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What if a self-sufficient planet colony was alone?


daniel l.
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Suppose, the year is 2068, the Moon has been colonized, the colony is self-sufficient and has a population of twenty thousand.

Meanwhile on Earth, a deadly plague breaks out, rumored to have been created inside a laboratory belonging to one of the major nations. This disease is completely unstoppable, and within weeks, all multi-cellular life on Earth is dead, and the atmosphere is saturated with radiation, as nuclear weapons had been used in a last-ditch attempt to destroy infected nations. The planet is uninhabitable.

The colony is spared this fate, and because it's self-sufficient it's capable of meeting the basic needs of it's colonists for the next few decades, how do they survive in the long run? And without the warm embrace of Earth, how does their culture and lifestyle adapt over the following centuries?

Edited by daniel l.
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Weird as it might sound, this exact idea was explored in one of my favorite sci-fi series: Space:1999

In this series the moon was ripped out of Earth orbit and sent hurtling off into space... while it was never clear if Earth survived or not, the series was from the POV of the survivors of Moonbase Alpha, and had to deal with much of what you asked.

 

 

Edited by Just Jim
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1 minute ago, daniel l. said:

*SOI :wink:

If the Moon was in our atmosphere, it would have been good to rip it out! :)

Oh wow... did I really just write that? It's late... my bad...

Earth's orbit!  lmao... :sticktongue:

Still, it was a good series... you should try writing this idea from a Kerbal POV!  It'd make one heck of a good fan-fiction story.  :wink:

Edited by Just Jim
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Yeah, space:1999.

But, that show had a few issues... like lander spacecraft being capable of decent fractions of light speed or some stuff like that. 

The colony would likely have access to transportation to other planets and asteroids. Make Earth a forbidden location and they'd colonize the solar system, given time. Heck, there've been some pretty tight bottlenecks in our past...

I would like some more specifics about the colony, though. Do they have a few million frozen embryos for genetic diversity? Even now we're all quite closely related due to those population bottlenecks. Going through another would likely be bad for us. Although that'd be farther down the line.

It would take a long time to repopulate....

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7 minutes ago, Bill Phil said:

Yeah, space:1999.

But, that show had a few issues... like lander spacecraft being capable of decent fractions of light speed or some stuff like that. 

Yes, it did...

I would love to see someone tackle this idea of a stranded moon colony, whether it's 1999 or the OP's version, from a much more modern perspective. I think it's a wide open field to write about.  :)

 

Edited by Just Jim
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3 minutes ago, Bill Phil said:

Yeah, space:1999.

But, that show had a few issues... like lander spacecraft being capable of decent fractions of light speed or some stuff like that. 

The colony would likely have access to transportation to other planets and asteroids. Make Earth a forbidden location and they'd colonize the solar system, given time. Heck, there've been some pretty tight bottlenecks in our past...

I would like some more specifics about the colony, though. Do they have a few million frozen embryos for genetic diversity? Even now we're all quite closely related due to those population bottlenecks. Going through another would likely be bad for us. Although that'd be farther down the line.

It would take a long time to repopulate....

I would assume that it would have access to a few basic shuttle craft, though nothing that could go further than the Earth-Moon system.

It's doubtful that they would have frozen embryo's with them, I doubt such a catastrophe as the sudden destruction of Earth would have given enough warning.

 

Also, to make things even worse, what happens when the electronics begin to break down? How do we store information afterwards given that even paper would be unavailable after a few years, how do we choose what is and isn't important enough to save? I predict a massive loss of historical data, resulting in the later generations knowing almost nothing of Earth other than it being the dead husk in the sky. And without computers, how are important systems going to be managed? If 3D Printing is available, then it could be possible to assemble more primitive computers in the place of the decaying modern ones, this would be a reversion to 70s/80s computing power, but such things as e-mail and social networking as well as data storage would still be possible, not to mention basic task management.

As the original habitats break down, I expect a gradual migration underground. Some old-Terran equipment would be unrecoverable, such as modern PC's which have a transistor density so great as to be impossible to construct for another few centuries at least. Electricity could still be possible with use of surface mounted solar panels, but life would be significantly less luxurious.

