Habitable Planets Aren't Built in a Day

Boy, I'm on fire, huh? So anyway I was thinking about Firefly, and how it's completely, ridiculously impossible. Everything in it is essentially fairly plausible (except for the engines)...and then they go and have the terraforming. I know Whedon probably considers science patriarchal but his squeeing fangirls have praised the show's plausibility just once too often.

You awoke something you were better leaving asleep, now rue the day!

First off, terraforming one Earth's-worth of air involves manipulating 5 quadrillion tons of gas. It seems to have taken about 200 years, so (again using the shamefully patriarchal enterprise of math) I come out to about 68.5 billion tons of gas per day. How, pray, do they move all that? And that's just for one planet.

Even if you can move that much gas, the vast, vast majority of planets in a system are going to be much too big or much too small for human habitation. What do you think is the cost of covering the surface of each one in whatever generates their gravity? Even if they're only the size of the Moon, that's still 37.9 million square kilometers, or about 4 times the area of the US. How do they power the gravity generators, anyway? Let's suppose, ridiculously, that each generator only costs as much as a nuclear reactor, and can generate a gravity well in a hundred-kilometer radius. That's an average of $4 billion just for construction of each, and you need 1206 of them, so $4.824 trillion just to build the facilities in. Who knows how much the energy-generation to keep them all active, 24/7, would cost.

Even if you can schlepp that much gas and create enough gravity for it to stick (and more to the point for your colonists to be able to give healthy birth), there's still the question of keeping all that gas warm. The traditional way is with various kinds of collectors and mirrors, all redirecting every possible scrap of sunlight; these are notably absent in Firefly. The majority of planets in the system wouldn't be close enough to the star to be livable without habitat domes, also absent. There's also the option of artificial suns, but again, the setting's tech doesn't seem to be up to that.

Then, of course, is the fact that a civilization that can do what appears to have been done in the Firefly system, is unlikely to have much problem with people like the Reavers, or for that matter the Independents. In order to do that level of tailoring your environment, you've got to be on par with the Pierson's Puppeteers, maybe even the Pak Protectors or Thrint Empire. The only threat a group like that would really be threatened by, would have to be another, comparable system; no insurrection or psycho-raider would have a prayer. And, at the point where you can terraform on that scale, you probably wouldn't have to: you can just build ringworlds, giant seed-ships, or maybe turn your original homeworlds themselves into ships.

Which reminds me, it's a little hard to take that Reach was re-terraformed a mere 37 years after being glassed, but the Elites are presumably still the UNSC's allies, and they've definitely got the tech (they can teleport Supercarriers), and who knows what tech the Reclaimers have, well, Reclaimed from the Forerunners by then? Besides, Reach started out human-habitable, they don't have to change nearly as many variables.

1 comment:

penny farthing said...

Your post is a healing balm to my soul, since I spent a painful half hour on Thursday trying to explain why we can't terraform Mars, how it won't be necessary for human survival, and how any civilization that could do it would've solved our energy and pollution problems a long time ago.

As far as Firefly goes, I don't think Whedon ever watched a decent western in his life. The jump from tiny, isolated, imperiled ranch to tiny, isolated, imperiled dome is an easy one, and would have made a much cooler show.