Awesome, Will Robinson! – Space Travel is a Problem of Speed vs Time

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Yes, space travel is a problem of Speed vs. Time.

In the original 1965 pilot for the camp TV series Lost in Space, the Robinson family is put into hibernation and sent on a 100-year journey to Earth’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, where they’re supposedly to begin the colonization of space. We’re not sure how you start a colony by sending only one family with three children, two of whom are minors, and a lone, rage-driven pilot as the only source of genetic diversity. What was assumed in the show’s premise has recently been confirmed as fact by NASA: Alpha Centauri, our closest neighbor, has a planet — an Earth-sized planet.

Alpha Centauri (AC) is a triple star system composed of a binary star (two stars closely orbiting each other) called Alpha Centauri A and B, themselves orbited by Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star much further away. The planet NASA found orbits very closely to AC B and is officially called Alpha Centauri Bb (planets get lower-case letters). Its mass is only 1.33x that of Earth’s, making it one of the smallest planets ever found, but with an orbital period of just 3.24 days, its distance is probably less than four million miles from the star. This would mean its surface is molten and way too hot for any kind of life or even liquid. For comparison, the Earth is about 93 million miles from our Sun.

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Sadly, even if we knew Alpha Centauri was overrun with alien critters and a great vacation spot, we wouldn’t be heading there anytime soon, as 4.3 light-years is an insurmountable distance given current technology and the human life span. The fastest space probes we’ve ever launched would require tens of thousands of years to make the 23 trillion mile journey. Even if traveling at 10% the speed of light, which is a total pipe dream, the trip would take 43 years.

One possibility (besides the development of long-term hibernation or warp drive) would be the construction of a generation ship. Such a vehicle would take hundreds or thousands of years to reach its destination, with the original crew procreating along the way, knowing that they (and many generations of their progeny) might never reach the final destination, living their entire lives (and dying) in space. A generation ship would need to be enormous and one hell of a fun place to stay — or there’d have to be a lot of great drugs onboard. The idea may have merit if we knew some kind of advanced life was waiting for us, or if our planet was dying and we found a suitable replacement, but it certainly doesn’t make sense just to explore a molten rock. It’s probably better to hang back and keep waiting for space travel to advance. Wouldn’t it be depressing to be 200 years into a four-century journey only to see a bigger and much, much faster colony ship whizzing past the viewport? If you can’t get there in less time than it takes Apple to release two or three new iPhones, then just build a bigger telescope or send a robot.

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