Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘interstellar travel

The Evil Out There

with 3 comments

Well, I was disappointed that no one identified the image on the first post. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against aliens if we can’t even identify the fictional threats? Oh well. OK, this is the post about why I don’t think the first explorers  the stars should be allowed to return home. It sounds harsh, but as I said before, they could bring home something much worse than syphilis.

What could be worse than syphilis? Who knows. That’s my first point, when experimenting with one’s only habitable planet, some experiments shouldn’t be performed. Like pumping the atmosphere full of CO2 and methane, but I digress. And in the early stages of exploring nearby stars, why take the risk that a sample return could be malignant? Humans have done terrible damage to isolated ecosystems on Earth through accidental biological contamination, and Earth in a galactic sense is definitely an isolated ecosystem. It’s not had to imagine that some alien organism or bacteria could wreak havoc on Earth, as countless sci-fi movies and books attest.

It’s easy to imagine pests such as we have on Earth, and that alone is sufficient reason to be very cautious about anyone coming home from the stars. Then of course there is the alien invader and/or parasite genre. The former is not likely to happen, the later seems very unlikely. Still, why take the chance? We are talking about the human race and Earth here. There’s no harm done if no one comes home from the stars. As for invaders, the idea is so anthropomorphic that it hardly bears mentioning. A superior intelligence could destroy humanity without going to all the trouble to sending in invading armies, and an alien race capable of actually infiltrating human society is again pretty much by definition one we would be helpless against.

There’s some more exotic possibilities. In fact, considering that everywhere we look in the Universe we find stuff we never expected, it’s pretty safe to say that we will find exotic hazards out there. An idea I have been toying with, what if what we think of as “life” isn’t really life? Or maybe more accurately, maybe there is a form of life out there so radially different than us and so radically superior to us that we can’t imagine it. Maybe DNA based life is an evolutionary dead end, and will be quickly supplanted if it ever encounters other life. Only our isolation in a star system has kept our primitive form of life around. We may be no more than the Lord Howe Stick Insects of the galaxy.

Lastly there are the unknown psychological effects of star travel. For all we know there is something about the Solar System that makes us uniquely human, and that leaving the Solar System will do something totally unpredictable to the human psyche. Granted that seems unlikely, but the truth is that “unlikely” is a judgment call based on our common experience. While it is certainly scientific to assume that the conditions for healthy human psychology are universal, it’s an assumption that should be tested without putting Earth at risk.

Frankly I think the same case can be made for the first human visitors to Mars, but I think many would consider that paranoid. In most cases I would agree that minimizing the risks is the way to go, but when the consequences might be devastating to life on Earth, there’s no harm in shooting for zero risk. Fortunately the hurdles of getting the first explorers back from the stars are so large that the problem is unlikely to come up, if ever.

Then again, I’ve often thought: If aliens exist and the hurdles of interstellar travel are surmountable … they are already here.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s from The Outer Limits, credit and copyright: ABC. I am not making a profit from it, and I urge everyone to go out and buy the DVD. It’s the episode where some alien poison gas spewing plants are brought back to earth and begin to multiply out of control. Finally a rainstorm  destroys them. So many aliens are destroyed by water, from Triffids to the Wicked Witch of the West. Sadly the real deal will not be so vulnerable.)

Written by unitedcats

April 28, 2012 at 9:20 am

To Infinity and Beyond!

with 20 comments

The title is one of those jokes that makes me laugh no matter how often I  hear it, I think it’s the autistic in me. It’s recursive, for lack of a better word, IE it sets up a dynamic that can never get resolved. Or maybe I’m just crazy. However, moving right along, this is the long awaited, little heralded post on travel to nearby stars. This is going to be completely off-the-cuff, no Internet research, speculation on my part. In other words, just for fun.

First off, is human travel to nearby stars possible? Absolutely. Sometimes people will quote the speed of the Pioneer Spacecraft and claim it would take thousands of years, so is thus impossible. And they are correct to a point, the Pioneers are the fastest moving star probes ever built. How this means that humans can’t build anything faster is never stated. I’ve got good news, while a warp drive is science fiction, mainstream engineering studies say that there’s no reason we can’t build something that can travel at 12% of the speed of light. So that’s assumption one, we can indeed build really fast spaceships.

OK, this means flight times to nearby stars of 50-100 years. Relativity would shave a bit off of that, but not much. This I think rules out sending astronauts to explore nearby star systems, so assumption two is that the first ships sent will be unmanned probes. Yes, it will take them a long time to get there, but the beauty of it is, once they are there they can send back information to us in just a few years. So assumption three is that probes are sent to dozens of nearby stars, with the hopes that within 50-100 years one of them will find a planet worth sending people too.

So OK, we find a planet within ten light years that looks like people could live there. Maybe by probes, maybe by remote sensing, humans discover a target planet for humans. This will be decades from now, won’t we be able to build faster spaceships? Well, maybe. The way relatively works is that the faster one goes, the more energy it takes to accelerate even faster. So there’s certain limits imposed simply by the nature of reality. So I’m assuming (number 4) that no magic answer will be found to get humans to nearby stars faster any time soon.

So we send really young crews and hope a few of them make it? If the trip time was fifty years, that would sort of work. Septuagenarian Star Trek crews exploring a nearby planet would make for some interesting story lines if nothing else.  I think it’s safer to say that small crews will be sent and encouraged to let nature take its course. Hopefully there would still be a few Earth born to help explore the new world. Most of the crew would have been born en route. Is this how we will do it? Off hand I think that what we know of human psychology in small isolated groups is not pretty. Sooner or later the men start killing each other over the women. Among other problems.

Maybe humans will spread to the stars in arks like this, all such expeditions would be one way. The one possible work around I can think of is human hibernation. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why not, and there is at least one observed example. If people spent 99% of the trip asleep they would only age a year or two, and the trip would be entirely doable.

So in conclusion, one way or the other, there is no practical reason why we can’t send out starships full of people to colonize nearby worlds in the next few centuries. It would be a high risk venture, and the costs would be enormous, but there’s at least one massive human money stream that could be diverted into this far more productive endeavour.

And heck, if we discover practical hibernation or some such, two way travel will be possible! Woohoo! Wait, no, I meant … no fucking way! I think with a little thought people will conclude that these ships be sent out so that there was absolutely no way they could be sent back. Columbus brought home syphilis, the AIDS of its day. There could be something out there that is not only more evil than we imagine, but it is more evil than we can imagine. Try not to think about that.

I think I’ll go look at the stars. Sleep tight!

(The image above does appear to be from Wikipedia, so I’m hoping it’s reasonably public domain. If the gentle reader knows what it is without looking it up, I’m impressed. If not, trust me, they are bad news. That will be the topic of my next post, bad news from the stars.)

Written by unitedcats

April 3, 2012 at 9:56 pm