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Armageddon is coming. A giant Texas-sized meteorite on a collision course with planet Earth is discovered in 2020. It will hit Earth in 2030 and will wipe out 90% of living things including humanity. Calculations show that throwing rockets packed with nukes at it to deflect it would be unsuccessful. Digging a hole in it and nuking from the inside won’t work either, it’s just too big.

In a desperate way to survive this, leaders of the world decide to unite and build an Ark, a massive space station orbiting Earth which would house as much biodiversity as possible. The ark would need to be self sufficient for about a millennium, the time it would take for the effects of the giant asteroid crash to subside.

The original inhabitants of the ark would grow old and die in it. The ark needs to be able to sustain generations in a closed loop.

Would it be possible to build and launch such a space station with current technology within 10 years?

We assume that cost is not an issue anymore and somehow society doesn’t collapse and still functions normally (the general public is not informed of the imminent catastrophe).

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    $\begingroup$ I consider this a What are you expecting? type of question. As a friend of mine once said, given enough time and money anything is possible. The only useful answer to this question is "sure" because we can keep adding sections to the Intl Space Station - we just need everyone to cooperate (which is assumed). So, what are you expecting? What is your reason for asking this question? $\endgroup$ – JBH May 15 at 4:54
  • $\begingroup$ You don't need a Texas-sized asteroid to cause a global mass extinction event - a New York City-sized one will do. A Texas will cause significant crust damage. $\endgroup$ – 0something0 May 15 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ Any reason humanity wouldn't build a Moon Ark instead? Or maybe Mars. You can grow potatoes on Mars. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak May 15 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ I get that the question is "asteroid is unavoidable" but my guess is in reality nations would throw their weight behind altering the course of said asteroid. Given 10 years and cost not being an issue, this is most likely more achievable than a 1000 year ark. $\endgroup$ – ben May 15 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding I think it's just a reference to Billy Bob Thornton's line in Armageddon $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat May 15 at 18:05
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I would say a resounding: Maybe

Here are the challenges that can probably be overcome with the motivation and funds.

The first issue is the time frame.

From the movie: When Worlds Collide

You can waste anything but time!

It takes about 10 years just to design and prototype a new space mission. Then launching starts. This can be shortened if frequent high loss tests are allowed.

There would also have to be massively parallel and massively replicated design and build programs.

You need parallel development because you don't have time to start over.

You need to replicate each build in multiple locations because you will need massive launches of the programs that succeed. Also, you don't want to have a situation where the one program that might succeed got knocked out do to an accident.

For example, have 10 different project designs of which are each different project is being built in 10 different locations (essentially, 100 different, simultaneous Apollo programs)

By throwing money and people at it, you can probably get it built in 10 years

The second issue is the biosphere

We know from Biosphere 2 that we don't really know what we are doing when building biospheres.

Can we figure it out by then? Maybe.

At the same time that the project is being designed and lifters are being built, we can run biosphere tests here on Earth. Most will likely fail. Those that fail early enough can be restarted. However, at best, we will learn which techniques make a biosphere stable over 10 years.

Again, massive parallel and massive redundant will help.

Another biosphere issue is that it will need to be huge (3.14 acres for 8 people). Just look at the amount of space, materials (structure, dirt, water, air, plants & animals) that went into it. Lifting all that will be a tremendous project even once you know what to lift.

The third issue is that it will be too close

An asteroid that size will throw up a lot of debris. The arc will have to get out of LEO. That will take fuel. If you have it boost out to the Moon for a bit and then come back to an Earth orbit, you need to ship a lot of fuel on board. I would boost to a Lunar orbit, circularize around the Moon, and stay until most of the debris has fallen back to Earth. Then boost back to Earth and re-circularize the orbit.

I would have it come back to Earth for these reasons:

I wouldn't trust the number of required thrusters needed to move such a pig 1000 years after they were built. The people 1000 years in the future might not be able to make any real repairs if they forget enough.

I would want the space that the fuel was in for expanding the biosphere.

Gravity

Can you have a biosphere without gravity? Biospheres generally have a water cycle. It's hard to have flowing rivers without gravity. So we need to spin it. This isn't a deal breaker but it is one more thing that will add cost, materials, and ways to go wrong.

Politics

  • Who gets to go.
  • Who has to build it.
  • What will the people who don't get to go do?
  • Etc.

