In Brief—As we are told that habitable planets are increasingly being discovered in the universe, the author examines whether humans are likely to visit those planets in the future.
The Stars Beckon; Do We Measure Up?—
Today must be a slow news day. The Times tantalizes us with a report that another possibly habitable planet has been found in the “Goldilocks Zone” of Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbor in this galaxy. It’s only 4.37 light years away from us, a mere walk-around-the-block in terms of the enormous size of the known universe. The “Goldilocks Zone,” by the way, is that distance from a star that allows for the possibility of being habitable to Earhlings.
Not only is traveling to Alpha Centauri pie-in-the-sky, but interestingly the story allows Times readers to keep on doing as they have been doing since we can always go to another planet once we finish screwing up Earth. The Swedes call it the “Wear it out, Throw it away” philosophy. Humans are short-term thinkers, refusing to think about the future. I’m going to pop the “travel-to-the-stars” balloon.
A light year is the distance light travels in a year. Light travels at a speed of roughly 186,000 miles per second. A beam of light takes about 8 minutes to travel from here to our sun which is actually a star. Earth is in the “Goldilocks Zone” of our planetary system.
The number of miles between Earth and Alpha Centauri is 25 trillion miles. 25 TRILLION! And that’s if we traveled at the speed of light…which we can’t. With current technology, it’s estimated that we will be able to go only about one-quarter of the speed of light. Guess how long that would take? Like about 75,000 years!!
We’ve all seen Star Trek where they have warp drive that allows them to go faster than the speed of light. While that speed has been theorized, it’s no more than pipe dreams and certainly not within reach of the best minds in science even with the advances expected in the next decades. Here are a few sobering conditions of traveling to Alpha Centauri.
What’s the trip going to cost? In America today, particularly with an ever-expanding military and America’s political system, we don’t have enough money to take care of our own domestic needs, so any trip to Alpha Centauri will have to involve several other nations. Those nations have their own financial problems. Thus, it’s going to be a matter of priorities. Think about refugees? Or stretched world finances? Or climate change?
Planning? Such a massive undertaking requires years of planning. Unmanned probes. Vastly improved telescopes. Unknown exigencies will arise during the trip and must be anticipated.
Cost is a major part of the considerations. Cost overruns are as common as dirt. Nothing costs what is originally planned.
Here’s a list that undoubtedly understates the other roadblocks to eventually heading for Alpha Centauri.
Who goes and how many? Remember that this one-way trip will take generations. Females? Males? Ages? Marital status? If the astronauts have partners or children, they will never see them again. Technical expertise? A big space ship needs lots of maintenance, particularly if it’s struck by a particle of space debris. Elder care? Astronauts will age and die. Physical and Emotional health? Potential human conflicts? Jealousy or different habits. Food? People eat. Exercise? The film 2001 comes to mind. Diseases? Death? Disposal of remains?
Size of Space Ship? This will depend on the number of humans, propulsion, food and necessaries like equipment, etc. Remember they won’t know what conditions will prevail. The size of the vehicle will necessitate launch from beyond Earth because the load is enormous. Where? Earth’s moon? How is everything transported to the launch site and how long will it take? Indeed, where is the spaceship built?
Training? In any enterprise of this magnitude, the original crew will have to train for the trip. Training takes time. Additionally, we have to assume that children born during the trip will be taught the necessary skills required in order to take over when the previous crew is no longer able to perform the necessary tasks.
As we look around the world today, we see wars, displacement, fraternal disagreements, fear, disarray, greed and a whole laundry list of discord. That discord doesn’t bode well for a trip that will take thousands of years. How can we expect that short-term thinking humans will overcome this? And I haven’t even discussed human nature.
What we must do is deal with the many problems faced on Earth and forget about the fantasy of finding another planet to pollute and destroy. Earth is our home. Let’s care for it and its creatures. Let’s treat it as our home.