Thoughts & Insights

Way beyond ourselves

Imagine a spaceship one kilometer long and 20 tons in weight just starting on its journey to a planet similar to our Earth in a solar system four and a half light years or 40 trillion kilometers away from our home planet, 700,000 times further from our Earth than the planet Mars. Planned duration of the journey: 50 years. Object and purpose: to find out if there really is extra-terrestrial life on this Earth-like planet. Is this just some crazy fantasy? Pure science-fiction? No, quite the reverse.

It’s the glorious vision of leading astronomers and engineers from across the whole world. The biggest project of all time: interstellar space travel to an Earth-like planet. And it could actually be realized – in one or two centuries’ time.

How so, you’ll be asking. It’s a question I also asked myself and in trying to respond to it have come up with a whole bunch of plausible answers. From aeronautical engineers and astronomers who know what they‘re talking about. From scientists for whom precision analysis and planning is the be-all-and-end-all of everything they think and do. From the same people who, for instance, developed and built the Mars rover Curiosity and successfully landed it – fully operational – on our neighbouring planet in 2004. The people who ensured that the space probe New Horizons passed the planet Pluto on the outer age of our solar system in July 2015. Not to mention Voyagers 1 and 2. Yet all this, they say, is just the beginning.

These people are now bringing the wealth of experience gained and research results achieved in their previous work to bear on a project that doesn’t yet exist. A project in which they’ve put their hopes and their passion even though they’re well aware that they will never live to see and celebrate the accomplishment of the mission and its results.

And yet they’re still forging ahead developing concepts and finding answers to theoretical questions that contribute to the realization of such a gigantic project. Questions such as:

  • Where and how should this spaceship be built?
  • Who should steer the spaceship when the outward journey alone takes 50 years?
  • How to accelerate the speed of a spaceship of this magnitude to that fraction of the speed of light needed for it to reach its destination planet?
  • What kind of energy would be used by the spaceship that is sustainable for a period of over 50 years?
  • What kind of propellant is light enough to meet this requirement? And should the spaceship be fueled?
  • What kind of engine would the spaceship need?
  • What kind of energy source would feed its engines?
  • Where would we find such fuel?
  • How can the spaceship be protected against disabling meteorite impact?
  • Which redundant features are needed for the eventuality of functional failure?
  • How many billions of data files does an artificial intelligence need to make it capable of steering the ship in various critical situations when the ship no longer has direct communication with the Earth.
  • And last but not least: how will the ship go into reverse thrust to brake in time when it nears its destination planet. Outer space is a vacuum so there is no air resistance that could slow the ship down.

Right now physics has theoretical answers to all these questions. The problem-solving theory is already in place. If you’d like to know more about this, just watch the marvellous documentary about the Minerva project. This project is feasible. It’s just that it will take a great deal of time and require collaboration on a global basis.

If we look a little deeper into the specifics of this vision, that’s where it starts to get truly exciting. After 25 years of accelerating to a fraction (0.3%) of the speed of light, and a further 25 which the process of braking in the vacuum of outer space requires, the ship would reach the Earth-like planet, its target destination, and the on-board artificial intelligence would put out the parabolic antenna to transmit news of the successful landing back to Earth. This radio signal would reach Earth four and a half years later. From then on the artificial intelligence on-board would continue with regular transmission of scientific data back to Earth. What might happen when such a man-build spaceship lands on ‘Minerva B’, a fictitious planet similar to Earth, must be left to our imaginations for the time being.

The thought that humanity, with its present level of knowledge and know-how, can reach the next milestone in its history by leaving its own solar system and possibly discovering alien life on a planet similar to our Earth in another solar system of our galaxy is a thought that really fires our imagination.

OUBEY used to brim with such ideas when he was alive. I loved to listen to him when he talked now and then about the probability of such a venture with complete conviction that it wouldn’t take another three hundred years before such an enterprise really got off the ground. So to learn that serious scientists are already moving to bring such thoughts a whole step nearer to reality would really have filled him with enthusiasm and could well have led to new perspectives in his work had he still been alive. Ever since I recently saw the first documentary on this fictitious Minerva B project on Arte TV this idea has continued to inspire me too.

We’re living in an age in which the limited time accorded for our lives seems to revolve increasingly, and for many people exclusively, around themselves, around self-improvement, career, celebrity and money. That in such a time there’s also a special kind of people who couldn’t care less about all that stuff because nothing’s more important to them than working together with other people to help realize a vision, one that goes way beyond themselves and their own lifespans, is, in my eyes, a sign of hope for evolution. It’s simply fantastic.


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