The Surprisingly Strong Case for Colonizing Venus
by James McGirk / July 1, 2014

“Why worry about building a colony on Mars when instead you could float one high above the surface of Venus? Science fiction writer Charles Stross recently revived the idea of building a Venutian colony when he suggested, cheekily, that billionaires ought to be compelled to donate to massive humanity-improving projects. He suggested two: a Manhattan Project-like focus on developing commercial nuclear fusion, or the construction of a floating city on Venus.

The second planet from the Sun might seem like a nasty place to build a home, with a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an atmosphere so dense it would feel like being submerged beneath 3000 feet of water. But the air on Venus thins out as you rise above the surface and cools considerably; about 30 miles up you hit the sweet spot for human habitation: Mediterranean temperatures and sea-level barometric pressure. If ever there were a place to build a floating city, this would be it. Believe it or not, a floating city might be a feasible project. Scientist and science fiction author Geoffrey Landis presented a paper called “Colonizing Venus” [PDF] at the Conference on Human Space Exploration, Space Technology & Applications International Forum in Albuquerque, New Mexico back in 2003. Breathable air floats in Venus’s soupy carbon dioxide atmosphere, which means on Venus, a blimp could use air as its lifting gas, the way terrestrial blimps use helium to float in our much thinner atmosphere.

A group of science fiction authors and scientists have been discussing the idea on the blog Selenian Boondocks, which founder Jonathan Goff describes as “a blog I founded to discuss space politics, policy, technology, business, and space settlement.” One of the biggest problems with a lunar or Martian colony is that an astronaut’s bones and muscles deteriorate in low gravity. No one knows yet how much gravity a human needs to prevent deterioration, but Venus’s gravity is the closest to Earth’s, at about 9/10ths. Mars only has a third of the gravity that the Earth does, while the moon has a mere sixth.Atmospheric pressure is also crucial. Think of the difference between jabbing a car tire and letting air out of a half-inflated balloon. Gases seek equilibrium. Since there’s barely any atmosphere on the moon or Mars, a rip in the hull of an enclosed human habitat would suck oxygen out at tremendous force. Thirty miles above Venus, it would merely seep out. This also means a Venutian cloud colony wouldn’t need as much reinforcement. Venus has other boons, too. Its rich atmosphere blocks radioactivity and could be mined for useful materials. And with a gentle temperature, far less energy would have to be spent on heating or cooling the colony.

“A hypothetical floating outpost 30 miles above the surface of Venus.”

Of course, it’s hard enough landing on the surface of another planet, let alone at 30 miles above the surface, but Landis hypothesized a way to do it. A sphere with titanium skin 0.04″ thick would be able to survive reentry and float a couple of miles above the surface, he argued. Goff, who who describes himself as a space entrepreneur and space settlement advocate, suggests that rocket stages (the parts that drop off of a spaceship during liftoff) could also be engineered to float after use and be re-used, providing a way to and from the colony so that building materials could be mined from the surface. The well-informed space enthusiasts who frequent the Selenian Boondocks also helped Goff map out the chemical processes required to extract breathable air (a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen), water and various fuel and construction materials.

After the chemical processes involved with producing life-supporting materials are demonstrated and perfected, the Selenian Boondocks team suggest small robotic labs could be sent to Venus, where they would bob in the atmosphere, extracting life-sustaining materials, gradually inflating great bladder-like structures (perhaps a Bigelow Aerospace module made of Kevlar). Years into the project, it might look like a gargantuan bunch of grapes. Permanent settlers could tether these floating blobs together, extending walkways and building platforms, creating something that might eventually look like a massive floating oil rig, complete with tubes dangling dozens of miles below to gather materials from the surface.