With the population struggling for survival, it is imaginable that religion would prosper (studies show that people often become more religious during times of hardship.), though access to legitimate documents pertaining to Terran faiths would probably be extremely limited, some colonists might have a bible or quran in their possession, but the paper might deteriorate over time, this might result in rapid evolution of faith as stories and doctrines are shared only by word of mouth, some might even merge together or split into numerous sects. 

After a few decades, tensions will rise between the different sects, largely belonging to highly religious younger people who disagree with each other, eventually wars will break out, massive numbers of people will die, and it is possible that tons of books or other forms of stored data could be destroyed by the mob (as happened with the Library of Alexandria.), this will result in a scattering, different groups fleeing from the warzone to start their own settlements in distant areas of the Moon.

Gradually, independent kingdoms and empires begin to form. Over the centuries, they would go on a cycle of conquest and destruction, until there are only a few left, eventually the last few nations would either conquer each other, or find peace, or peaceful unification.

They might eventually recreate the manufacturing infrastructure and rebuild the lost machinery, space travel might become possible again. And with it, a diaspora.

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2 hours ago, Bill Phil said:

Yeah, space:1999.

But, that show had a few issues... like lander spacecraft being capable of decent fractions of light speed or some stuff like that. 

The colony would likely have access to transportation to other planets and asteroids. Make Earth a forbidden location and they'd colonize the solar system, given time. Heck, there've been some pretty tight bottlenecks in our past...

I would like some more specifics about the colony, though. Do they have a few million frozen embryos for genetic diversity? Even now we're all quite closely related due to those population bottlenecks. Going through another would likely be bad for us. Although that'd be farther down the line.

It would take a long time to repopulate....

Twenty thousand is enough to keep sufficient genetic diversity. Our knowledge about population genetics is quite solid actually. There are rare races of horses ,dogs and other animals with pupulations counted in hundreds only - yet through careful breeding we managed to keep them relatively healthy and still viable. In Poland for example, population of forest bison\wisent is over 500 animals and growing. All of them are descendants of 8(!) animals that survived in captivity while wild population went extinct.

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3 hours ago, daniel l. said:

colony is self-sufficient

If it's really "self-sufficient", it by definition has all in-situ industry to stay self-sufficient.
Otherwise it's just autonomous. So, has a known lifespan without supplies.

2 hours ago, Bill Phil said:

I would like some more specifics about the colony, though. Do they have a few million frozen embryos for genetic diversity? Even now we're all quite closely related due to those population bottlenecks.

If they really can freeze-and-revive embryos, they don't need millions. They don't need even to have ready-to-use.
They can just keep cloning themselves with desired speed.
To avoid genetical degeneration of the population, they should sterilize everyone any half of the colony after taking genetical material from this person.
So, they can freeze the status quo for a long time.
(Also this helps them get clear, meaningful personal ids like 1254-27-3, i.e. "original person 1254, generation 27, in-generation copy 3".

2 hours ago, daniel l. said:

Also, to make things even worse, what happens when the electronics begin to break down?

So, you are firmly intending to finish them out...

2 hours ago, daniel l. said:

How do we store information afterwards given that even paper would be unavailable after a few years

This, but silicon.
 

Spoiler

1399879415_ogpu4wp5tqidk1n.jpg

 

2 hours ago, daniel l. said:

And without computers, how are important systems going to be managed?

Lunar base designers from 1960s asked to asked you: wut are "comepewters"?

2 hours ago, daniel l. said:

such things as e-mail and social networking

In a single campus with 20000 persons?

2 hours ago, daniel l. said:

religion would prosper 

Unlikely. Superstitions - definitely. (Though I can hardly imagine peeing on a bus wheel on the Moon).
Cult of The City,
Cult of the Only And United Nation. (And of its numbered persons).
Technofetishism. (Instead of fertility cults, because they don't need good weather.)
Numerous personal magic rituals like spitting on the wall before switching between nitrogen tanks.
Religion just couldn't suggest them doing something except they are already doing. No weather, no enemies, no predators. So, unlikely they would be motivated to become believers.

