Just been discussing the topic with Tom, my housemate, and thought I’d put my thoughts to paper on the almost insurmountable challenges we have facing us if the human race ever feels taken by a whim to expand an empire into the stars.
The first issue is finding a star to go to. Currently we have pretty much zero certainty if there are any earth-like planets out there. We can’t even decide if our closest neighbour Mars has ever been able to support life and we’ve got physical probes there. The planets beyond the Solar System we just make pot luck guesses with; ogling them with our telescopes and just making an educated guess. Would you really want to launch what would be potentially the most ambitious project in mankind based on an educated guess?
Now if the planet we aim for is not earth-like the option is to terraform the planet. Something which is potentially within the human grasp. We may not be doing a good job of showing it but we do have a fairly decent grasp on how to affect a planets atmosphere to create a breathable atmosphere environment. Most likely be putting similar plans to use if we ever decide to colonise the Moon or Mars, giving a pretty good prototype and field test to use.
Then we have the biggest issue of all. We know we want to go to a planet, we can use it as it comes or terraform to our own purpose, but how do we even get there? Our current space travel of choice is the Space Shuttle. Which has a top speed of about 8,000m/s, or 0.002% the speed of light. Our closest solar system Alpha Centuari is 4.3lightyears away, or 2,150 years at maximum thrust in a shuttle. Which won’t ever happen.
Creating a sub-light vessel should be possible. It would have to be built along the lines of a generational ship as even at 10% the speed of light the closest star is 40years away. Anyone who left as a young budding astronaut would be an OAP by the time they reach the destination, and that’s if we can reach 10%. Such a ship would be massive and required to be built in space(take-off would be impossible). It would require us to throw away the concept of money though, as it’d be a gajillion dollars to build. Shuttle program costs about $1.5billion per launch, taking 25,000Kg of materials with it. To take enough supplies into space to make just another Shuttle would take 5 round trips alone.
Now say we make this ship. We can get it to hit 10% lightspeed. How do you convince people to get onboard? Current astronauts at least have the assurance of coming back to earth 6months later (as long as nothing goes boom), but anyone sent on this ship would never see Earth again. Do you think you’d be able to do that? Never come back to Earth, be buried in another solar system, your children never knowing of playing on the beach or going to the park. Being 4 years behind on the latest showing of Single Lawyer Woman. I know I’d never make it to the ISS, knowing that if anything went wrong I can see the tiny blue planet below and be 12hours from any help. 40 years? no way. Then you’ve got the issue of us only being able to make a ship that can reach 1% lightspeed. 430 years of travelling. If within 100years of launch we develop engines that go at 10% we’d end up with the second ship landing over 200 years before the first Ark reaches. How gutted would you be to know your ancestors set off on a noble voyage of human expansion for you to touch down and be served a starbucks?
Now I’ve been all doom and bloom but I am very interested in the concept of the human expansion into space. It’s the only way to escape the finite (though very long) countdown clock of 1billion or so years till this planet we call home fries on us. However I think without some miraculous leap in technology to be able to build a warp drive or similar then we are stuck here.
In my mind the most promising way of expanding our reach into the stars is seeding. Send out canisters of a bacteria mix fired off to as many planets as possible. The plan being when they reach these planets they’ll terraform it and hopefully evolve over the aeons into some kind of intelligent life. Sure we won’t of gone out there ourselves, and it’d take much longer to seed the planets with sentient life than to attempt to travel and populate it ourselves. But it’s a much simpler and plausible plan.