“A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force.” Newton’s first law of motion. It’s something that most people learned sometime in a high school science class, but quickly filed away into the mental folder of Junk I’ll Never Need in the Real World. It’s a law that simply states that external force is required to enact change. Isaac Newton, of course, was talking about how massive bodies interact, but this law can certainly apply to humanity’s innate desire to resist change. Sometimes we have to be forced to take action.
While humans once ventured into space for science, exploration, and sheer superiority, interstellar exploration has been put on the back-burner in recent decades (the occasional space-faring Tesla Roadster notwithstanding). The Space Race is undoubtedly over. Space travel is too expensive, too time-consuming, and too dangerous to pursue.
But the time for human interstellar travel is rapidly approaching, and global climate change is going to be the catalyst that requires action. Just as Newton postulated, when humans are comfortable, they tend to stay at rest until they are forced to make a change. As sea levels rise, extreme weather events become more common, developing populations explode, and resources become increasingly scarce, the fear that Earth will soon become uninhabitable by humans is being realized. Our options are limited: we must either completely change our economies, lifestyles, and reverse our reliance on fossil fuels, or we must search for other planetary systems to inhabit.
When we do finally take to the stars, we will need every skill to rebuild society in a way that proliferates our ingenuity while avoiding the pitfalls of our current systems. Of course we will need physicists, engineers, and other STEM professionals to physically propel us into space, but we will also need navigators, geographers, and social scientists to get us and keep us there.
Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, is a scientific subset of geography that displays, manipulates, and analyzes spatial data. Digital Mapping is the act of creating maps for the digital world with a heavy emphasis on software development, user interface design, and map interactivity. As a software developer entering the Digital Mapping Masters program at the University of Kentucky, I plan to use to many applications of Geographic Information Systems to navigate and map the cosmos, compare and select potentially habitable planets, build clean, sustainable cities, and effectively manage resources and diseases.
The first step in interstellar travel is navigating out of Earth’s atmosphere and into the surrounding solar system. While our solar system is well-researched, documented, and mapped, GIS can be used to chart the remainder of the Milky Way galaxy and beyond. Just as Google Earth gives a three dimensional view of our planet, digital mapping provides a way to bring life to a digital view of the universe. With exact coordinates of celestial body locations, we will be able to accurately calculate time and distances between stars, planets, and other cosmos. I will also be able to collect data and take extensive notes on each body we encounter.
With enough data, I will be able to create full navigation systems for the universe. Just as we pull up an application on our phones to tell us the fastest route from Lexington, Kentucky to Ithaca, New York, space travelers will be able to plot a route between Earth and the Kuiper Belt and beyond. More than just providing navigational guidance, the application will also have detailed information on each discovered object to help filter by planet type, asteroid size, atmospheric components, or even interstellar gas stations or Starbucks (for coffee or Battlestar Galactica memorabilia). Using data visualization packages such as three.js and Mapbox, I can design a solid front-end user interface for this application, allowing users to seamlessly navigate both the app and the universe.
Our goal, however, is not simply to traverse the cosmos aimlessly. Because of the continued degradation of Earth, we aim to find an Earth-like planet to inhabit. As it turns out, the universe is virtually endless and habitable planets are a dime a dozen! But not all of our potential new homes are created equally – we need to observe, collect data, and compare the planets to determine which will be the best fit for humanity. GIS is the perfect tool to accomplish these comparisons.
Once we find planets that have suitable atmospheric conditions for humans, it is most important that they have ample land and water resources to support life. With detailed satellite imagery of each new planet, I can create digital maps of their surfaces. Utilizing geoprocessing tools, I can also perform proximity analyses to determine if and where land masses are close enough to fresh water, and how much water is available to support populations of people. This sort of analysis will allow us to determine general locations on landmasses that can best support human life without straining resources.
