Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/03/17/space_ames_world/

'Now that we have a map, let's start colonizing outer space' - expert

Only women willing to read maps invited

By Ashlee Vance

Posted in Science, 17th March 2006 18:59 GMT

For proof that man will soon live in outer space, you need only look at Christopher Columbus. Or so said space whiz and senior SETI astronomer Seth Shostak during a lecture last night at NASA Ames.

Shostak presented, for the first time, his ideas on the parallels between ocean going explorers and today's space pioneers. The explorers, he argued, moved from setting out on their first voyages to creating rather accurate maps of the continents in a span of about fifty years. From that point on, naval powers focused on colonizing the new lands they had discovered.

Astronomers have mimicked the discovery portion of this journey over the past fifty years by producing a map of the Solar System, Shostak said. Next up, we'll set out to colonize space.

"The big picture comes when you step back and realize this is the one generation making the atlas of the solar system," Shostak said. "That is what's happening."

Columbus "discovered" a "new land" in 1492 and kicked off a flurry exploration made possible by innate human wanderlust and improved technology. Columbus, however, didn't really know where he had traveled and didn't add a tremendous amount of mapping knowledge. But over the next 50 years, the likes of Magellan, Vespucci and Verrazano would deliver a pretty solid picture of most of the major land masses.

"The basic globe was there," Shostak said. "One generation did that. All we have done since then is refine that globe."

With a decent map in hand, the European powers set out to fund the colonization of the new world.

A similar practice of mapping the solar system started in 1965 when Mariner 4 sent back much improved pictures of Mars, Shostak said.

Since that time, astronomers – with the help of high-powered telescopes and various exploration vehicles and probes – have delivered stunning pictures of most of the planets and their moons. The quality of these images coupled with our knowledge has made it possible to target not one or two but several places where we might find life or where it might make sense for humans to set up shop.

"Before 1965, if you asked, 'Do you think there is life elsewhere in the solar system?' most scientists would have said, 'Yes' and said Mars and Mars only as the likely candidate," Shostak said. "Since then, we have learned Mars is still a candidate and maybe the best, but it is not the only candidate by any means"

We want to see your moon

On the possible life front, Shostak pointed to a number of moons that are almost certainly covered by ice sheets many miles thick that could host frigid characters in liquid water far below the sheets. In addition, he noted NASA's recent discovery of what appear to be geysers spewing out liquid water from Saturn's moon Enceladus - a much more hospitable environment.

The search for life, however, will be just one part of the exploration story in the coming years. Humans may well set up shop in space stations or even plunk down on large asteroids.

"Our generation did the map, and the next generation will presumably embark on the next phase and that is colonization," Shostak said.

Of course, we now turn to the likes of Paul Allen and Richard Branson for colonization funding rather than making pitches to kings and queens.

Hoping to inspire a future generation of explorers, a group known as the Space World Foundation plans to create a new education center at the edge of the NASA Ames site.

NASA currently hosts a modest museum on the site – the former building of the Space Camp program. The Space World crew plans to take over the museum and the nearby public affairs office to build a $5m facility packed with exhibits on Ames, outer space and a huge, "immersive" theater.

One of the Space World Foundation backers is Greg Estes, the VP of marketing at SGI. The company plans to donate $1m of gear to power this theater. (We can't help but wonder when SGI will focus more on selling systems than giving them away.)

The Space World board also includes familiar tech names such as Gil Amelio, former Apple CEO, and Greg Papadopoulos, the CTO at Sun Microsystems. Titanic director James Cameron is also on the board, and we're hoping to gain some face time with him to push our idea for Itanic – The chip that no one loved. We envision Leo DiCaprio playing the role of Carly Fiorina in drag.

The Space World Foundation still needs about $4m to pull off this project by 2007 or 2008. If you can suffer through the unbelievably slow homepage - this could be the worst implementation of Flash known to earthlings - you can contact the group here and send some funds. With about $100m in hand, the Space World Foundation could set up shop in the massive Hangar One facility at Ames. So, keep that in mind when writing your check.

In the meantime, we recommend that you pony up for a Coast to Coast AM subscription and check out Seth here or tune into his SETI radio program here. You won't disappointed. ®