Don’t get too comfortable…

An artist's depiction of an extrasolar, Earthl...

An artist’s depiction of an extrasolar, Earthlike planet.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, planet Earth is not a bad place, but one day, no matter how much we like it, we might have to up sticks and leave. Maybe we’ll have polluted the place so much that it’s no longer viable to live here. Perhaps the water level will rise so far that there’s no dry land. Or NASA could detect a large foreign body hurtling towards Earth at an alarming rate and Bruce Willis is not returning their calls. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve mushroom clouds.

Read any science fiction novels or watch any films and it’s almost a given that sooner or later, the human race will colonise other worlds. As worlds go, planet Earth is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in the minority. If we want to be choosy about where to migrate to, we need to travel a very long way before we get there.

Unless someone comes up with technology that can move us many orders of magnitude faster than we can today, the only way to get to our new home will be to launch a ship on which people are born, grow old and die many times before the ship reaches the destination. That’s assuming they make it. Space is a hostile environment and there’s no shortage of cosmic debris moving at frightening speeds. A rogue meteor could be the difference between a nice day’s space flight and hard vacuüm.

Not only that, but they will need to pack for every eventuality. Unlike my wife, I can pack for a couple of weeks away  with a case no bigger than a shoebox. If I forget something, it’s easy enough to go and buy whatever I need. When you’ve been in space for 30 years, nipping back home for a new toothbrush or spare parts is impractical.

The crew need to be entertained too. For a long space voyage, half a dozen DVDs are not going to cut it. What are they going to eat? I can imagine that ration packs washed down with recycled urine gets real old real quick. With people cooped up in close proximity for so long, discipline will become an issue. Someone needs to keep the peace.

Depending on the target planet, the journey might be the easy bit. What if we land on LV426?

I do hope that someone, somewhere is quietly working on all these challenges. The time to start trying to solve them is not 72 hours before the asteroid hits.

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3 comments on “Don’t get too comfortable…

  1. Martin, you are probably wrong about people having to be born and die on the spacecraft. You are forgetting about time dilation. If you accelerate at 1g (to make things comfy – as explained in the book ‘A Case of Conscience’ http://www.amazon.com/Case-Conscience-Del-Rey-Impact/dp/0345438353) then you quickly get near the speed of light and so your clocks start to slow down. You can calculate the subjective time needed to go any particular distance assuming a 1g acceleration towards the destination for half the time and a 1g acceleration the other way for the other half (you turn around at the midway point). See http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Relativity/SR/rocket.html for the calculations, but assuming you want to go the 30,000 light years to the centre of the galaxy then the subjective time is just 20 years. Even to get to the next galaxy is only 28 years. Of course, you have to find the fuel to keep the engines going at 1g – ramjet fusion?

    • I bow down to your superior physics knowledge, but it depends on the size and demographics of the crew. In 28 years, unless ordered or otherwise controlled, it’s likely the crew would procreate. I don’t know how large / old the crew would have to be for a death to be likely. According to NASA, the average age of an astronaut is 34, so Mr average will be 62 at the end of the voyage. Not a trip I fancy – I’d be 71 even if we left tomorrow!

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