Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Will we ever travel to the stars?

By Tom Kando

I just read that astronomers have discovered another thirty extra-solar planets. Altogether, we have now identified over 400 such bodies, circling near-by and not-so near-by stars. This raises the wishful thought of traveling to those planets, some day. If we are ever going to find extra-terrestrial life, that’s where we must look for it.The effort to establish radio contact with extra-terrestrials on some of those planets is worthwhile. We could get a message to some of them in 5 to 10 years, and vice-versa. So we’d only need to wait a decade to 20 years to get a reply. However, traveling there ourselves, or expecting them to land here, that’s another matter.

Now that we have landed on the moon and probed the outer limits of the solar system with our machines, we often assume that Star Trek-like interstellar travel is just around the corner. Forget it. Not in a million years. It's one thing to cross the solar system and perhaps land on Mars or even circle Jupiter. It is quite something else to reach even the closest star.

The closest star, Alpha Centauri, is 1.3 parsecs away, or 4.3 light-years. Since light travels at over 186,000 miles per second and there are 31.5 million seconds in a year, light covers nearly 6 trillion miles in a year. Alpha Centauri is over four times farther than that, i.e. over 25 trillion miles away.

Assume that we somehow manage to double the speed of our currently most advanced space vehicles. Some of our satellites and rockets can now circle the earth twice in an hour, so let's assume that we can speed them up to 100,000 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take an astronaut 29,000 years to reach the closest star. That's about as much time as has lapsed since Cro-Magnon man!

Now let's assume, fantastically, that we can speed up space travel to one-tenth of the speed of light. Our rockets would now travel at 67 million mph (faster than any conceivable Indy car, right?). We could reach the sun in two hours. How long would it take to get to Alpha Centauri? 43 years, i.e. the better part of a lifetime. Note that such a fantastic vehicle would travel one thousand times faster than our fastest space ships (e.g. the space shuttle) are currently capable of. (Today, our fastest space vehicles reach one-ten thousandth of the speed of light, which is the same difference as that between a man walking and the speed of the space shuttle itself).

Were we to use our current state-of-the-art vehicles for interstellar travel, we would reach the closest star in 58,000 years, i.e. fifteen times longer than the time elapsed since the construction of the ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Let's face it: We may not be completely earth-bound, but we are certainly the prisoners of the solar system - forever. And from what we have learned about our sister planets in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is becoming apparent that earth is the only livable, lovable and life-filled body in our planetary system. The moral of this story? We better learn to do things right here at home, because there is nowhere else to escape to - there is no exit! leave comment here