Digital mapping will not only be useful in plotting water resources, but also countless other natural resources. Whether these other planets are rife with gold, copper, aluminum, or some other currently unknown elements, their locations and quantities will be valuable information in determining which planet is the best fit for humanity. Similarly, we will require lumber or other wood-like materials to build shelters and other equipment. Through raster files, I can plot exact numbers of resources in predetermined and consistent grids (1km by 1km or even more refined), overlay them with polygons of human settlements, and then perform zonal statistics to count how many resources are immediate or closely available to humans. We will need to rebuild society literally from the ground up, so comparing the locations and quantities of these resources through GIS will be integral in selecting the best planet for humanity.
In addition to plotting the static locations of natural resources, we will also need to research and monitor potential natural hazards in each environment. Rain, snow, wind, and temperature can be mapped in interactive web applications for daily use. Using satellite imagery, rasters can be plotted on top of imagery or other map features (points, polygons, etc.) to show the movement and quantities of small weather systems. We need a planet with enough rain to be able to replenish water systems evenly and grow crops, but not so much rain that we become perpetual seafaring creatures.
Larger storm systems such as hurricanes can be modeled and plotted in a similar fashion, predicting future damages if they were to hit populated areas. Tracking and mapping these systems over the course of many years will show which paths are the most common. I can then generate heatmaps that can be used to determine areas that are most susceptible to these systems, so we will be able to actively avoid building cities around them. Furthermore, geospatial analysis can be used to compare elevation to storm surge, determining areas that are most prone to flooding. Natural hazards can be unpredictable, but a little mapping and analysis goes a long way in mitigating worst-case-scenarios such as flooding in New Orleans and Houston in recent decades.
After we select our new home planet using GIS analysis, I can use another geographic subset to help design our cities: urban planning. Designing cities to be efficient and sustainable is incredibly important in avoiding the same pitfalls that forced us to leave Earth in the first place. There, cities have become sprawling, overcrowded, congested, massive waste-generators. With urban planning, I will be able to design cities with infrastructure to encourage public transportation, optimize routes to resources, and reduce urban sprawl by implementing mixed-use planning with ample walking and bike paths.
A common argument that we hear against public transportation in many current cities is that the infrastructure was not built to support it and it would be far too disruptive and expensive to implement. Utilizing urban planning theory and digital mapping, I can design cities with these features before they’re even built. Underground subway systems like those in Hong Kong, London, and New York City will be mapped and constructed long before the cities on top of them. I can use GIS to discover population hotspots that would require more closely-spaced and frequent subway stops, while also branching out into rural areas that are often ignored in our current subway systems.
Cities themselves will be mapped strategically to be evenly distributed with rural agricultural lands between them. Rapid bullet trains like those in Japan will link cities together, thus reducing the reliance on air travel over land masses. With farmlands located near cities, the transportation of goods will be short and reliable, reducing the demand for cargo travel, and subsequently reducing carbon emissions.
In addition to underground railroad systems, I can also design roadways to greatly reduce car congestion. Hearkening bus transit systems like the one in Curatiba, Brazil, I can create easily accessible, frequent, comfortable, and attractive bus lines and stops in areas where underground systems are less feasible (which I will already know from previous land mass analyses). Buses will have access to bus-only roads that enter the hearts of cities where cars are not allowed. When buses are cheap, reliable, and relaxing, people will be encouraged to utilize them in place of personal vehicles or ridesharing.
The final linchpin of sustainable cities is mixed-use zoning. Many current cities and their surrounding suburbs are constrained by strict and restrictive zoning laws. Housing, retail sites, restaurants, office parks, and schools are only allowed to be built in certain areas in according to zoning divisions. This results in large, sprawling cities filled with commercial enterprises that are largely segregated from housing areas. People are forced to commute ever-longer distances into the surrounding suburbs to purchase affordable homes, exacerbating traffic congestion.
Mixed-use urban planning is key to reducing urban sprawl, and the best way to design is it to study geographic theory and map it. It is easy to fall into the trap of doing things the same way that we have always done them, but in order to create thriving cities that will not ruin our new environment, we have to be vigilant in actively planning to reduce our carbon footprint. In our new cities, densely populated apartments will be placed beside offices and playgrounds and zoos and restaurants and grocery stores. With reliable and cheap public transportation, there can be heavier emphasis on walkable and bikeable spaces in city centers. Sidewalks, bike lanes, and tree cover will be plentiful, all achievable through planning and mapping. No matter what resource you need, it close by and not require a personal vehicle to get to.