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4 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

In a single campus with 20000 persons?

Sure!

5 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

This, but silicon.
 

  Reveal hidden contents

1399879415_ogpu4wp5tqidk1n.jpg

 

Perhaps, though it might also be possible to produce a paper substitute from the regolith, I dunno how though.

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I like the concept. My thoughts:

At population of 20 000 what is a likely demographics? A Moon base with Earth still intact is clearly massively dependent on import of materials from Earth. You say the colony is fully independent, so we have to go with that, let's assume that they are visionaries and decided to over engineer their hydroponics gardens and that the food is not a problem. So we are only dealing with stuff that can not be produced on the Moon. You guys have already mentioned computers, that is clearly not going to happen on the moon in a while, but a more immediate problem I see is nitrogen. Surface of the Moon has no known sources of nitrogen of concentrations higher than "trace". Unfortunately, nitrogen is essential for a space based colony and I would assume that the bulk of it was imported from Earth during the construction. Since the plaque is in full effect, what now? Do we risk the colony and the entirety of human race and still go to Earth for more nitrogen, or do we slowly bleed it until there is none left? After all, with every airlock opening you lose some, it bleeds through the walls and floors, it is fixated into the soil by the plants, it is lost on a daily basis. A ram jet space plane scoop thing clipping the fringes of Earths atmosphere could conceivably collect nitrogen, but it's a risky thing to do. What if you bring the plaque home? An alternative is mining asteroids. Do we have the technology to do that? This capability is of utmost importance. Without it there is no survival. The ability to mine asteroids for volatiles is not optional and while we're at it, we can mine all that iron/nickel/name your metal as well.

Couple of you guys mention genetic bottleneck. I don't thing that would be a problem if the colony adopts what is essentially a breeding program - eugenics. With careful planning and potentially genetic sequencing 20k individuals should be more than enough for a healthy population, in that regard. As for the implementation of the process itself, it could be based on the process of child adoption, artificial insemination, surrogate mothers etc... The child does not need to be the biological offspring of the parents that raise him.

Back to technical issues, namely habitat. Imagine that the Moon colony was just in the process of building an expansion, a large new habitat capable of housing, let's say, 2000, intended for visitors/tourists from Earth. At the moment of plague outbreak, the building process was nearing completion, it was pressurized and construction crews were working on interior. We can pick whichever phase this to be in. If our story is to be gritty, the habitat can be bare walls with only extension cables running to a relatively few places since the electrical installations haven't been put in place yet. The habitat is mostly dark as there are only a few lights here and there. We can choose if there is a functional plumbing system (water or sewage). In this case, the story can revolve around the infighting between the main habitat habitants and those that have moved into this new barren part.

On the other hand, if the construction workers are already finished and the habitat is ready for new residents, we can decide to jumpstart the population (make a baby, get an apartment deal) or turn the new habitat into a new industrial park or expand the hydroponics or plant a forest to complement the CO2 scrubbers that are near max capacity.... Possibilities are endless. 

What bothers me is the eventual degeneration of materials. You can use a spacesuit only so much before it starts to leak and can patch it up only a limited number of times. Eventually you will need new spacesuits and for that you will need special artificial fabrics. How do colonists produce them? Not only that, but how do they make helmets? They need to figure out how to make glass visors and metal/composite shells that are airtight. Sooner or later even metal parts will wear out and you will need to figure out metallurgy. Here on Earth, we use huge machines to produce even the simple iron. What do we do with the outgassing and all the fumes from the production process? You need to filter that before returning it into the habitat. Venting into space is not an option. You can't afford it. 

All in all, for the sci-fi story, you can set up the scenario to suit you and guide the story in whichever direction you want. If you ever get stuck, you can always introduce some small mining colony in the asteroid belt that saves the day with an asteroid haul. If it's for real, the fate of the colony depends on very specific details that can lead to any number of different outcomes. A single mishap can destroy the colony (catastrophic failure of hydroponics because a certain bacterial strain emerged and wiped out all the potato, leading to overstraining on the rest of the system).

