Articles: To Infinity and Beyond

By Declan Molloy

Just over 42 years ago Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon’s surface and uttered those immortal words that most school children can repeat... or can they. It is after all 42 years ago and generations have come and rapped and immersed themselves in the bubble of virtuality we call the Internet - since 12 good men and true walked on the surface of the moon. Yes it was all that time ago – the last man Gene Cernan walked on that dusty plain in 1972. Now it seems that John F Kennedy’s speech - particularly the part that said “and we shall do the other things”... well the other things are no longer being done.

Perhaps that is a little unfair, after all we have sent out robot explorers to the planets and built a reusable spaceship (now defunct) and other amazing stuff. But with regards the moon – if there was tumble weed on the surface it would be blowing backwards and forwards and around the legs of the Apollo Landers and other abandoned hardware up there.

What if Columbus had gone and seen America, reported its wonder and beauty to his masters and that was the end of it, no one went back. That would of course be ridicules, - well, in a sense that is what is happening now. Most of the scientific community believe that the moon will figure in any wider manned exploration of our solar system? Is this necessarily true? The moon may be no more than a small island just off shore when the great ocean beyond beckons to us. A mere quarter of a Million miles away our moon stands as a beacon pointing our way to the stars. We may use it as a staging post, a rallying point for longer and more arduous missions or we may just see it go by in our spaceships window and think “we are really on our way now”.

It seems that mere mortals are expensive items to put in orbit. We Hominids are expensive in the sense that we need to replicate our environment and all that entails in order to survive the cold vacuum among the stars. We need water, food, air, room to move about in, a means of protecting ourselves from the long term effects of cosmic radiation and the ability to create some form of artificial gravity or some other means of controlling and slowing the loss of muscle and bone density that zero gravity. Yes we are an expensive luxury perhaps. After all we can send a robotic explorer to mars and not be afraid it will get hungry or run out of water or go insane – well the last part, possibly!

But robotic explorers are slow and diligent – which is both good and bad, but can they replace the eye and instinct of a human geologist to step to his left and pick up that strangely coloured stone, or the one with the strange pattern – barely discernable in the subdued Martian light. You might say that the controller sitting at his computer screen back on mother earth acts as that eye and has that instinct, perhaps it’s true.

I remember listening to a Lufthansa pilot (close to retirement) talking about his new experience of test flying one of the first fly-by-wire passenger jets many years ago. When he was asked if he had enjoyed the experience, he answered most definitely no... He said he was concerned that he could not feel the aircraft in the same way, he could not feel what the control surfaces were doing – he could not feel the vibration of the engines. It was almost as if the traditional control levers acted like a kind of tuning fork and this new cockpit was remote and numb to the touch.

I suppose all remote systems place their faith in technology and as such we must cede our trust and our lives to this new technology. Most of the supporters of this technology will argue that removing the capacity for human error will in the long run be safer for all of us – but if the plane is going down I would rather wrestle with the column in front of me than be trying to reboot the computer....”please wait while your computer restarts”.


Part 2 of this Article

Our sun is a middle aged average star set among 2 hundred billion others in our Milky Way galaxy. With the exception of the odd planet orbiting our sun as we do – every other speck of light is another sun like ours, only very very far away. The nearest star to our own is Proxima Centauri  40 trillion kilometres away (40 million, million kilometres away) – or just over 4 light years away. So if you travelled at the speed of light – you would get there in 4.2 years.

Well that’s settled then, all we need is to build a ship that goes really really quickly – unfortunately we don’t have the ability to travel anywhere near that fast.  The record for the highest speed at which a spacecraft has launched and escaped from Earth's gravity is held by the New Horizons probe*. This 1,054 pound (478 kg), piano-sized spacecraft, which launched in January 2006, sped away from the Earth at a blistering pace of 36,000 miles per hour (almost 58,000 kilometres per hour). It would take over 81,000 years to travel the 4.3 light years (or 1.3 parsecs) from Earth to Proxima Centauri. To put that time-scale into perspective, that would be over 2,700 human generations.

(New Horizon’s is NASA’s mission to robotically explore Pluto, unfortunately Pluto is now no longer regarded as a Planet – this was not the case when the probe was launched in 2006. What a bummer. It would be like going to the north pole to see Santa and discovering half way there that he did not exist)

Maybe we can double that speed, perhaps we can multiply it by 10, and either way it would hardly be practical to attempt such a voyage. So what other technologies are there that we could conceive of. What other engines can propel us to reach the stars within a human lifetime? Maybe we are being too negative; after all we use technologies today that would have been inconceivable to our ancient ancestors. How would you describe the internet to an ancient roman or a mobile phone to a Neanderthal – perhaps in this way we ourselves cannot visualise the future magic that will propel us to the stars.

Chinese researchers plan to build a solar sail-powered spacecraft that will launch into space in the near future on a suicide mission to save planet Earth. Now, stay on your toes, this gets tricky. There is an asteroid, called Apophis, that is headed straight into our orbit in 2029. Predictions in 2004 said that this asteroid in question would most likely hit the Earth or the Moon, possibly destroying all life on our planet. Additional observations said that Apophis, deadly asteroid, was actually most probably not going to hit us in 2029, but would definitely whip back around through a “keyhole” in the solar system and hit us in 2036 — maybe ending all life on planet Earth. That is, unless the Chinese plan works out — if it fails, the Europeans are planning a deflecting game of their own, which they’ll be trying out in 2015.( Brit Liggett, 08/19/11)

But even solar sails will not propel us far enough to reach interstellar space. Eventually they will run out of steam by moving too far from their parent star or the laser targeted onto the sail will become so defused over the vast distances involved as to become useless.

We will have to watch this space...

This article is Copyright © to the author named at the top, and Midlands Astronomy Club. If you wish to reproduce this article, please seek permission from the author through the Club. Your consideration is appreciated.