Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Use For Mercury

When I study why people come to this blog using Google Analytics, I find out some odd things about my readership. For one, something like 3/4ths of the searches are for things I specifically wrote about. Perhaps these people half-remember something they read here and wanted to see it again. Or perhaps my reputation somehow proceeds me, and they've somehow heard of me through non-internet means. Or perhaps they think strange thoughts like I do.
I also learn interesting things about where they are. Most of my readers are American like I am, and the most common hits are New York and California, the two most populous states, and Texas, where I'm physically located. (Some of those Texan hits may have been me, up to all of them.) And then there's the weird parts. One person in Trondheim, Norway, reads my blog 7 times a month. It does not tell me what he or she is looking for, other than the read time is very very fast and that it's one distinct person. I hope he or she finds whatever it is that he or she wanted to read here. I also have hits elsewhere in Europe, Asia and Australia, but they've mostly seemed to have left quickly after a few seconds. Not quite what they wanted, I suppose. But I'm getting off topic.
One person apparently read my article about terraforming Mars and Venus, and was trying to find a plan to terraform Mercury. It was a very interesting idea, and I've thought it over, and I regret to say that no, Mercury cannot be terraformed. For several reasons. There is one bright spot, but first the reasons why it cannot happen.
The first reason is that Mercury is too close to the sun. Powerful solar winds strike mercury at all times, and any atmosphere brought to it would quickly be blasted into outer space. Also, any humans brought to the surface would be dead of skin cancer within a year's time even if the atmosphere was continuously magically replenished.
Two, mercury is semi-tidally-locked. It orbits the sun in a 3:2 resonance, such that 1.5 mercurial days make up a mercurial year. Any plants brought along would die during the 44 day long night. Unlike Venus, if spun up, it would spin back down due to the gravitational effects.
Three, even if we somehow magically solve the first two problems, mercury is smaller than mars. It would have difficulty retaining the atmosphere even without the solar wind, and gravity would be incredibly low, which would have unpredictable results on human health.
And lastly, the vastly closer sun provides 10 times the sunlight that the earth receives, resulting in temperatures about 20 times higher. If you think the desert is hot, wait until you see weather that can melt aluminum. Oh, and if you don't bake to death, you'll dehydrate to death sweating.
However, Mercury is not completely useless for us. In the early 1900s, Nikola Tesla discovered that power could be wirelessly beamed about. So we send in a probe to work on the cold, night side, and have it endlessly construct solar panels that wire together to a beaming station. We have it continuously move along the axis of rotation, staying perpetually on the night side where it is cold enough to operate. On the poles, we build the beaming station that receives all the energy from the panels.
When the panels are rotated into the day side by Mercury's natural rotation, they produce lots of power. Mercury gets 1370 watts per square meter, of which we can hope to capture about 10%. The station changes it into a wireless form that we can pick up elsewhere in the solar system. We can pick this up on Mars for heating, on the ISS for powering scientific tools, or hypothetically even on earth to power our cities. The panels should be replaced every 20 or so years.
Downsides: How to build the power-transmitting station such that it doesn't melt down when in the day side. How to deal with rotation, as Mercury is not perpendicular to the solar system plane, but slightly tilted. (About 6 degrees.) Oh, and getting thousands of square miles of solar panels and hundreds of thousands of feet of power transmitting cable not only into space, but onto Mercury's surface without being damaged. Also, the robot probably needs to be able to build everything without human intervention, which could take up to 12 minutes depending on the distance of our planets at the time. (Speed of light limitations are a bitch, aren't they?)


Stephanie J. B. said...

Wow, I never even knew that some were thinking of the possibility of terraforming planets. I really don't know much about these things, but I'm sure that Mercury would be a hard planet to deal with... astronomers have a hard enough time trying to find it in the sky, lol.

themadengineer said...

Yes, Stephanie, there have been various plans since about 1970 or so, and some people think further away than that. Like Freeman Dyson, and his plan of harvesting 99% of a star's energy through countless orbiting objects.

I just realized that I forgot to link to my articles about Mars and Venus, and really should have done so for the sake of convenience.

Viktor Lofgren said...

As for the first half of your post, I have the same Cali-New York-Texas pattern in my blog. I primarily get folks from the US (even though I'm not American), and then primarily people from the English speaking countries, and then at most two digit visits in the rest of the world.

It's strange how I get more people from California than I do from Canada (the second biggest source of traffic).

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