Just look at the politics that go into our current space program. The parts Shuttle was built in 3 different timezones because politicians threatened to block approval unless they got specific jobs in there districts. Then the parts were shipped for assembly. Can you imagine if there were lives at stake?

Also under politics, think of terrorist threats.

My Conclusion

It could work if everything goes right but I don't think that it is likely.

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    $\begingroup$ Say it with me: nuclear pulse propulsion. 6000 tons to the moon and back on one tank of fuel, which is plenty of mass to transfer the industrial base you'd need to build the stuff you need to survive for 1000 years. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 May 16 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000, yep. That is the way to create long term habitation (and the way I would do it). My problem with that is the time frame. By the time you've built the infrastructure, you need to have what that infrastructure will, eventually, build. A lot of inefficiency is created by trying to do this in 10 years. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat May 17 at 18:25
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No, we can't.

The ark would need to be self sufficient for about a millennium

10 years is roughly the time it takes to design a state of the art space mission.

Any space station we have built massively rely on constant supply of food, water, fuel and spare parts from the mother planet.

We are barely able to build buildings which by chance last about a millennium, and they don't have to be exposed to the harsh environment of space.

Moreover we don't know what are the long term effect on human body of reproducing and gestating in microgravity. Nobody has carried out a pregnancy in space, and space intercourse is at most a matter of itchy speculation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Any ark will be spinning to simulate gravity $\endgroup$ – Thorne May 15 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne that makes it a lot harder to build. so it is not a safe assumption. $\endgroup$ – John May 15 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe but weightlessness isn't a long term survival strategy $\endgroup$ – Thorne May 16 at 0:59
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First off, at Texas sized, you are looking at an impact that will probably melt the entire surface of the planet, vaporize oceans, send our atmosphere into space, and probably destroy any space station in orbit... so I would not like our odds of anyone surviving in any way shape or form unless Elon Musk can pull off his Mars colony idea. That said, there is only 1 asteroid in the solar system that is close to being this big which is Ceres, and there is no way we would not see that coming from centuries away.

If we instead approached this from the more realistic perspective of an extinction level asteroid comparable to Chicxulub, then the question begins to have some merit in reality.

In this case, the answer is: sort of... but not the way you think. L.Dutch is right, we can't make a brand new space station in 10 years that will last for 1000. But, even if it takes the impact winter 1000+ years to subside, it's not a nuclear winter, so you don't need to wait for radioactive decay to make the world survivable. The Earth is colder, darker, and the initial impact may kill everyone, but a frozen Earth is still a more livable place than a space station. The Arc would just need to be a place that 80 or so people can hide out for a few weeks, then return with all the supplies they would need to survive in the now cold, dark, and scorched remains of a rainforest near the equator.

Once back they would need to set up greenhouses, power sources, and well insulated homes with good air filtration pretty quickly, but with the right supplies gathered in preparation for this, it is pretty doable. If our ancestors could survive the ice age with rocks and sticks, we could handle much worse with modern tech.

To make this version of an arc doable in 10 years, we could probably just add-on to the international space station enough storage and living space to house the 80+ needed people to restart the human race.

That said, you could probably save more lives with underground bunkers. Facilities like the Cheyenne Mountain Complex could save thousands of lives as long as the impact is not too close to it. If you build 10-20 such bunkers around the world, some of them at least will be far enough from ground zero to make it.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, I agree, although "Texas-sized" is pretty big. I think that even most bunkers would get wiped out world wide. Even so building bunkers is lot faster and easier than building space arks, so as a plan to save people bunkers would probably still be more effective with our current technology. I mean even if 99% of bunkers wipe out, one percent of what space we can build on Earth would probably still be more than what we could build in space. And it would skip the tedious step of selecting who gets a chance to survive. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi May 15 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm... did not stop to think about what Texas-sized actually is. Yeah, there's not going to be much of an Earth left after that. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki May 15 at 20:31
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Maybe

A similar question was posed in the documentary "Evacuating Earth" where a neutron star would pass by our solar system and destroy everything but it involved fleeing the whole solar system. It has a timeframe of seventy five years.

The whole planet would be put under martial law and everything would be geared towards designing system, building and launching parts and developing new tech. Anyone not towing the line would be shot. Only the best, strongest and brightest would be sent to space and each government would select the best to go. Any corruption would carry the death penalty. All our art, science, literature would be digitized and DNA samples from as many species as possible collected and stored. Seed banks established.

