To Infinity and Beyond!
The title is one of those jokes that makes me laugh no matter how often I hear it, I think it’s the autistic in me. It’s recursive, for lack of a better word, IE it sets up a dynamic that can never get resolved. Or maybe I’m just crazy. However, moving right along, this is the long awaited, little heralded post on travel to nearby stars. This is going to be completely off-the-cuff, no Internet research, speculation on my part. In other words, just for fun.
First off, is human travel to nearby stars possible? Absolutely. Sometimes people will quote the speed of the Pioneer Spacecraft and claim it would take thousands of years, so is thus impossible. And they are correct to a point, the Pioneers are the fastest moving star probes ever built. How this means that humans can’t build anything faster is never stated. I’ve got good news, while a warp drive is science fiction, mainstream engineering studies say that there’s no reason we can’t build something that can travel at 12% of the speed of light. So that’s assumption one, we can indeed build really fast spaceships.
OK, this means flight times to nearby stars of 50-100 years. Relativity would shave a bit off of that, but not much. This I think rules out sending astronauts to explore nearby star systems, so assumption two is that the first ships sent will be unmanned probes. Yes, it will take them a long time to get there, but the beauty of it is, once they are there they can send back information to us in just a few years. So assumption three is that probes are sent to dozens of nearby stars, with the hopes that within 50-100 years one of them will find a planet worth sending people too.
So OK, we find a planet within ten light years that looks like people could live there. Maybe by probes, maybe by remote sensing, humans discover a target planet for humans. This will be decades from now, won’t we be able to build faster spaceships? Well, maybe. The way relatively works is that the faster one goes, the more energy it takes to accelerate even faster. So there’s certain limits imposed simply by the nature of reality. So I’m assuming (number 4) that no magic answer will be found to get humans to nearby stars faster any time soon.
So we send really young crews and hope a few of them make it? If the trip time was fifty years, that would sort of work. Septuagenarian Star Trek crews exploring a nearby planet would make for some interesting story lines if nothing else. I think it’s safer to say that small crews will be sent and encouraged to let nature take its course. Hopefully there would still be a few Earth born to help explore the new world. Most of the crew would have been born en route. Is this how we will do it? Off hand I think that what we know of human psychology in small isolated groups is not pretty. Sooner or later the men start killing each other over the women. Among other problems.
Maybe humans will spread to the stars in arks like this, all such expeditions would be one way. The one possible work around I can think of is human hibernation. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why not, and there is at least one observed example. If people spent 99% of the trip asleep they would only age a year or two, and the trip would be entirely doable.
So in conclusion, one way or the other, there is no practical reason why we can’t send out starships full of people to colonize nearby worlds in the next few centuries. It would be a high risk venture, and the costs would be enormous, but there’s at least one massive human money stream that could be diverted into this far more productive endeavour.
And heck, if we discover practical hibernation or some such, two way travel will be possible! Woohoo! Wait, no, I meant … no fucking way! I think with a little thought people will conclude that these ships be sent out so that there was absolutely no way they could be sent back. Columbus brought home syphilis, the AIDS of its day. There could be something out there that is not only more evil than we imagine, but it is more evil than we can imagine. Try not to think about that.
I think I’ll go look at the stars. Sleep tight!
(The image above does appear to be from Wikipedia, so I’m hoping it’s reasonably public domain. If the gentle reader knows what it is without looking it up, I’m impressed. If not, trust me, they are bad news. That will be the topic of my next post, bad news from the stars.)