To date, astronomers have discovered 4,164 extrasolar planets in 3,085 star systems, with another 5,347 awaiting confirmation. With this many planets available for study, researchers have been able to apply new constraints on how likely habitable planets are. In fact, the latest estimates say there could be 6 billion in the Milky Way alone! Understandably, these discoveries have renewed interest in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
But whereas the search for habitable planets is focused on finding evidence of biological processes (aka. “biosignatures”), SETI has historically been focused on evidence of technological activity – aka. “technosignatures.” With a grant from NASA, researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the University of Rochester are gearing up for a new study that will look for different kinds of potential technosignatures.
There is a reason life that Earth is the only place in the Solar System where life is known to be able to live and thrive. Granted, scientists believe that there may be microbial or even aquatic life forms living beneath the icy surfaces of Europa and Enceladus, or in the methane lakes on Titan. But for the time being, Earth remains the only place that we know of that has all the right conditions for life to exist.
One of the reasons for this is because the Earth lies within our Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). This means that it is in right spot (neither too close nor too far) to receive the Sun’s abundant energy, which includes the light and heat that is essential for chemical reactions. But how exactly does our Sun go about producing this energy? What steps are involved, and how does it get to us here on planet Earth?
Our civilization will need more power in the future. Count on it. The ways we use power today: for lighting, transportation, food distribution and even entertainment would have sounded hilarious and far fetched to our ancestors.
As our technology improves, our demand for power will increase. I have no idea what we’ll use it for, but I guarantee we’ll want it. Perhaps we’ll clean up the oceans, reverse global warming, turn iron into gold, or any number of activities that take massive amounts of energy. Fossil fuels won’t deliver, and they come with some undesirable side effects. Nuclear fuels will only provide so much power until they run out.
We need the ultimate in energy resources. We’ll want to harness the entire power of our star. The Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev predicted that a future civilization might eventually harness the power of an entire planet. He called this a Type I civilization. A Type II would harness the entire energy output of a star. And a Type III civilization would utilize the power of their entire galaxy. So let’s consider a Type II civilization.
What would it actually take to harness 100% of the energy from a star? We’d need to construct a Dyson Sphere or Cloud and collect all the solar energy that emanates from it. But could we do better? Could we extract material directly from a star?
You bet, it’s the future!
This is an idea known as “stellar lifting”. Stealing hydrogen fuel from the Sun and using it for our futuristic energy needs. In fact, the Sun’s already doing it… poorly. Stars generate powerful magnetic fields. They twist and turn across the surface of the star, and eject hydrogen into space. But it’s just a trickle of material. To truly harness the power of the Sun, we need to get at that store of hydrogen, and speed up the extraction process.
There are a few techniques that might work. You can use lasers to heat up portions of the surface, and increase the volume of the solar wind. You could use powerful magnetic fields to carry plasma away from the Sun’s poles into space.Which ever way it happens, once we’ve got all that hydrogen. How do we use it to get energy? We could combine it with oxygen and release energy via combustion, or we could use it in our space reactors and generate power from fusion.
But the most efficient way is to feed it to a black hole and extract its angular momentum. A highly advanced civilization could siphon material directly from a star and send it onto the ergosphere of a rapidly spinning pet black hole.
Here’s Dr. Mark Morris, a Professor of Astronomy at UCLA. He’ll explain:
“There is this region, called the ergosphere between the event horizon and another boundary, outside. The ergosphere is a very interesting region outside the event horizon in which a variety of interesting effects can occur. For example, if we had a black hole at our disposal, we could extract energy from spinning black holes by throwing things into the ergosphere and grabbing whatever comes out at even higher speeds.”
This is known as the Penrose process, first identified by Roger Penrose in 1969. It’s theoretically possible to retrieve 29% of the energy in a rotating black hole. Unfortunately, you also slow it down. Eventually the black hole stops spinning, and you can’t get any more energy out of it. But then it might also be possible to extract energy from Hawking radiation; the slow evaporation of black holes over eons. Of course, it’s tricky business.
Dr. Morris continues, “There’s no inherent limitation except for the various problems working in the vicinity of a massive black hole. One can’t be anywhere near a black hole that’s actively accreting matter because the high flux of energetic particles and gamma rays. So it’s a hostile environment near most realistic black holes, so let me just say that it won’t be any time soon as far as our civilization is concerned. But maybe Type III civilizations so far beyond us that it exceeds our imagination won’t have any problem.”
A Type 3 civilization would be so advanced, with such a demand for energy, they could be extracting the material from all the stars in the galaxy and feeding it directly to black holes to harvest energy. Feeding black holes to other black holes to spin them back up again.
It’s an incomprehensible feat of galactic engineering. And yet, it’s one potential outcome of our voracious demand for energy.
What is solar energy? Solar energy is the radiant energy produced by the Sun. It is both light and heat. It, along with secondary solar-powered resources such as wind and wave power, account for the majority of the renewable energy on Earth.
The Earth receives 174 petawatts(PW) of solar radiation at the upper atmosphere. 30% of that is reflected back to space and the rest is absorbed by clouds, oceans and land masses. Land surfaces, oceans, and atmosphere absorb solar radiation, which increases their temperature. Warm air containing evaporated water from the oceans rises, causing convection. When the air reaches a high altitude, where the temperature is low, water vapor condenses into clouds and causes rain. The latent heat of water condensation increases convection, producing wind. Energy absorbed by the oceans and land masses keeps the surface at an average temperature of 14°C. Green plants convert solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis. Our food supply is completely dependent on solar energy. After plants die, they decay in the Earth, so solar energy can be said to provide the biomass that has created the fossil fuels that we are dependent on.
Humans harness solar energy in many different ways: space heating and cooling, the production of potable water by distillation, disinfection, lighting, hot water, and cooking. The applications for solar energy are only limited by human ingenuity. Solar technologies are characterized as either passive or active depending on the way the energy is captured, converted, and distributed. Active solar techniques use photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors to harness the energy. Passive techniques include orienting a building to the Sun, selecting materials with thermal mass properties, and using materials with light dispersing properties.
Our current dependence on fossil fuels is slowly being replaced by alternative energies. Some are fuels that may eventually become useless, but solar energy will never be obsolete, controlled by foreign powers, or run out. Even when the Sun uses up its hydrogen, it will produce useable energy until it explodes. The challenge facing humans is to capture that energy instead of taking the easiest way out by using fossil fuels.
We have written many articles about Solar Energy for Universe Today. Here’s an article about harvesting solar power from space, and here’s an article about the energy from the sun.