Goff plans to continue fleshing out the details on his site over the coming months (plans were temporarily put on hold after the birth of his youngest child). “I still need to talk about chemicals that seem easy to get to from the raw materials,” he says, “and how those impact colony design.” As to what life perched high above Venus might really feel like, frequent Selenian Boondocks commentator George Turner imagines how a tough colonist might dangle meat into Venus’s ferocious, acidic atmosphere as a cooking source:

One day perhaps we’ll see this handy Venus tip: To properly cook your turkey, put it outside at an altitude of 35 km where the temperature is 455 Kelvin (360 F), the pressure is 6 atmospheres, and the density is 6.8 kg/m^3, and leave it there for three to four hours…

Why put it in a plastic bag? The small amounts of sulfuric, hydrofluoric, and hydrochloric acid should act like lemon juice to help tenderize and cook the meat, and the inert CO2, N2, and argon atmosphere should do no harm at all, kind of like roasting it over a nice warm fire…

Acid is good for meat, and breaks down connective tissue, fats, and tenderizes it. Run the pH the other way and it turns into soap and you might as well bite into a urinal cake. Venus is not for the timid, or people too afraid to shove a fat bird out the airlock and let the harsh laws of thermodynamics do the work…

Ultimately there will have to be a compelling reason to spend trillions of dollars to move off-world: a vital resource located on Venus, mass over-crowding, nuclear apocalypse. But if we do colonize the skies of Venus, it will be the soft factors like the plausibility of a Venutian acid-baked cuisine that will make us stay.”




“Some fungi can use a molecule called melanin, a pigment also found in human skin, to harvest the energy from radiation and use it for growth”


“Discovery of radiotrophic fungi came from the observation of ‘black molds’ growing in and around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine [5]. Specifically, fungal species that were later distinguished as melanin-containing were observed to have colonized the walls of the damaged reactor number 4 at Chernobyl [1]. Similarly, fungal species were found in the damaged reactor’s cooling pool water, which had circulated through the nuclear reactor core for cooling purposes and was largely radioactive [1].

Radiotrophic fungi have been observed to inhabit some remarkable environments on the planet where high levels of radiation naturally occur, including the Arctic and Antarctic regions, as well as high altitude terrains [2]. Interestingly, orbiting spacecrafts in outer space are another environment where radiotrophic fungi are found [1]. They are able to grow extensively despite the high levels of ionizing radiation present beyond the protective shield of the Earth’s atmosphere, as seen in the fact that the Russian orbital station, Mir, must be continually cleaned due to accumulation of fungal growth [1].”

A microscopic fungus thrives amidst acid, heavy metals and radiation
by Kate Baggaley  /  January 29, 2018

“During the Cold War, the United States produced a truly mind-boggling amount of radioactive waste. We failed to properly dispose of much of that sludge, and it’s been leaking from underground storage tanks since the 1950s. Over the years it has contaminated more than 2 billion cubic feet worth of soil and nearly 800 billion gallons of groundwater at low levels.

Cleaning this mess up will be a daunting task, but scientists have just enlisted a new ally. It turns out our best bet for containing radioactive waste might be to stick yeast on it. Many of these tiny fungi can survive extremely radioactive and acidic conditions, scientists reported January 8 in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology. What’s more, they form gunk called biofilms that could potentially trap the waste. “The potential for yeast is enormous,” says coauthor Michael Daly, a pathology professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland. “You have a huge group of organisms that are already there, naturally in the environment, that could be harvested for this sort of work.”

“Summer 1943, Hanford became the Manhattan Project’s newest atomic boomtown”

The scale of the problem these yeasts would tackle is almost indescribably vast, Daly says. Radioactive waste from the 46,000 nuclear weapons built between 1945 and 1986 is stored in 120 sites around the country. The largest is the sprawling Hanford Site in southeastern Washington, where the first atomic bombs were assembled during the Manhattan Project.

It houses more than 50 million gallons of waste. Leakage at Hanford has contaminated enough soil and sediments to bury 10,000 football fields a yard deep, and polluted enough groundwater to keep Niagara Falls flowing for a month. It’s mostly contained within the soils and aquifers at Hanford, Daly says, although small amounts are slowly seeping into the nearby Columbia River.

The Cold War waste is an assortment of radioactive versions of elements such as strontium, uranium, and plutonium: acids once used to extract metal out of uranium ores, heavy metals like mercury and lead, and toxic chemicals. Scientists have long hoped to find microbes tough enough capture it, a technique known as bioremediation. Bacteria and other microorganisms are relatively cheap to grow. Certain microbes can catch radioactive waste so rain doesn’t wash it away, feed on toxic chemicals, or transform heavy metals into less dangerous states.

