Saturday, May 22, 2010
When Worlds Collide Unlimited
When Worlds Collide was always one of my favorite classic science fiction movies. For its time, it was surprisingly hard science. Even today, allowing for its more primitive special effects, one would be hard pressed to find a real gaffe in the science as known at the time it was made, or in the realism of the scenario presented. I won't lie either. When I first saw the film when I was 10, it scared the heck out of me. I basically spent the entire night after watching it lying awake and worrying if Earth was still going to be there in the morning.
In the movie, a dim star named Bellus is found to be on a collision course with Earth. With barely a year before impact and facing skepticism from all sides, a group of indusrtialists and scientists begin frantic construction of an experimental rocket ship that could carry at least some human survivors to Zyra, one of Bellus' planets that could possibly sustain life. Altruism and selfish survival tug back and forth at the crew building the rocket ark, as they all try to battle the most most implaccable foe of all--the inexorable countdown to doomsday.
There's a remake scheduled for 2012. We'll see how that goes when it comes out, but given the quality of most remakes lately, I don't hold out much hope for it.
Even so, I always wondered: what would happen if the world today were to face the same kind of scenario? This entry explores a bit of what I think might happen.
The modern world of 2010 has a number of advantages that 1951 Earth didn't. For example, our astronomical observation abilities are far more advanced, and there's a lot more eyes (both pro and amateur astronomers) turned toward deep space. A 'dim star' like Bellus would probably be detected a lot earlier. So for my little pretend scenario here, I give Earth at least 5 years to prepare for the impact, instead of the one in the movie, though the lead time might easily be much longer than that.
Also, Bellus would likely be what we today call a Brown Dwarf. It radiates heat (infrared radiation) but very little light, and would likely first be detected through an infrared telescope. So though dimly lit, it is possible for Zyra to be friendly to life, if its at the right distance from Bellus. It also makes it possible for the Bellus to escape detection earlier, especially if it was moving particular fast with regard to our own star system.
Second, space travel is no longer a fanciful notion as it was in 1951. With our current capabilities, we can't go very far or very fast, but we already have a great deal of experience with both constructing and launching spacecraft.
I don't think it would be a matter of IF we could get survivors to Zyra, but how many and by what method. And how many crazies would stand in the way.
With five years to prepare and enact a plan, how smoothly would that go? In the movie, there were a number of skeptics who kept the governments from doing anything substantial at first. In the modern world, that would happen as well. There would be a huge amount of resistance to doing anything at first--look at the prevalence of global warming deniers who took one bad winter as 'proof' that climate change wasn't real. Or all those who denied that the housing bubble would collapse until it crashed the global economy. Many people just seem to refuse to buy into any prediction of bad news, no matter the amount or quality of evidence presented to them. These would inevitably include some people in power, who would gum up the works as best they could.
But there would also be those who would fully believe from the start that Doomsday would be coming, and would kill anyone who would try to prevent it. Mostly these would be religious extremists and doomsday cults, such as the Hutaree that were in the news recently. They would see the coming collision as the Rapture and would actively fight anyone who would try to thwart what they would see as God's will.
However, I don't think either faction would win the day, and with evidence mounting, governments and corporations and most other major organizations with power will begin making preparations. Very likely, the major world powers would cooperate as much as practical, as coordinating efforts and resources would assure the greatest chance of any individual nation's efforts succeeding.
So what could we specifically do?
Deflection of Bellus is completely impossible without at least Star Trek-level technology. Its just too big and massive. Hitting it with all the world's nukes combined would be like trying to move an aircraft carrier by throwing a firecracker on its deck.
So like in the movie, the best bet would try to get as many survivors, along with equipment, food, medicine, crops, and animals, to Zyra as it passes.
One way of doing that I read about on some forums like Reddit: using a Nuclear Launch Cannon (NLC), the details of which can be found HERE. Under normal circumstances, the environmental and political controversy such cannons would create would likely prevent them from ever being used. However, with Doomsday quickly on the way, I think the major powers would agree that such things no longer mattered, and would begin using them as soon as they could be manufactured. And with thousands of nuclear weapons still readily available, they wouldn't lack for propulsion charges.
The NLCs could put many thousands of tons of habitats, ships, supplies, and equipment into orbit and Zyra-intersecting trajectories. So unlike the movie, there will be more than one or a handful of ships to make it to Zyra. The survivors will have plenty of tools and equipment to help them.
But even if NLCs aren't used for some reason, there's still a lot one could do with conventional rockets for hauling up cargo. Both the US and the USSR developed heavy-lifter rockets in the 1960s within a handful of years, and Russia still maintains theirs. Since its already a known and well-used technology today, it would probably take less than two years for most of the major industrial powers to re-gear themselves to produce heavy-lifters in quantity, if they were really motivated to do so.
Among the equipment provided would probably also dropships. Just getting the survivors into orbit and having them make the interplanetary crossing would be a tremendous feat, and having less mass to consume fuel would help greatly. So part of the plan may be to have the survivors dock with drophips in Zyra orbit, which will ferry them on their final leg of their journey.
Getting the people up there would be a more complicated matter. NLCs would kill any living thing launched from them; the G forces would just be too great. So it would depend on conventional rocket technology to get them into orbit and transfer them to Zyra.
Thing is, how many would that be? In the movie, the characters had to wait until the last possible moment before the collision to launch, to conserve as much fuel as possible. I really don't think anyone in a modern day scenario would risk that if they didn't have to. The unmanned cargo vessels could be launch early and take trajectories that may encompass months or years to get to Zyra as it approached. The manned vessels would be more problematic.
