Problems With Deep Space Travel

From time to time I always think about what the future will be like for humanity. In my wildest dreams I envision a future where we have left Earth because of our longing to explore, and colonized numerous planets across the cosmos. In the future our technology is only limited by our imaginations and we have conquered so many of the problems that seem insurmountable to us now. What I find interesting is that no matter what problems I think will arise, there is always something that I forget. In this article quite a few of these problems are discussed, mainly things that I had not thought about.

The article was written by none other than Kim Stanley Robinson, the famous award winning sifi writer who wrote the Mars Trilogy. The main gist of the article talks about how travel to the nearest star might be conducted, specifically by constructing an ark, or giant habitat, if you will. This ship would have to be the perfect size, as too large and it would need more fuel to slow down, and speed up (think E = mc2), too small and there would not be enough room to house all the necessary equipment for the journey. Kim also touches on the social aspects of what it would be like to live on this ship. All these ideas and comments are interesting and are certainly something to think about, however I found this the most fascinating:

So, to conclude: an interstellar voyage would present one set of extremely difficult problems, and the arrival in another system, a different set of problems. All the problems together create not an outright impossibility, but a project of extreme difficulty, with very poor chances of success.

Basically if we, at some point in the far future, try to accomplish this feat, we will have to tackle two very large problems. The first and most obvious is to keep everyone alive on the ark throughout the journey. We will basically have to create Earth’s environment on the ship, and be able to sustain this environment for, well, potentially hundreds of years. Which brings up a sub-problem to the above, is it possible for us to build a machine that will be able to function for well over hundreds of years? The most obvious answer is no, definitely not with our current technology, but in the future this could, I suppose, be possible. Look, even the space shuttle was only able to with stand a handful of launches without catastrophic failures,(135 missions total with two failures, Columbia and Challenger) but I would assume this ark space ship would not have to withstand the rigors of repeated exit and re-entry to the atmosphere of either Earth of another planet. Still space is a very inhospitable environment, and that is putting it lightly, so to be able to create a machine capable of sustaining human life for potentially hundreds of years, while traveling through interstellar space, seems like an impossible feat.

Now, with that being said, let’s say that we are able to figure out how to solve problem one and sub-problem one. We arrive at some planet that we found many light-years away. What then? What do the humans on the ark do next? Do the humans just go down to the planet and hang out for a bit, maybe take some samples or run some tests. There is a basically 0% chance that no matter how close this new planet was to Earth, that it could sustain human life for a multitude of reasons. If we went there in hopes of terraforming, then that is a whole other monster, and I have no idea how long that would take or if it is even feasible on a human timescale. Terraforming could potentially take thousands of years, probably longer. Theoretically I think it is possible, but I do not know how this would be possible give our current technology. If this was our goal, why not just try to terraform Mars, it is so much closer and would make much more sense. I guess my point is that why would we undertake such a dangerous and difficult journey just to make some observations. I think there would need to be some definite signs of life on this planet in some form to make this journey.

Again back to the ark, would this vehicle even be capable of landing on this planet, if so then it would need even more fuel to land and then to take off again if they were to return to Earth. Or there could be some sort of lander that  would detach from the ark and travel to the planet, but again regardless of which option you choose this would be a lot of added weight.

If we want to speculate a little, which I love doing, we really need to ask ourselves if interstellar travel is even possible? This article talks more just about what we could possible achieve without current technology, as well as what could happen if we were to possibly make a few advancements. It also discusses some theoretical solutions, but those are well beyond anything we could achieve in the near future, at least that is my opinion. In saying that the article does talk about worm holes and teleportation devices, which again are theoretically possible. The main problem with both of these is would anything, especially something living be able to survive the going through a worm hole or being transported. In terms of a worm hole there are theories that discuss the amount of radiation that something would encounter traveling through a worm hole. Some say that this is nature’s way of making sure no living thing could travel through the worm hole, while there is ever more speculation that the amount of energy required to make a worm hole large enough and keep it open long enough would be unfathomable. Basically more energy that we have at our disposal. So for these reasons the worm hole is out. I do not know enough about how transporter would work, other than quantum entanglement (remember Schrödinger Cat) is real and I think this machine would operate on this principle, as the article states.

Based on the article and using my superior logic (I would appreciate it if you did not laugh, at least try to compose yourself) I would say that the best way to travel though interstellar space, given that it is possible for humans to withstand the journey, would be to put humans into a sort of cryogenic sleep chamber. Again, I know this is more of a sifi idea than anything, but perhaps we could slow down the astronauts heart beats, metabolism, and basically every bodily function, to where they are barely alive, sort of like a medically induced coma. These chambers would be pressurized and shielded against radiation and any other threats of deep space. This way the ship would not need to be as big, the environment would not need to be sustainable for the duration of the journey, just the pods. Upon arrival to the planet the ship could be automated to pump oxygen in the cabin and maintain the habitat. I think trying to create a habitat for the entire journey is near impossible, and I have not even touched on the potential psychological problems that could plague a crew in deep space for decades if not hundreds of years. That seems like some sort of cruel torture.

I have talked before about humans and interstellar travel and terraforming another planet mainly Mars because of its proximity. I firmly believe that without some very advance highly specified technology for a flesh and blood human being, interstellar travel is more or less impossible. For all the reasons listed above and for a multitude of others I do not think our bodies could physically survive an interstellar journey. In my opinion I do not think the juice is worth the squeeze, at least just yet. Meaning that there are too many risks with interstellar travel for the time being to undertake such a journey. Unless, of course, this journey could uncover the mysteries of the universe then I say it is definitely worth the risk. Somehow I do not think raveling to the closest star system will yield the secrets to the universe. However, I have been wrong before. I was one time way back in 2002 when I was in college, I was drinking heavily that day.


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