How close are we to commercialising space travel? 

We have already commercialized space travel. Private companies are now being paid to resupply the International Space Station on a regular basis, and commercial companies are hiring SpaceX, another commercial company, to place satellites into orbit.

spacex-falcon-heavy-elon-musk-china-europe-esa-nasa-mars-sls-boeing

Why is there a stigma around attempting to discover extraterrestrial life?

There is no stigma. All of science is dedicated to discover extraterrestrial life. We would be completely excited to find even a fossil of a microbe from space because it would be the ultimate affirmation that life can evolve from matter on another world other than Earth. Our best hope at present is to find some kind of life on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, or perhaps some fossils on Mars as of yet undiscovered. We are even spending billions of dollars with the SETI program to listen for radio waves from space!

However, much to the surprise and dismay of scientists, we have yet to discover anything at all.

Religion vs. Science – What it’s All About

It’s all about proving each other is wrong. It permeates the entire political sphere. It determines policies of U.S. Presidents, the Environmental Protection Agency and so on. It’s about trashing Earth or saving it.

So who is wrong, who is right?

Philosophy 1: God created Earth – perhaps as recently as 4,000 years ago. With the creation the entire fossil record, stars, planets, life, life forms, species, were all created simultaneously.  God created Adam and Eve. We all descend from them.

Philosophy 2: The universe started with something like “the Big Bang” about 14 billion years ago. Life evolved from chemicals and is likely to be found on other planets than Earth.

Religion historically has found science a challenge and – for example – convicted Galileo of heresy for saying the planets orbit the sun. Science has proved religion – in this regard – to be wrong.

However, no one has proved that life has evolved from matter to date. No one has found life on anywhere than Earth. Religion says God created life. Science says chemicals created life. Neither has been proven.

To date – no one has found evidence of life developing on another place than Earth.

They would like to.

That’s what it’s all about.

Andy Weir’s “The Martian” provides a template for what a realistic mission to Mars could be like, yet most science news I hear about actual proposed missions appear to be just a big Apollo. Don’t we have to do it in Weir’s way to succeed?

No. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” was science fiction. It was a possibility, but not a reality at present. Don’t confuse science fiction with reality.

We shouldn’t go to Mars (in my opinion) but we are going anyway. That being said, we have to wait and see how it plays out in reality, not in sci-fi.

How did life on Earth begin? How was it formed?

We don’t know. Some people think we know, but a real scientist will agree with my first sentence.

The theory, still unproven, is that life evolves from dead matter. We’re still searching for life on other planets to prove this wet-dream of scientists, but still we have no proof of concept – just a concept – to the chagrin of science. We are frankly disappointed we haven’t found life elsewhere than Earth.

Evolution starts with creation of stars that create elements like the ones we have on Earth. We think when conditions are right that the chemicals develop amino acids (this is proven), which are the basic building blocks of life.

From there, eventually by combination and permutation it develops into something that could be called life.

Again it’s not proven but widely accepted. We don’t know for sure, hence my first sentence.

How long would it take to travel to the nearest star?

Spock and Kirk
First officer Spock (left) and Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise don’t float inside because of “artificial gravity.”

Proxima Centauri, is our nearest star, about 4 light years away.

A light year is the distance light travels in one year, or 9,460,730,472,581 kilometers. That’s 9.46 trillion kilometers, or about 5.88 trillion miles.

The fastest space ship we ever built was the Juno spacecraft, which in 2016 broke all speed records in space with a gravity assisted acceleration up to 164,700 mph.

The problem with going much faster than that is General Relativity and propulsion. Even with all the fuel in the solar system, it would still take an infinite amount of fuel to approach the speed of light. There’s no warp speed or aliens that have somehow “broken” the laws of physics. You can’t approach the speed of light.

If, however, you could go, say 40 times faster than Juno (there’s no existing technology that would come anywhere near this speed), you’d be going about 6.58 million miles an hour. That’s a hypothetical but impossible speed by either humans or space faring aliens, but none the less, for the sake of argument, let’s say you could go that fast.

Light travels at 670,616,629 miles per hour (as a layman and lazy American I think in miles more easily). So your space craft is amazingly, impossibly, traveling slightly less than 1% the speed of light. We’ll round it up for arguments sake. You’re going now 6.7 million miles an hour. Don’t crash into an asteroid at that speed!

How long would it take to make the trip to Proxima Centauri 4 light years away? Well, if you were going 1% the speed of light (6.7 million miles an hour) it would take you 400 years to reach the nearest star.

Unfortunately, you can’t just get up and go 6.7 million miles an hour. You’ve got to build up speed, which conceivably would take years burning some kind of fuel source that would weigh as much as the Moon because you’d need so much of it (which would slow your acceleration). The problem is the faster and longer you want to burn fuel, the more fuel you need, which increases your weight and decreases your acceleration. Remember, also, as you approach any percentage of the speed of light at all, the amount of fuel required to accelerate your spacecraft any faster begins to increase exponentially because of the law of General Relativity.

At the other end of the trip you’d need the same time and fuel to slow down so you don’t overshoot your target.

People have thought about using light propulsion. From somewhere in Earth orbit, shooting a powerful laser at a reflector at the back of the outgoing spaceship. It would be slow, but eventually it would increase in speed. They’d still need fuel at the other end to slow down.

It’s difficult to know how to figure in that acceleration and deceleration process, so I usually, for the sake of argument, just double the time, which probably isn’t far off.

That would mean it would take you about 880 years to start out, accelerate to 6.8 million miles per hour, and then slow down at the other end. That’s how long it would take to reach our nearest star.

As far as we know, there’s not even any interesting planets over there. If you want to go somewhere more interesting you’d probably have to go farther out in a different direction to the Trappist-1 system, which is 40 light years away.

That would only take you 8,000 years each way. We’re talking eight thousand years. You’d need a generational spacecraft, where hundreds of people lived and died for thousands of years before they reach where they’re going. Would these descendants of the original pioneers have any idea what to do when they got there? Would they resent being in space because their ancestors decided they should be? Would the spacecraft hold up and not fall apart after 8,000 years of usage? How would they have enough food and water?

Depressingly, these are only the closest stars, right around our neighborhood. There are many more stars in our local group, and billions more in the galaxy, and millions of galaxies.

All we can do is watch them, study them, wonder about them and so on. We will, however, never be able to visit them, and those aliens out there unable to visit us.