Space Bubbles: Because If We Won’t Stop Burning Fossil Fuels, We Better Have A Backup Plan

It’s pretty clear by now that humans cannot or will not stop burning fossil fuels. Whether because of greed, flaws in capitalist theory, defects in our genetic makeup, or outright stupidity, we refuse to see the calamity speeding toward us or do anything about it. Could space bubbles save us?

One possible solution is for a small group of us to decamp to Mars to live in splendid isolation as part of a brave new world controlled by Ayatollah Musk. Another is to geoengineer the atmosphere above the Earth to reflect some of the sun’s energy away from the Earth. The beauty of that plan is, it would allow the oil, coal, and methane merchants to wrest every molecule of fossil fuel from beneath the Earth’s crust so we lucky humans can sit in our air conditioned homes and mine digital currencies all day thanks to the blessings of thermally-generated electricity.

Space Bubbles To The Rescue

Architect Carlo Ratti and a group of MIT researchers are exploring the feasibility of cooling the Earth with a conglomeration of “space bubbles” that would reflect the sun’s rays away from the planet below and send them into deep space. What they call the Space Bubbles project proposes floating a “raft” made of frozen bubbles at the L1 Lagrangian Point, about 1.5 million kilometers above the Earth. That’s the place between the Earth and the sun where their gravitational pulls cancel each other out and objects could float for eternity in splendid equipoise. The bubbles would be made of a thin film material and manufactured in space where, when interconnected, they would cover an area roughly the size of Brazil, according to Desien.

While current geoengineering proposals envision releasing clouds of sulfur dioxide high into the atmosphere like mini Krakatoas — a plan that could have unknown and unknowable consequences on various parts of the world — the Space Bubbles plan would be so far out in space that it would not risk interfering with the biosphere that surrounds our tiny little life boat at the far edge of a minor galaxy. Traditional geoengineering proposal carry a high risk of doing just that. Making Iowa better able to produce corn could turn Europe into a dust bowl, for instance. Of course, we know Pooty Poot and Xi would never do anything to harm others sharing the same planet, so there is nothing to fear from them.

In Case Of Emergency

Image courtesy of MIT

The MIT researchers stress that the Space Bubbles proposal was designed to supplement, not replace, current climate change mitigation efforts, but that the day may come when such an intervention becomes essential. “Geoengineering might be our final and only option,” said Ratti, who is the head of MIT’s Senseable City Lab. “Yet, most geoengineering proposals are earth-bound, which poses tremendous risks to our living ecosystem. Space based solutions would be safer — for instance, if we deflect 1.8 per cent of incident solar radiation before it hits our planet, we could fully reverse today’s global warming.”

The alternative, of course, is to stop burning fossil fuels, but humans so far have shown no serious interest in doing that, so it’s a good thing those smart people at MIT are working on alternatives.

An advantage of the Space Bubbles solar shield is that it is reversible. The bubbles could be deflated and removed from their position. Once sulfur dioxide is injected into the atmosphere, there is really no way to recapture it or guide it to where it might do the most good.

The Space Bubbles would be made from a material like silicon that would be transported into space in molten form or graphene reinforced ionic liquids. The bubbles would be conjoined into rafts once produced in space. The MIT team has carried out a successful preliminary experiment by inflating a spherical shell in outer space conditions. The researchers believe it could be one of the most efficient thin film structures for deflecting solar radiation.

The Space Bubbles research project builds on ideas by James Early, who first suggested deploying a deflective object at the Lagrangian Point, and astronomer Roger Angel, who proposed the bubble-raft. For now the project is a working hypothesis, but the interdisciplinary team is hoping to secure support for a feasibility study that would involve further lab experimentation and analyses.

Part of the research is focusing on how to get the materials into space. One method under consideration is using a magnetic accelerator known as a railgun. It will also examine the methods of positioning and stabilizing of the bubble raft, calculating its shading capacity, and estimating the costs of creating, maintaining, and disposing of the raft.

There are also public policy implications, such as whether geoengineering presents a “moral hazard” to humanity by undermining support for climate mitigation policies and encouraging people to see the shift away from fossil fuels as less important. Geoengineering has proven controversial, but the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has acknowledged it may be a necessary Plan B if global temperatures increase to the point where they threaten the continuation of the human species.

The Takeaway

Space Bubbles

Image courtesy of MIT

The first reaction any sane person might have to the Space Bubbles plan is to ask whether it will be more costly than transitioning away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Why invest all this money and all this time and all this effort to do something like Space Bubbles when we already have a solution at hand, one we know will work? It’s simple. Stop burning fossil fuels! Really, people. What is it we don’t understand? The world is on fire. Punishing heat waves are sweeping across every continent. The polar ice caps are melting at a ferocious rate.

Space Bubbles seems like a fabulous idea, but it won’t stop sea level rise, the destruction of most of the world’s major cities, or restore our ability to grow the food we need to survive. We want someone or something to swoop into save us — like the last-second field goal that saves the game — but we aren’t willing to lift a finger to help ourselves. Instead we persist in blaming others for the consequences of our own action. Cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best in the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


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