For decades, Daly and his colleagues have tried to harness a microbe so tough its nickname is Conan the Bacterium. This microbe, more properly called Deinococcus radiodurans, is one of the most radiation-resistant life forms we know of (it can also withstand drought, lack of food, extreme temperatures, and the vacuum of space). Over time, scientists managed to genetically engineer this bacterium to have the ability to transform toxic chemicals and heavy metals into less deadly forms. But they couldn’t get it to thrive in acidic conditions. “At the end of the day the thing wouldn’t grow at lemon juice pH ranges,” Daly says.

“Genome analysis of R. taiwanensis MD1149”

He and his colleagues decided to search for better candidates in nature, and sampled microbes from deserts, mines, rivers, and hot springs around the world. The most promising was a red-hued fungus from an abandoned acid mine drainage facility in Maryland. The yeast, a species called Rhodotorula taiwanensis, surprised researchers with its endurance in the face of acid and chronic radiation.

“Pairwise genome alignments of R. taiwanensis MD1149 and related species”

On top of this, it tolerates heavy metals and even forms biofilms under these trying circumstances, a trick Conan never mastered. The researchers tested a total of 27 yeasts to see if they could handle exposure to noxious substances like mercury chloride. “These are really toxic heavy metals,” Daly says. “If we got a little bit in us they would kill us, and these microbes are flourishing in these mixtures of heavy metals, radiation, and [acid].”

“Ranking of representative fungi by the survival index

Most bacteria can’t tolerate acidity or radiation, but both skills turn out to be very common among yeasts. “They are masters of the low-pH world,” Daly says. On the other hand, fungi tend to be more sensitive to heat than bacteria. R. taiwanensis prefers to grow around room temperature, but the decaying nuclear wastes can heat the soil around the steel storage tanks to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This wouldn’t necessarily thwart the microbes, though. Placed a small distance away from the storage tanks, the yeasts could capture leaking waste without succumbing to the warmth.

Ideally, different strains of yeasts and bacteria could team up, says Rok Tkavc, an adjunct pathology professor and staff scientist at the Henry Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine at USU. He recently reported that when Deinococcus radiodurans mixes with other bacteria it seems to endow its neighbors with radiation resistance. These cocktails could potentially be used to combat radioactive waste released by nuclear meltdowns as well as that left over from the Cold War.

For the Hanford Site, a successful cleanup would mean keeping radioactive elements out of the Columbia River for the thousands of years it takes them to decay to less dangerous forms. “We cannot get rid of the radiation; no one can do that,” Daly says. “The only thing we can conceivably do to protect ourselves is to contain it, to keep it from coming out.”





The Zoo Hypothesis: Are Aliens Avoiding Earth?
by Josh Hrala  /  November 11 2016

“In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi asked a very important question over lunch at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Based on the number of galaxies we know exist, how many stars are inside those galaxies, and how many planets potentially orbit those stars, probability states that there should be alien life. So, where is everybody? This question – known as the Fermi Paradox – raised a lot of eyebrows, because it’s a logical thought when considering just how vast our Universe is.

Enrico Fermi
“Professor Enrico Fermi lecturing on the optical characteristics of neutrons”

While there are many different hypotheses out there that attempt to concoct an answer, one of the best and most thought-provoking is the zoo hypothesis. The zoo hypothesis was thought up in 1973 by MIT radio astronomer John Ball. He posited that, yes, there might well be intelligent aliens out there, but maybe they are simply ignoring us, forcing us to live in a cosmic ‘zoo’ or wildlife sanctuary where they can monitor our activity without disturbing it.

In other words, the hypothesis assumes that alien life is out there, but it’s so advanced, it either does not want to influence our primitive society, or it knows not to get involved with other intelligent lifeforms. This makes sense when you consider that life might have evolved and progressed at a much quicker pace on other planets in our galaxy. The rate at which humanity has progressed over the last 100 years alone sheds a bit of light on how much further along a civilisation that has lasted 100 million years longer than us might be.

