A Question of Scale and Vantage Point
In our lifetimes, we might witness how humanity could finally harness breakthroughs to unprecedented new levels, unlike anything we’ve imagined.
Revisiting areas where you used to play as a child teaches you a lot about vantage points. For example, the buildings, streets, homes, gardens, and parks, which seemed enormous in the past, are actually smaller than how you remember them. Likewise, the challenges and dilemmas that might have tormented us before seem less dramatic than how we remembered them. When confronted with the present reality, we must often reassess the scale of many buildings, places, and memories. How we remember and experience life depends directly on vantage points — our state and position concerning what we’re perceiving or seeing.
Writers, artists, scientists, and engineers have advanced the possibilities of extended space settlements and travel for decades. However, the question of scale left many top experts scratching their heads about what’s possible and feasible. SpaceX’s inaugural flight demonstration of Starship on April 20, 2023, raises exciting new questions about our vantage point and sense of scale for a life in space. Starship is the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built in human history, while also intended to be reusable. Perhaps making a life beyond our home planet might not seem as daunting as it was decades ago. It’s a good time to revisit some of the proposals, which might have seemed far-fetched just years ago: rotating space colonies or habitats.
I interviewed Pekka Janhunen, a research manager at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, for an article in 2021 about advancing space propulsion. A theoretical physicist by training, Pekka Janhunen is also the Senior Technical Advisor to the Finnish startup Aurora Propulsion Technologies. For the article, I focused on Janhunen’s proposal about the E- Sail, a type of propellantless solar sail propulsion system for smaller missions, which integrates a solar-powered electron gun to keep the spacecraft in motion and tethers it with a high positive charge (approximately 20 kV). E-sails are strong candidates for supporting cargo and refueling needs for crewed Mars missions. He’d also written an intriguing preprint about a rotating mega-habitat or a “megasatellite world” in Ceres’s orbit, which much like Pluto, is a dwarf planet smaller than any of the planets in our Solar System, but the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.