The Chicxulub asteroid, was an asteroid or other celestial body some 11 to 81 kilometres and wiped out the dinosaurs. Texas is around 1200 kilometres. Not even bacteria will survive the impact.

In reality we wouldn't build an ark as such but would instead migrate to Mars. We have gravity, water and raw materials. Underground habitats could be built on Mars far easier than trying to build a self sustaining ark in such a short time frame. We can get people there and keep building once there from local materials. We can also send a lot more people than an ark can hold.

An ark really is only the case if you have to flee the whole solar system.

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Yes, we could. It'd just require a lot of money and the use of rockets powered by small nuclear bombs.

The Orion Drive nuclear pulse rocket is capable of carrying 6,000 tons of cargo to the moon and back on one tank of propellant, using 1960s technology. Given modern computer-aided design and a wartime economy to mass produce them (during WW2, America was producing cargo ships of comparable size in a matter of days), it should be possible to produce and launch them before the asteroid hits.

This should be sufficient to carry significant amounts of infrastructure into space, which would allow for the beginning of space-based mining and industry needed to produce the parts needed to maintain the space stations, along with the aquaculture setups needed to feed the space colonists.

It would also allow the creation of orbital seed- and gene-vaults that could be used to repopulate the Earth with the life destroyed by the asteroid impact.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm curious about your claim of America building cargo ships in days. I'm a shipbuilder myself and even with all the modern technology we have nowadays, we can't do it under one year. And no, more people does not mean faster production. People need space to work. $\endgroup$ – Tim May 15 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim, the Liberty ships could apparently be built in 42 days, the record being just under 5 days from keel laid to launch. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix May 15 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ I get the viewpoint on Wikipedia. However this counts only the days in erection. Cutting, moulding and assembling is appeantly done before. The 5 day build missed all outfitting and launch and was just a PR stunt. The ships were designed to last only 5 years. I don't believe that this example is valid for the construction of a space ship that has to last a milenium. $\endgroup$ – Tim May 15 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix This also ignores the up-front time spent setting up the infrastructure, tooling, and supply chain to allow a liberty ship to be built so quickly. In this instance we're starting from a standstill which means you need to design the ships AND the construction lines to build the ships AND then build the factories to make all the ships and components before you even get to start building your first actual spacecraft. You're skipping a lot of really important steps in the process. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat May 15 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim You don’t need your rockets to last a thousand years. You just need them to last long enough to transfer the industrial base to make more of them into orbit. ;) $\endgroup$ – nick012000 May 15 at 20:30
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Probably Not.

I do not think what you're imagining would be possible with the technology we have today. It would just be too big and too complex and completely at the mercy of the hazards of space without the benefit of a ground based mission control or resupply flights from the surface.

Human Hazards

The longest a human has spent in space to date is 1 year. The test subject, Astronaut Scott Kelly experienced numerous physiological side effects during this time even at the genetic level. You might be able to mitigate these if astronauts spent most of their time in a rotating taurus ring that simulates gravity and had better radiation shielding.

It's hard to say weather it was the effects of 0 gravity or long term exposure to stellar radiation or both. Assuming humans can survive and propagate in space for 1,000 years it is safe to assume this will cause enough divergence to produce a human species adapted to live in space, not at sea level of Earth. You also need a minimum population of about 200 just to repopulate the Earth and continue the species. That means the population would need at least

800 liters of water / day with a way to completely reclaim and purify every liter of it: in other words turn waste water back into drinking water. Water purificaiton plant is now a mission critical system that cannot be allowed to fail.

400 kg of oxygen / day - another system that has to be closed loop and who's maintenance is mission essential. There is an experimental algae bioreactor that can scrub CO2 and possibly produce edible food in development. Supplemented with breakthroughs in lab grown meat this might be sufficient to sustain the population.

Electrical power - most will come from solar panels but there are mission critical systems that will still need power even if these become damaged or disabled. I see no alternative but to use a small nuclear reactor. A miniaturized one was integrated into an aircraft but the program didn't go far.

The rest of the Biosphere

Just getting that human crew (plus or minus 50) enough living room and support systems to survive, and the tools and machinery to maintain the support systems is going to test today's technology to its absolute limits. If you want any more living cargo aboard it's going to have to be embryonic. Seeds and animal embryos to be grown in vitro at the appropriate time.

That's a lot of moving pieces to put together. I don't think 10 years is enough time.

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