We already have one long-endurance space habitat available: the ISS. Take a year to kitbash it with better rad shielding and maneuvering thrusters. Put a full crew on board (maybe up to a dozen people total, if they don't mind being crammed in together for months) jam it full of supplies, and clamp an engine onto its main docking collar. with this heavy-duty rocket motor, let it slowly make its way out of orbit and into place so it can be picked up by Zyra's gravity well when the planet makes its closest approach. Then have it dock with one or more dropships so the crew can land on their new home. This could be done months ahead of the collision, and the crew could already be (relatively) safe on the ground when Earth meets its doom.
The surviving space shuttles could maybe be used similarly. Taken out of mothballs, they would be launched with heavy-duty habitats filling their cargo bays, so they too could maybe carry up to a dozen people each. These habitats would have large docking collars attached, and separate booster stages would be launched to connect up with them in orbit. Using these booster engines the shuttles could also slowly make their way into an intersecting orbit with Zyra as it passes by. They too would dock up with dropships (no runways on the new world for the shuttle itself to land) for the final journey to their new land.
Small space capsules such as the Soyuz probably wouldn't be used to make the transition on their own, at least not in quantity. However, they could used as the dropships that actually land on Zyra, as they're a proven, rugged technology that would fit the task well.
All of this is with existing space tech. Given the five year window a number of true 'space arks' will be built specifically to carry crews to Zyra, just as they were in the movie. These probably wouldn't use too much very innovative technologies or designs, as the builders wouldn't want to take any unnecessary risks with such precious cargo. We're basically talking big metal cans here, with just enough life support, supplies, and rad protection to last for the transition flight. How many people they could handle would depend on the design, but probably wouldn't be any bigger than an ISS module (or a train of them linked up in orbit) attached to a rocket motor. Let's say 10 people or so per can, maybe 30-50 per train.
And if the building countries are smart, it wouldn't just be living human beings they'd send. Frozen zygotes, or sperm and ova, would likely be sent as well, taken from a host of volunteers left behind on poor, doomed Earth. It would be hard to guess just how many actual survivors could make it to Zyra alive and healthy. Maybe a few hundred if everything went reasonably well, but given Murphy's Law and the extremes of what they may be trying to do, it might be considerably less. So the survivors would be facing a major long-range problem with a limited gene pool and the dangers of inbreeding. Banks containing hundred or thousands of frozen zygotes could help to mitigate that problem by giving the seed population on Zyra access to a much greater genetic diversity than they would otherwise have.
A final alternative to ensure that at least something of human heritage survives would be to take DNA samples from thousands of volunteers and launch them into space on small probes, hopefully into orbits that would take them far away from disaster and preserve their cargo for as long as possible. This would be in the hope that the survivors on Zyra would flourish and, in the fullness of centuries or millennia, find these DNA repositories and use them to resurrect a good portion of the human race, at least at a genetic level. For countries that do not have a lot of high-tech resources, this may be the only option open to them.
The last two options may be important to help mitigate panic on Earth as the disaster approaches, as many people could be assured that at least something of themselves would last beyond the celestial impact. But only somewhat. I think that life on Earth would continue pretty much as normal, more or less, until Bellus showed up visibly in the sky and Zyra passed close enough to make its gravitational effects felt. Once people have clear, unambiguous evidence of their inevitable doom, all hell would break loose all over the planet. While I do think many would do their best to hold things together and to help their neighbors regardless of how little time they had, I think many more would take the opportunity for revenge for any wrong they may have suffered in the past, real or imagined.
It wouldn't be limited to just individuals, either. Wars would break out in every hotspot on the globe. The Middle East, the Balkans, and the Korean Penninsula would become bloodbaths--possibly radioactive ones--overnight. Religious Doomer cults would swell to unprecedented numbers, and they would vent their fanatical fervor on anyone who opposed their doctrine. Many mobs, not knowing what else to do as panic and fear swells, would just lash at anything near them. Hundreds of cities around the globe would likely burn in the last weeks leading up to doomsday.
And all this panic would also threaten the space efforts to send survivors to Zyra, which would have to wait until the last few weeks for he most fuel-friendly trajectories. Just like in the movie, crazed with seizing on even the dimmest hope for survival, mobs would attack the launch facilities, trying to seize the rockets and get themselves or their families on board. But of course, even if they do win the day, that wouldn't work. The space capsule-arks would only have so much life support capacity, and be able to launch so much weight. Plus, most of the crew would have been trained in how to handle the spacecraft systems and conditions in space, whereas random mob guy and kids wouldn't. So we couldn't have a scene like in the recent movie 2012 where average joe survivor talks his way onto an ark; even if the authorities are sympathetic (which I'm sure many would be), things simply couldn't work that way. Even taking on one additional untrained person could jeopardize the whole thing.
But of course fanatical mobs wouldn't listen to reason, and would try to do their best to tear down or hijack what rockets they could anyway. Probably at least a quarter of the manned launches would probably fail just from this.
But the final days wouldn't be all bad for those left behind. Brown dwarfs like Bellus probably have fairly large and strong magnetic fields, and given its presumed speed, would give rise to amazingly spectacular aurora displays that would fill the sky as it approached Earth and the nearby Sun. The world may be doomed, but at least it would have an amazing light show toward the end.
Earth as it currently is wouldn't hit Bellus directly, either. Tidal forces would likely tear the planet apart as the star got close, and huge chunks of it would spiral in over the course of months and year as Bellus careened again out of the solar system. So what survivors there would be on Zyra could watch their old homeworld be devoured piecemeal over the course of their new lives on their strange new alien home.
I always wondered how I'd spend my last few days before such a doomsday, if it ever happened. Hopefully with some good wine and an even better woman, watching the planet-wide aurora light-show. Of course we'd have a gun or two nearby so we could end things quickly once things got really bad and the planet started ripping itself apart...