Friday, 10 July 2015

Space is too Big for Rockets, but not for Humanity

On the 14th July 2015 a space probe, New Horizons, shall whiz by Pluto gathering data.

Travelling at 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph) that seems like it's really fast, except the solar system is huge and it took nine years to reach its destination.

Just in case you don't appreciate the scale of space, here's some mind boggling facts:

London, England to Sydney, Australia is 16,983km (10,553 miles).

The little spacecraft has travelled over 294,412 times the distance approximately 5 billion km (3 billion miles).

Our nearest star is over 4 light years away so it would take New Horizons around 74,000 years to get there. If it were heading in the right direction.

Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is the furthest human object from Earth and, at the time of writing, it is almost 20 billion km away.  It's faster than New Horizons yet it will take 40,000 years to reach a star.

Even travelling at the speed of light it would take roughly 18 hours to reach where Voyager 1 is from Earth and it's just 'crawled' past the outer reaches of our solar system.

Here's one more fact, New Horizons couldn't carry enough fuel to slow down to study Pluto for more than a fly-by photoshoot or it would have been too heavy to travel so fast.

Yep, Space is big and our rockets are not good enough.

Even our way of getting to low earth orbit, 500 to 800 km (310 to 500 miles), involves huge cylinders of fuel weighing hundreds of tonnes to deliver a handful of said mass to where humans want it. Mostly we throw those cylinders, the engines and the electronics involved away on the journey up there.  Someone once described it as building an airliner then throwing it away on the journey until the seat is the only thing that reaches the destination.

We could be more inefficient, but we'd really have to try very hard.  That said it's still the best method we have.  Yes, there are many engineers trying to solve this challenge and make things better.  SpaceX  is working on reusable vehicles.  Airbus Defence and Space, who are the behind the Ariane launchers, unveiled their Adeline concept recently exploring  being less wasteful.  Then of course there is the joy-ride of Vrigin Galactic.  I'm less certain that's going to lead anywhere.  Our exploring ancestors never crossed oceans for the fun of it.  Christopher Columbus's business plan was as important as his navigation.

Our means of travelling the solar system, let alone to other star systems is awful.  They are slow, expensive, dangerous and the only option we have.  Does this mean we'll be forever trapped on our little blue dot, occasionally, when the politics is right, desperately jumping the void when one part of humanity wants to prove something to another part of humanity?  I hope not.  Though showing off is a billion times better than us killing each other to prove a point.

As a SF fan, engineer and dreamer it saddens me.  Surely we must be able to do better?

Stories like Star Wars and Star Trek have humanity, or a flavour there of, zipping to stars in no time at all, yet we can't do it.  NASA used to have a site called Warp Drive When, which explored all the theories of going far faster than rockets and why they were not yet practical.  Pick your search, say 'methods of travelling faster than light' to see what are the latest ideas are.  Complex, expensive and energy hungry, none of them are likely soon and very few, if any, may be possible in the future.

None of them are as easy slipping a pack on your back or harnessing a mule to find the trail yet explored.  It could be argued that the rockets of today are like the galleons of yesteryear, complex, expensive and dangerous.  If we go back to Columbus his ships were rentals.  You can rent a rocket, if your pockets are deep enough.

So are we stuck?  Setting aside the political inclination because the expense tends to lead to governments being involved and humanity's general mood can switch from inward looking to outward looking in the blink of an eye, I think no.

Humans expand their influence.  I don't mean politically, I'm mean we tend to spread out.  Wandering tribes tends to villages, villages tend to cities, cities to nations and nations to unions of nations (as much as we maybe uncomfortable joining with are age-old enemies).  We will fill up this planet and we will need more resources and space.  There'll be cities in skyscrapers, ones underground and others floating on the sea, but eventually we'll look straight up.  Hopefully we're realise it's a better investment to visit new worlds than buy more killing tools to claim someone else's living space.  I truly hope that.

How will we do it with our feeble rockets?  I don't know how, but I know we will.  How do I know this?  Because of canoes.  

Canoes are about the worst way of travelling an ocean.  Fragile things you'd be foolish to risk your life to on a long journey over the deep sea.  They are very slow, just like rockets.  However, our ancient polynesian cousins did just that.  If, dear reader, you are a modern polynesian then max respect to your ancestors.  They built awesome canoes, but canoes nonetheless and slowly, island by island explored the biggest ocean on our planet.  Here's an excellent article from the Smithsonian about how they did it.

So successful were they some modern scientists couldn't believe they did it.  Thor Heyerdahl who built a boat to drift in the opposite direction tried to prove a counter theory.  He invoked the thing I hate most: accident achievement.  Nope these great explorers set their minds to it and did it, no accident at all.

That's how we will do it, space rock by space rock leaning to live in places we've never lived before, probably changing ourselves so much so our cousins from elsewhere think we're far too different to be the same people.  We'll do it with 'rubbish' rockets until the solar system is teeming with life and then, ever so slowly we will reach out for the stars.

Along the way we might work out how to go much faster because the mind that invented canoes eventually came up with rockets and they're the best canoe we have.

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