Now that we have traveled the universe, analyzed and selected a new home planet, settled into that planet and have clean, maintainable cities, we are ready to set it and forget it, right? Wrong! You know what they say – more planets, more problems. With new environments, resources, plants, and animals, of course there will be a host of new problems to contend with. Luckily, geography and digital mapping will continue to provide support in assessing and mitigating these new problems.
A key to proper management of resources is to actively manage them from the very beginning of their use. Many natural resources on Earth have been mismanaged because we became reliant on them before we realized how scarce or destructive they were for the environment. On this new planet, we already have accurate measurements of all of our new resources, so I will be able to update our raster maps as we use them to detect changes in quantities. Utilizing digital mapping, I can transform these static maps into an interactive web application with a time slider to show resource quantities over time to ensure that we are not over-harvesting them. Similarly, I will be able to map carbon emissions and other pollutants on a regular basis to determine areas of concern before they spiral out of control.
In addition to monitoring various emissions on our new planet, we can also monitor and track new pathogens. An unfortunate consequence of settling a new planet is that new diseases will be a huge problem. Just as explorers spread European diseases to the “New World” during the Age of Exploration, so too will humans contract and spread new diseases in this (literal) new world. John Snow (the Father of Epidemiology, not the King in the North) was the first to use mapping and spatial analysis to determine the source of a cholera outbreak in London in the 1800s, ultimately halting it before it could spread unmanageably. Using more modern methods of this same analysis, I can track diseases as soon as they arise so that we can narrow down their origin and hopefully stop them from spreading.
From first leaving Earth’s atmosphere to solving problems on our new planet, GIS and geography are integral to the success of interstellar travel. They are incredibly vast fields that encompass many different areas of study, from the hard sciences to social studies. The applications of many STEM professionals in interstellar travel are obvious; astrophysicists who know the mechanics of the universe, engineers who design and build new equipment, aerospace technicians who maintain spacecraft. But geography and GIS are the unsung heroes of interstellar exploration. Geographic Information Systems are comprised of statistics, analysis, computer science, web development, and countless other STEM fields. Geography more generally studies the interconnectedness of people and their environments. While the technology of GIS will help us navigate and analyze the universe around us, the theories of geography will help us build sustainable infrastructure, economies, and lifestyles to avoid the mistakes we have already made on Earth. Both are needed equally for successful interstellar travel.
As a student of the Masters of Science in Digital Mapping program at the University of Kentucky, I can employ my burgeoning expertise of Geographic Information Systems to get us there. With a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and approximately one-third of my graduate coursework in Digital Mapping completed, I know a lot of the theory and applications of GIS, but exploring more thorough technical capabilities under the mentorship of leading Digital Mapping experts will further engage me to help in interstellar missions.
Exploration has long been a favorite pastime for humanity. Much less of a hobby and more of an intrinsic driving force, humans have always pushed boundaries to see what else is out there, wherever ‘there’ may be. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, sailors took to the sea during the Age of Exploration, ultimately spreading European influence across the globe. Many of the great explorers – Columbus, Magellan, Vespucci – were accomplished sailors and navigators, but most importantly, they were pioneer geographers.
While much of the Earth has already been explored in some capacity, humans still seek discovery. And where better to set our sights than up? Whether we explore the cosmos for science, for fun, or to escape an increasingly volatile Earth, just as we set out across the Atlantic to discover what lay beyond the endless horizon, we will one day take to the skies to examine the universe. Hearkening back to the age of great discovery several centuries ago, we will need the best geographers to lead the missions of interstellar travel. Geography and Geographic Information Systems can be used to guide our descent into the unknown, analyze celestial bodies for human suitability, build thriving, sustainable cities, control resources, diseases, natural disasters, and so much more.