Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, November 29, 2012


By Shaer Reaz
Cover art: Fahim Anzoom

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… nothing happened that we know of. As much as we would love for the fantasy worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek and Halo to come alive, the stars remain out of reach of our puny Homo sapiens arms.

Dark side of the moon
Humans have been to the moon six times between 1969 and 1972, using computers that had 8 kilobytes of RAM and the processing power of a light bulb from 2012. The average smartphone today has approximately twenty times the power of the NASA computers or spacecraft navigation equipment used to get Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the Apollo 11 Lunar Module to the moon and back. Yet, the last time a man set foot on the moon, Pink Floyd was set to release its groundbreaking album “Dark Side of the Moon”. Has our space-faring technology regressed? Why can't we put men on the moon?

The answer lies not in tech advancements (or lack of it), but in the shifting of priorities for the superpowers who are able to afford a trip to the moon. On a planet plagued by wars, disease, rapidly depleting fuel resources and economic crisis, no one really wants to spend trillions of dollars to send a man to the moon and take some pictures of the Great Wall of China. As cool as space is, it's a little… empty. The ones with the wallets would rather be drilling for oil in a desert in the Middle East.

Tech wise, we've made massive leaps in almost every field: propulsion, communication, accommodation, robotics, everything.

Miguel Alcubierre proposed a design for a “warp drive” in 1994, much like the one in Star Trek. The Alcubierre drive utilises Einstein's field equations to propose the theory that a spacecraft may, in theory, ride the “bubble” that is created when the space behind the ship is expanded and the space in front of it is shrunk. Theoretically, the ship would move forward without moving forward (as long as it stays inside the bubble) as the fabric of space is stretched around it.

Instead of propelling a ship forwards (which would require infinitesimal amounts of energy), the space around it is moved at speeds faster than light (without breaking the first commandment of a man-made object exceeding the speed of light). It all sounds like science fiction.

But it isn't.

Welcome to the machine
Dr. Harold “Sonny” White, one of the leading people in NASA's skunk-work operation Eagleworks says NASA has already started work on a possible warp drive, based on Alcubierre's work. Using an “interferometer test bed”, they will try to create a warp bubble and identify the effects on an object inside the bubble.

Set the controls for the heart of the Sun
According to his calculations, Dr. White postulates we would be able to reach the Alpha Centauri - the nearest star to our Sun and the third brightest object in the night sky - in about two weeks of Earth time.

Considering it would take us 4.2 years travelling at the speed of light to reach Alpha Centauri, this is good news. All they have to do now is find an energy source powerful enough to warp the fabric of space and create a warp bubble large enough to accommodate a spaceship. Brice N. Cassenti, an associate professor with the Department of Engineering and Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, stated, “At least 100 times the total energy output of the entire world (in a year) would be required for the voyage (to Alpha Centauri).”

We'll get there. All we need is a revolutionary discovery in energy production. Never undermine man's desperation; and desperation breeds innovation. When our fossil fuels finally run out, we might turn to a new energy source that will be more efficient, renewable, and space worthy - if we don't decide to kill ourselves in horrific wars for the control of the last shreds of energy.

Antimatter presents a solution. When an atom of antimatter meets an atom of matter, it results in the production of pure energy. 10 milligrams of antimatter would be enough to propel an antimatter rocket to Mars in 45 days, but the cost of producing this tiny amount of antimatter would cost more than $250 million.

Astronomy Domine
Whether we can do something with our ability to travel in space is another matter. Space colonisation is still a distant dream for even the most optimistic of people; considering the way human technology progresses, we should have boundless faith in human ability, but it isn't that easy. The number of people who outright deny the existence of other living organisms in the universe other than on Planet Earth is in the billions. From a purely statistical point of view, it's almost impossible that not even one of the hundred billion planets will contain life. “Life” here may refer to even a tiny microbe or single cell organism, or it may stand for giant bugs with intelligence and the capability of wielding laser guns.

Lasers as weapons are nothing outlandish. While the laser guided missile systems used on fighter jets on Earth may not employ the laser as a directly destructive tool, it has the potential. Missile defence systems that use lasers are already being developed, but we don't have any reason to put them on our space shuttles just yet.

Time is the greatest obstacle in our pursuit of interstellar travel (so much so that intergalactic travel is considered, even theoretically, to be impossible). It's unlikely that we will live to see man colonising the nearest planet, maybe even the moon. Russia has plans of sending cosmonauts to the moon and establishing a permanent, robotically operated base there by 2027. From there, the next logical step would be sending a man to Mars, but several problems persist, like an inhospitable atmosphere, long and tedious journey, problems of contaminating human life when (and if) the manned mission returns to Earth.

There's no other way but to wait it out and see what happens to the human ambition of becoming a space faring race. Maybe we'll make a few friends along the way. Or we might have to put our destructive lasers to use. Who knows?


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