Space exploration was initially driven by the “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States. Who would be the first into space, who would launch the first manmade object into space and who would be the first to land on the moon? We take a look at the possibility of space travel in the 22nd century.
Taking a vacation in another solar system
Sci-fi movies show people popping over to planets in other solar systems as if it was an excursion to the beach. Can this happen and if so, when?
The sheer size of the universe is, quite simply put, beyond human understanding.
What is a solar system?
In simplistic terms, a solar system consists of a star (sun) with any number of planets that orbit it.
Man’s ability to travel
The furthest any man-made object has travelled is Voyager 1, launched on September 5, 1977. In 36 years it covered 11 billion miles at a speed of 35 000 miles per hour and has only recently (2012) left our solar system. At its current distance, it takes a radio wave 17 hours to reach earth, not quite sufficient to have a decent conversation. It weighs 1 592 pounds and of course, was unmanned.
The speed of light
Light travels at 186 000 per second or 669 600 000 miles per hour. A light year is the distance that light will travel in a year. Your calculator will show a numeric overflow if you try to calculate the distance. It is 5.87849981 × 1012 miles.
The next solar system
The nearest star is Alpha Centauri, a mere 4.5 light years away, that is 4.5 times 5.87849981 × 1012 miles. Given the speed of Voyager 1 of 9.72 miles per second, it will take 86 000 years (roughly 3 400 generations) to reach our closest neighbor. Remember that the entire history of Homo sapiens is only 70 000 years. I hope my maths is right. Suffice it to say, it will take a very, very long time. Of course, as luck would have it, you would travel all the way there only to find that none of Alpha Centauri’s eleven planets is conducive to harboring life.
Would such a journey be possible?
Given today’s technology, no. The speed is far too slow. Assuming my maths is correct, it would simply take too long.
Regardless of technology used and due to the length of time it will take, one would need to provide for procreation for a sizeable population to prevent inbreeding. It will therefore mean a substantially larger craft that the Voyager 1, further impacting on energy and food requirements.
There needs to be an energy source other than sunlight as you would be too far, for most of the journey, from either of the suns to utilize solar energy. An alternative is nuclear energy which would certainly last the distance.
Assuming that there will be a number of people on board, there will be a need for significant food supplies. Should food be grown organically on board, this will further impact on size and required energy sources.
Obvious requirements to survive would include water and oxygen.
What would be the solution?
I believe that there will have to be a shift in mindset. Albert Einstein referred to the inability to travel at speeds beyond the speed of light. He then indicated that there was something called space time which runs independent of our time. According to his theories, if you had to travel at the speed of light, time would stand still. For example, if you had to travel for one year at the speed of light, it would have taken you one year, but on earth, thousands of years would have passed. According to the above calculation, if we had to travel the required 4.5 light years to reach Alpha Centauri at the speed of light, we would be 4.5 years older, while time on earth would have moved on 86 000 years. You clearly need a PhD in both mathematics and Science to understand this. I have neither, but still it’s fascinating.
Will it ever be possible?
Who knows? Technology has developed more in the past 50 years than collectively in the entire history of mankind. In the meanwhile, don’t start packing for your Alpha Centauri trip just yet.