Sunday, June 5, 2011

100 Years Avast!

Too the Stars! © Solomon 2011
DARPA and NASA have jointly issued a request for information soliciting ideas for an organization, business model and approach for a self-sustaining investment vehicle in support of the development of a Starship that could make at least a century long run through the heavens. In other words, they want private business to figure out how to build, run, and staff such a craft. They are also curious about what it might be good for.
Good question. It’s the same question that sea faring nations, and bankers and insurance companies in Europe asked when crazy people came with crackpot ideas to build boats capable of traversing our terran globe. Why would you need a boat to go someplace faraway? Why not just take the horses and carts to China? They already knew how to do that. But, the money guys and the Kings of nations with ocean coastlines eventually saw the economic benefit, or at least potential in such experiments. At least the King might get a watch that actually worked out of the deal (such would be required for navigation across the seas), and maybe some of that mythical gold at the edge of the world, in the Land Where There Be Dragons.
Well, today we know there is no edge of the world, but there is outer space. In our own backyard of Sol’s neighborhood, there’s plenty of gold to be found, as well as more useful stuff. There’s the lithium in the battery of your laptop or hybrid car. There’s Helium 3, which will come in handy when we finally build that environmentally friendly fusion reactor. It’s all over our own Moon. There’s lots of other stuff to be mined and explored. Maybe even extraterrestrial life. Someday, a shrimp-like creature from the submerged ocean of Europa may be a delicacy on your grandchild’s plate. But, such exploits, business schemes and exploration will not require a space craft capable of a hundred year voyage.
So, what to do with such a craft? How about going to a place like Gliese 581, a star but twenty light years away from our home? That is not far by cosmic standards. That is almost next door. But, at first blush, it is uninteresting. It’s a puny M-Class star, a Red Dwarf, that barely shines. Circling it, however, is Gliese 581d. This is a large rocky planet where it is likely that fresh water might exist for critters to slake their thirst upon and swim, perhaps even bath in. That is if there is an appropriate atmosphere for the bathing beauties to indulge their fondness for the pleasant fragrance of alien flowers, or simply to breathe.
We have already directed messages toward this plant, using our greatest radio telescope in reverse, sending rather than receiving. It will take forty years to get a reply, if there is to be one.
Back to the real questions at hand. What are the essential details of a trip to Gliese 581d?  Assuming that we will develop tech capable of powering a large craft fitted out with all the practicalities to keep many folks fed, toilets that work, care and schools for the kids that will inevitably be born, there’s still the issue of speed.  We are presently nowhere near running a space craft at near light speed. We will likely not send people out to just look at the sky aboard the grandest invention of the Human Race , and thence die in a the void… unless our purpose is to rid the planet of religious nuts.
So, assume that we develop the tech (or our travelers improve the tech brought from Earth) to reach half or a third of luminal velocity. They would be using the acceleration to produce artificial gravity. After some years of increasing speed, they might get to Gliese in one piece. Maybe. But…
Let’s do the arithmetic and future myth. One Hundred years is about four generations of Humans today. It will take two generations to get to Gliese 581d. It might be three, if kids continue to fornicate as my generation has. Generations Two and Three will have never known Earth. Their grandparents are gone. Their parents never knew Earth, neither. Would the grand kids or their children want to come home to a place that might be as much a fabled place as the Garden of Eden?
Whoops, we’re back to the religious nut problem, a possible religious war on a world that has never known Humankind before we brought our strange ways to their doorstep.
Perhaps, though, like the folks that came to the so-called New World, they would have no desire to return home to a place of such strife and hardship as their grand parents told them of. Maybe they would make a New World. A more perfect union? Meanwhile, in orbit is a Starship all ready to sail on for another fifty Terran years and still under warranty…
Hic Finis Est,
Artist's Rendition of Gliese 581d