be levitating cities which are also bioengineered life-forms (like the vast balloon beings of Sagan’s invention).  Between these cloud cities would fly flocks of tiny ornithopters that would gather resources for further farming/engineering.

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Jet propelled aircrafts and super habitats would zip between the living arcologies.  Armored crawlers would inch through the deeper layers of atmosphere or creep along the molten pressurized ground. Eventually there might be flying bio-colonies which self arrange out of many highly specialized flying zooids—like the siphonophores which are so prevalent in our oceans! These collective entities would act as sky factories to build an ever more symbiotic and efficient synthetic ecosystem. Humankind, living things, and technology would no longer be at odds but would grow together to form the ideal world of tomorrow.  Life, beautiful and united would expand to new planets and develop into a stronger, brighter presence in the cosmos.

Siphonophorae (Ernst Haeckel, 1904, plate 7 of "Kunstformen der Natur")

Siphonophorae (Ernst Haeckel, 1904, plate 7 of “Kunstformen der Natur”)

Humankind is always fixating on the Moon and Mars as the most likely spots for the first space colonies, but there is another crazy possibility.  Aside from the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky.  Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, Venus is a veritable sister planet with extremely similar mass and volume.  Because of its  size and position in the solar system, a great deal of early science fiction concentrated around Venus.  Dreamers and fabulists posited that beneath its ominously uniform cloud cover was a lush tropical rainforest filled with lizard people and pulchritudinous scantily clad women (the fact that the planet’s Greco-Roman name is synonymous with the goddess of love and beauty seems to have influenced many generations of male space enthusiasts).

Maybe we should head over there and check it out…

Alas, the space age quickly dispensed with mankind’s sweaty-palmed fantasies about life on Venus.  In 1970 the Soviet space probe, Venera 7, was the first spacecraft to successfully land on another planet (after a long series of earlier space probes were melted or crushed by atmospheric pressure).  In the 23 minute window before the probe’s instruments failed, the craft recorded hellish extremes of temperature and pressure. The temperature on Venus’ surface averages around 500 °C (932 °F), (higher than the melting point of lead) and the pressure on the ground is equal to the pressure beneath a kilometer of earth’s ocean.  The planet’s surface is a gloomy desertlike shell of slabs interspersed with weird volcanic features not found elsewhere in the solar system (which have strange names like “farra”,” novae”, and “arachnoids”). Additionally the broiling surface is scarred by huge impact craters, and intersected by immense volcanic mountains (the tallest of which looms 2 kilometers above Everest). The tops of these mountains are covered with a metallic snow made of elemental tellurium or lead sulfide (probably).

A photo of the surface of Venus from Venera 13

The atmosphere of Venus is a hellish fug of carbon dioxide which traps the sun’s energy in a self replicating greenhouse gone wrong.    Above the dense clouds of CO2, the upper atmosphere is dominated by sulfur dioxide and corrosive sulfuric acid.  Once Venus may have had water oceans and more earth-like conditions, but rampant greenhouse heating caused a feedback loop which caused the planet to become superheated billions of years ago.  Without an magnetosphere, solar winds stripped Venus of its molecular hydrogen (yikes!).

Artist’s Impression of the Surface of Venus

Thus Venus does not initially present a very appealing picture for colonization! Yet the planet’s mass is similar to Earth (and humans’ long term viability in low gravity is far from certain).  The planet is closer than Mars and windows of opportunity for travel are more frequent. Fifty kilometers (30 miles) above the surface of Venus, the temperature is stable between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius (32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit).  Light crafts filled with oxygen and nitrogen would float above the dense carbon dioxide.  Today’s visionaries and dreamers therefore have stopped thinking of tropical jungles and envision instead a world of Aerostats and floating cities.  Although the rotation of Venus is too slow to craft a space elevator, the flying colonists of Venus probably could build some sort of skyhook with existing or near future technology.  Such a hook could be used to lift raw materials from the surface to manufacturing facilities in the skies.  As more aerostat habitats were built, the colony would gain manufacturing strength, safety, and a greater ability to alter the barren world below (increasingly overshadowed by flying cities and hovering countries).

Imagine then a world like that of the Jetsons where the surface was unseen and not thought about (except by scientists and industrialists).  Floating forests and croplands could be assembled to mimic earth habitats and provide resources for a bourgeoning population of Venusian humans.  Skyships would cruise between the flying city states dotted jewel-like in the glowing heavens.   Over time these flying habitats could be used to alter the planetary temperature and shield the desolate lands below.  Humankind and whatever friends and stowaways came with us would finally have a second home in easy shouting distance of Earth.    How long would it be then before we took steps to take Earth life even farther into the universe?

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