The Starship: What is it for anyway?

posted by Kelvin F. Long on May 15, 2013

Kelvin Long

A star is a distant stellar objective, burning nuclear reactions at its core, releasing fusion energy and radiating outwards across all matter and fields in its path. A ship is a vessel that will take passengers or cargo from A to B, from here to there or from there to here. So, you want to travel on a starship, but why? In ages past people have travelled from one continent to another on ships. This could have been to conduct trade, or to settle a new land, or simply to visit friends. Today, we can also take a world cruise and visit many continents across the globe in a matter of weeks. We also live in the age of passenger jets where you can get up for breakfast in London and be in New York just after lunch. These seem like long journeys to us during the trip but they are the blink of an eye in the grand context of interstellar travel.

The nearest star is Proxima Centauri at 4.3 light years distance. A light year is the distance that light travels in one year at its speed of around 300,000 km/s, which is equal to 9,460 billion km away. So the nearest star is at a distance of 40,678 billion km. If you could travel at only 1% of the speed of light, it would still take 430 years to get there. Going back in history that is the year 1583. In that year the Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei would only have been 19 years old. By the time the starship reached its destination after centuries of travel time, what history would have passed by back on Earth? Indeed, how would the culture on board the starship have evolved? They would have their very own rich and interesting history, although hopefully no conflicts. What if we could travel at 10% of the speed of light? Then it would take us a mere 43 years trip time, half a century. In Earth’s history that would be the year 1970 which is one year after mankind first walked on the surface of its small gravitational companion – The Moon. That certainly sounds more reasonable.

And when that crew gets to their destination what will they find? Will it be pastures green, new life, and new civilizations? Or will they have to work hard for many decades in order to establish a viable colony? Of course, those who arrive at the destination from the slow centuries long mission will never have known the planet Earth. It would only be a memory in the banks of their computers and stories told by their great grandparents of old. For the quicker decades-long mission, some who set out on the journey may still be alive when they arrive but how will they react? Will they be disappointed by what they find and look back with their deep space telescopes at the distant Sun, wishing they were home and had never made the attempt? The colonists will be resigned to their situation and will have to make the best of whatever they have. Hopefully, with hard work and optimism, they can make a liveable home for themselves and learn to mine the resources of their new stellar system. In time, towns will spring up, followed by cities as an entire civilization emerged in this new place suspended by the light of a different sun beam.

As the new generation grows up they will hear tales of the green and blue planet Earth, the home of their genetic origin, and while looking up at the stars at night, they will wonder what that planet must be like. They will hear about its deep and vast watery oceans, its cold polar ice caps, its hot dry deserts, and wet and wondrous jungles adorned with so many species of life you cannot count them all. To them, Earth will appear as a place of myth and fantasy, a place of magic and splendour. Their urge to learn more about it will grow. Their yearning to see it for themselves and to feel the touch of a rain drop on a cold windy day will become strong.

Today there are some of us who look at the stars with a dream to travel there, to wander among those glistening gems that shine in the deep, and to satisfy our tenacious curiosity for what may be there. Some of these future interstellar colonists will have a will of adventure just like their ancestral explorers and eventually they will be determined to make the crossing back, to the place from where they had come. What a moment that would be, a human being from the distant stars many centuries later returning to the planet Earth. As a species we can be proud of all that we accomplished and welcome our Star Child as one of our own. They may appear different, perhaps of altered complexion – although there would not have been time enough for evolution to do its work. But their character and personality would certainly be different. They would have less of our weaknesses and more of our strengths. These humans from the stars would be made from the hardships they had endured making their distant space colony a success. They would have things to teach us, and the children that were sent away had come home to tell us their stories. Yet, this would still be only two star systems occupied by our kind, and the entire cosmos would still await us to be explored.

Eventually, some of those distant colonies will be so far away, that they may forget Earth altogether. As natural catastrophes happen on their adopted planets perhaps their entire history will be wiped out over eons of time. The name Earth may have no meaning for some of these future colonies. But does this matter? Our seed will be out there and life, the most precious thing in the Universe, will be flourishing. How wonderful is nature to give us this great tapestry of space and time, matter and energy that we see before us scattered across the dome of our sky so that one day we may go out to it, and finally learn the meaning of what it means to be a starship human? So what role does the starship play in all this? It is our vessel that takes us from star A to star B. All animals on Earth undergo some form of migration, including birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and crustaceans. Even tree populations may migrate over the landscape through generations, typically due to environmental suppression or dispersal capacity of the population by seed. Perhaps humans too have it within our biological drivers to migrate to new places, so that we may survive, learn, adapt and grow. In the timescales of the cosmos, humans going to the stars and returning may be like a form of migration. How awe-inspiring is nature to lay out all of these opportunities for us? The question is: are we intelligent enough to yield the technology we develop for this purpose or will we destroy ourselves in the attempt? In some ways, the development of the starship is a test of our nature and fitness for survival out there, due to the duality of the advanced technology which can be used for good or bad. I’m personally optimistic that we can mature from our childhood slumber and embrace the promising future that is before us.

Godspeed! Second star to the left – eyes forward.


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One Response to The Starship: What is it for anyway?

  1. cathar.seamus says:

    great post Kelvin!

    We will migrate, but not as humans, but as an ecosphere. We might deliver it in seeds and DNA, but we’ll bring forests, depredators, fish, dinosaurs (see http://xkcd.com/1211/) and finally, some humans. And cats. There is no chance that we’ll have any kind of internet on those far away colonies without cats. What would it be about?

    We’ll have to find a way to compress our whole ecosphere in the relatively small payloads that we’ll be able to deliver quickly (less that one hundred years scenarios), or we’ll have to learn how to make huge self sustaining ecospheres that can take centuries to reach to destination, without running out of energy, and without running in ecological /sociological suicide

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