Last November, Stephen Hawking said humanity needs to establish itself on another planet in the next 1,000 years or risk extinction. We probably did something very wrong since then, as Hawking revised his deadline — we’ve got to get out in the next century.

Stephen Hawking in front of sun with coronal mass ejections.

Image credits Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr.

In a new BBC documentary titled “Expedition New Earth”, which will debut this summer as part of the program’s science season, Stephen Hawking has severely cut down on his initial deadline set in November. From a full millennium, we’re now down to one hundred years, a number disturbingly close to the length of a human lifetime.

So what prompted this change?

“Professor Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive,” an online BBC statement reads. “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.”

“In this landmark series, Expedition New Earth, he enlists engineering expert Danielle George and his own former student, Christophe Galfard, to find out if and how humans can reach for the stars and move to different planets.”

The documentary gives Hawking a chance to detail the evolving science and technology, from rockets to astronomy to suspended animation, that will underpin any attempt to survive on another planet, BBC notes. And to be sure, Earth does have a lot on its plate right now. A spare human civilization somewhere in the Universe would be awesome, but is it feasible?

Uh-oh

Let’s start with “where”. In the Professor’s own words, Mars is “the obvious next target” for colonization but it’s not exactly lush right now. We’re making progress on establishing supply lines on-planet for oxygen and building materials and food, but that’s only scratching the surface of the issue. The fact remains that without its atmosphere Mars has deadly temperature shifts, nothing to breathe, and nothing to shield against radiation. Taken together, all these factors would immensely limit any budding community on the planet, let alone a civilization. Given time to work their magic, scientists and engineers could probably turn Mars into a very welcoming home — just not right now. A colony would require a steady stream of supplies from Earth to function, and that’s not really an option if society breaks down (or under a slab of space-rock) back on good ole Earth.

Mars.

Home…?
Image credits Aynur Zakirov.

The next option is to look farther away. Odds are on our side to find a human-habitable planet somewhere in the galaxy, but with so many to sort through it’s going to take time. Our telescopes can give us a general feel of the planets we look at, but can’t peer on the surface to let us know what to expect down there. And lastly, we need to consider if humanity can make a trip of hundreds of years to a new home.

Can we even build a ship to withstand that in time? Not now. The best ships we have at the moment are intended to carry up to six people on NASA’s mission to Mars. Very nice for their intended role, impressively ill-suited to ferrying humanity somewhere else. The most ambitious ship designs in the works are probably SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport Systems. They’re intended to carry about 100 people on an intra-system journey to Mars so even they are still a very far cry from what we need — ships capable of supporting thousands of people for hundreds of years of trekking to another system.

But even if we did get our hands on a suitable ship, how will generations upon generations of humans be able to survive in a tube in space? We don’t know. All resources will have to be carefully monitored and recycled (we’re very bad at that even down here), any disease would be devastating, and we have no clue what the biological and psychological effects would be. It’s possible our colonists won’t even technically be ‘human’ when we reach our destination. Which segways into the next point: people.

Specifically, the fact that we’d have to shuttle a lot of people to have a shot at a sustainable colony. It’s not only about the risks they will face in transit or on the planet and the unavoidable deaths they will lead to — small populations would have a lot to suffer from inbreeding, so we need to ensure that a wide genetic stock is available from the get-go and can sustain itself over time. And lastly, the moral issue of who goes and who stays.

Do the rich get to go, while the poor are left to go by as well as they can/die off? Do we send our smartest? Do we send our social elites? And whom from these groups do we send? We can barely shuttle six people around. Tens, hundreds — maybe. Billions? Not a chance. Nobody will be happy to give up on the chance to survive — and yet most will have to. Good luck cracking this nut.

No planet for old habits

Dead Tree.

Image credits Colin Kinnear.

During his hour-long talk at the Oxford University Union in November, Hawking expressed his belief that humans have done a lot to hasten the end of Earth as we know it through a rampant and unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s resources. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, economic inequality, social and political unrest — anyone left behind will have to sort this mess or perish. And even if they pull it off, humanity might meet its end when an asteroid decides to pay us a visit — it happens. A lot.

He also approached the subject of artificial intelligence during the talk, where he issued some of the most explicit warnings. He said that humanity’s challenge is twofold: develop the technology that will enable us to leave the planet and start a colony elsewhere, while avoiding the frightening perils that may be unleashed by said technology. Despite the undeniable usefulness of AI, Hawking has said that it represents “our biggest existential threat.”

“Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate,” he warns. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

“I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC in a 2014 interview.

Phew.

Bummer of an article, right? Well, you have to keep in mind that while the challenges we face are pretty daunting, we’re also better equipped than ever before to deal with them. We know more than ever before, and we understand the world better than we previously did. In a way, the fact that we can see the edge we’re walking to is a boon because we can at least try to stop.

But we all have to bunch together to make it happen. We’ve had a whole history to learn from. We’ve seen how good men and women, harboring the best intentions for their fellows, made horrifying atrocities possible simply by keeping silent, by not standing up for what they believe in. We’re the ones making history now, each and every one of the choices we make each day add up to shape the world.

If you don’t count asteroids, we’re not faced with an unfair fate, either — we’re mopping up after thousands of years of other people doing well or messing up. And just as we judge those before us, the textbooks schoolkids will be reading one hundred years from — regardless on which planet — will judge or praise us, remember or damn us, based on what we decide and how we live each and every day.

In Hawkins’ own words:

“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

 

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