“An OC [other civilisation] that is, say, a century younger than we are might not be able to communicate over interstellar distances; a century ago we couldn’t,” Ball explains. “And an OC a millennium older than we are would probably be using a technology for interstellar communications, such as modulated gamma rays, that we humans haven’t yet learned how to do.”

If correct – and it’s important to note that this is all extremely hypothetical – there might be a civilisation out there that is so much more advanced than ours on Earth, we would be worth nothing to them. Ball explains this by comparing how we feel about non-intelligent creatures here on Earth. As he puts it:

“An argument based on relative time scales suggests that the appropriate PEL [primitive Earth life] is an animal such as those in our Ordovician geological epoch, namely mollusks and trilobites. Now I can imagine talking with mammals and birds; indeed I’ve done it, although the conversation was on a pretty low intellectual level. But oysters?”

This notion also harkens back to statements from physicist Stephen Hawking who thinks we shouldn’t broadcast ourselves out into the Universe just in case an advanced – and unfriendly – civilisation might be lurking in the shadows, looking for some primitive life ripe for conquering.

Ball also notes that there are other hypotheses surrounding the Fermi Paradox too, with some being far more popular than others. One of the most popular is that alien life does exist, but is very primitive, or maybe it’s already come and gone? The fact of the matter here is that no one really knows. The only way any of these hypotheses can be proven is with scientific evidence, and we’re working on it.

If the Pentagon Is Hiding Aliens from Us, the Zoo Hypothesis May Explain Why
by Paul Ratner  /  December 26, 2017

“Recent revelations that the Pentagon had an actual alien-hunting division have rocked conspiracy theorists everywhere, adding fuel to the long-held beliefs of many that the government is hiding the truth from us. Luis Elizondo, the military intel official who headed the now-defunct “Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program,” which ran from 2009 until 2012, was so convinced by what he saw that he continued his search for E.T. until this day. He now has a UFO-research startup and alerted CNN that there’s “compelling evidence” we are not alone.

While Elizondo’s evidence may be based on being privy to a number of unexplained encounters with flying objects, the aliens haven’t made their presence very clear. If the universe contains at least two trillion galaxies full of billions of stars like our sun, shouldn’t there be other complex life forms out there by now? It would only make sense. So “where is everybody?” as the Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked about the absence of evidence and the high probability of alien existence.

There are certainly many speculations about whether the possibility of aliens and their potential motives. It could be that there’s been no contact because they are too far away, and we need for our technologies to catch up before we meet up. They could look like something else entirely so we can’t even perceive them yet. Or maybe we underestimate the uniqueness and preciousness of humanity and we really are alone. But an idea formulated in the 70s takes a different swing at this compelling issue.

The Zoo Hypothesis, proposed by the MIT radio astronomer John A. Ball in 1973, says that aliens may be avoiding contact with us on purpose, so as not to interfere with our evolution and the development of our societies. The human civilization could be essentially living in a “zoo” or a space wildlife sanctuary, where others populating the cosmos dare not go. By staying clear of us, they avoid interplanetary contamination. Perhaps the aliens are waiting for us to reach a certain technological or moral point before they will talk to us. Or they may be simply trying to protect us and themselves. You’ve seen “Independence Day” – there may be a similar movie made thousands of light years away about us.

This idea of the zoo hypothesis presumes that aliens would want to have some relatively benevolent system of belief – perhaps a universally-accepted law about how to treat lower-level cosmic inhabitants. One explanation could be that a higher intelligence would not want to limit the diversity of paths in the universe by somehow interfering with other beings.

The hypothesis makes the most sense in a crowded universe, if there are many civilizations which set up rules by which they govern their coexistence. Of course, if there are many extraterrestrial players, it is also doubtful that one of them wouldn’t have somehow contacted us, even if by accident. Maybe that’s what the Earth’s alien hunters are picking up on – random, unsanctioned interactions. Of course, if we put our tinfoil hats on, it also stands to reason that if there is some kind of Universe-wide law of non-interference with other species, someone at the Pentagon could be in on it.

For a more in-depth explanation of the zoo hypothesis, check out John A. Ball’s paper “Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Where is Everybody?”