[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Y3K: The Science of the Next Millennium

The Future of the Solar System

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

The solar system — measured out to the cometary halo — is approximately sixteen billion kilometers in diameter; the farthest humans have so far gone is to Earth's Moon, less than 400,000 kilometers, or 1/40,000, of that distance.

Much of the next millennium will be spent opening up this new frontier: our sun's family of eight other planets, sixty-odd moons, millions of asteroids, and billions of comets.

Within a century, we will have large, orbiting space colonies with thousands of people living in them, serviced in part by a permanent space elevator from Earth's equator to geosynchronous orbit. We will also have permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars, and will have begun mining the asteroids.

Also within a century, we will have made contact with the indigenous life of Europa, living in the vast oceans beneath the icy surface of that Jovian moon: in all of the next millennium, these may be the only extraterrestrial beings we encounter.

We also, quite possibly, will have dealt with the threat of an asteroid or comet impact. The dinosaurs may have died out because they didn't have a space program, but we will not.

Within two hundred years, in part to alleviate overcrowding on Earth, we will begin the centuries-long process of terraforming Mars: making it habitable for human beings without the need for spacesuits. Orbital reflectors will concentrate sunlight on Mars's poles, releasing the frozen carbon dioxide and water vapor stored there. Comets will be maneuvered to crash into Mars, supplying it with volatiles. Genetically engineered blue-green algae imported from Earth will convert the Martian atmosphere into one we can breathe. And water will be running freely again in the ancient riverbeds of the world that we will no longer be able to refer to as the Red Planet.

But by the year 3000, even more ambitious plans will be under way. We will use nanotechnology to demolish Earth, the asteroid belt, and Uranus and Neptune for raw materials to build a Dyson sphere — a thin shell around the sun at a distance of 150 million kilometers, equal to the radius of Earth's orbit. Not only would this shell's inner surface provide habitable space millions of times the size of Earth's surface (something needed as humans, by this point effectively immortal [see my speculations on the future of the human body], continue to breed), but it would also enable us to harvest every photon of energy put out by the sun, providing almost unlimited power.

Indeed, so much energy would be collected that much of it would have to be radiated away into space. Both Mars and Jupiter (with its inhabited moon Europa) will continue to orbit outside the shell, but will have sunlight beamed at them from the shell's outer surface. Mars will become a popular tourist destination for those curious about what living on a natural globe had been like for humanity's ancestors.

More Good Reading

Rob's speculations on the future of:

Rob's essay on life in the future: "The Age of Miracle and Wonder"

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