I knew if I waited long enough today, I would find something good to comment or blog on. One of my favorite haunts to hang out at is Centauri Dreams, a hard science astronomy blog maintained by Paul Gilster and a forum of the Tau Zero Foundation. Paul generally posts peer reviewed research papers with subjects that relate to interstellar research and deep space exploration. Today’s post was put up by Larry Klaes, a Tau Zero Foundation member, and it’s a subject that’s very old, near and dear to my heart; Interstellar travel via generation ship:
Despite how they appear to us in the night sky and the relative ease and speed with which spaceships in most science fiction stories fly to them, the twinkling stars in the heavens are, in reality, immensely far away. The few robotic probes that have left our Solar System faster than any other vehicles yet built would not — if aimed in their direction — reach the the nearest stars for 77,000 years. Spaceships that could attain speeds approaching that of light (186,000 miles per second), while theoretically possible, have many technological and physics hurdles to overcome and are a long way from being built.
Due to this reality, scientists began contemplating in the last century how humans could reach other star systems alive aboard vessels that could become practical in the not too distant future.
Birth and Death Among the Stars
One idea that was quickly taken up by science fiction authors is the multigenerational starship. A large selection of people would be placed aboard a giant spacecraft with the necessary tools and resources to survive the many centuries it would take a relatively slow-moving vessel to reach another star system. The crew members who eventually arrive at the target sun and its circling worlds would be the distant descendants of the original explorers, ready to disembark from their ship and settle in these new lands.
I cut my eye-teeth on Heinlein’s ‘Universe’ way back when I first learned to read books I think (actually the story was ‘Far Centaurus’). There was something almost primal about a culture that loses its roots and forgets it lives on a huge spaceship. Another story in the same vein was an old Star Trek Original Series episode titled ‘For I Have Touched the Sky…’ about another culture who forgot they were on a spaceship.
Believe it or not, there are people who are actually planning an interstellar multi-generation mission project with a vision for the long view called the ‘Ultimate Project’:
The initial mission design consists of a cylindrical spacecraft, 2 km long and 2 km in diameter, with a crew of one million and a cruising speed of 600 km/s. The spacecraft will be designed, constructed and tested over the span of 500 years and travel to a nearby solar system will take on the order of 10,000 years.
The initial design is a starting point that demonstrates that the mission is plausible. It is expected that the plan and design will be overtaken by events and it is recognized that the initial concept may have very little in common with the final mission.
I know people will note that societies today have relatively short attention spans and that long term, multi-generation projects won’t appeal to anyone and I have to agree with that. Never-the-less, the individuals working on this Project note examples like The Great Wall of China, Notre Dame Cathedral and Great Pyramids of Egypt as successful multi-generational projects.
I would like to note also that ideas of the Singularity proponents can be incorporated into the generation ship theme also, via mind uploads and genetic encoding into a biochemical substrate that can be reconstituted later upon arrival to a candidate world (Hat tip to Greg Egan and Peter Watts here). No physical volunteers required!
Unfortunately, I don’t see a government or conglomerate of corporations undertaking this project though, there is no emergency survival imperative involved. Yet. But I do see this as an extension of an out-growth from a future Asteroid Belt civilization if one ever comes to exist.
Disgruntled future Belters leave the Solar System to find ‘elbow room’!
How cool would that be!