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9 minutes ago, Shpaget said:

nitrogen

Originally a colony presumed to be self-sustained should have large amounts of imported nitrogen-containing materials (just for daily purposes).
So, they have some time reserve.
But this clearly define their long-time aim: colonize Titan proximities asap.
 

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If they have the technology to be truly self-sufficient, that technology takes a long time to develop, and during the time that that technology is developing, colonies will have been established on Mars and maybe some asteroids or in orbit.  So they wouldn't be alone. 

If they are not truly self sufficient, then they will die eventually given enough time.  Considering that self-sufficiency is probably a requirement for a very large space colony, a non-self-sufficient colony will probably be too small probably to develop the tech they need to become self-sufficient.

The best hope a small colony that is not truly self sufficient yet would have would be to wait until Earth became habitable again, and then return.  Then again- how would they get people home?  They probably do not have enough seats in the spacecraft they had left on the moon to get a few thousand colonists back to the surface of the Earth.  So they might try to jury-rig something really crude together to try to get people back. 

Edited by -Velocity-
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If it's really self-sufficient then it's not hard to regenerate things back to what it was I think. If it's not (ie. partially self-sufficent) then there would be some fix-up for that problem first. If it's not fixable, well...

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Ooh, interesting :)

Well, if they have industry in the moon, do they have mass drivers? A cheap way to get something in orbit, or even an escape trajectory, but without the fuel. It also has the benefits of 1/6th Earth g, and no atmosphere, so you wouldn't need to be squished nearly as much.

I could see large, modified spacecraft getting slung out of the Earth moon system, and in a trajectory to Mars to get nitrogen, eventually, some colonists will follow, and start up a base on Mars' moons (So they could leave Mars easily) controlling the robots from space, and making more out of the material on Phobos, and Diemos. 

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Another (IMO) excellent fictional treatment of a variation of this scenario is John Varley's Ophiuchi Hotline books.  In that setting, Earth had been invaded, interdicted, and literally beaten back to the stone age by aliens from Jupiter (gas giant dwellers, who had nothing in common with humans in terms of thought processes, but thought cetaceans were perfect conversation partners),  leaving the (very few) Lunar colonies to fend for themselves.  Fast forward (as I recall) 400 years, and they've spread through the solar system and out into the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud (avoiding the gas giants and their moons as unsafe) -- but their society doesn't look just like ours, even allowing for four centuries of technology development.

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You guys should read Titan by Stephen Baxter. The gist; three astronauts slowly die in a "colony" on Titan; made up of a frickkin SPACE SHUTTLE and Apollo CM's whilst the Earth experiences another KT-boundary event induced by the Chinese. My favourite book of all time, tho the end is somewhat hippy.

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10 hours ago, -Velocity- said:

If they have the technology to be truly self-sufficient, that technology takes a long time to develop, and during the time that that technology is developing, colonies will have been established on Mars and maybe some asteroids or in orbit.  So they wouldn't be alone. 

If they are not truly self sufficient, then they will die eventually given enough time.  Considering that self-sufficiency is probably a requirement for a very large space colony, a non-self-sufficient colony will probably be too small probably to develop the tech they need to become self-sufficient.

The best hope a small colony that is not truly self sufficient yet would have would be to wait until Earth became habitable again, and then return.  Then again- how would they get people home?  They probably do not have enough seats in the spacecraft they had left on the moon to get a few thousand colonists back to the surface of the Earth.  So they might try to jury-rig something really crude together to try to get people back. 

Yes, problem with an colony in space is that it would require lots of advanced technology who is hard to produce locally. 
It would also be an lack of need to produce it locally as it would be cheaper to send it from earth. 
So if an Moon base is not able to produce space suits they can not go on eva once the last break down in an way who can not be fixed.

Now an teraformed mars would work out well as you can lose all the high technology and still grow food. 

 

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