One of the biggest things to make the rounds in the (science) news is that astronomers may have found an Earth-like planet in Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor at 4.25 light-years. It’s somewhere in the “Goldilocks zone” of a star, which means it may be just right for us humans (I’m assuming it’s only humans reading this…?) to colonize because it might have a breathable atmosphere, water, and comfortable temperatures. I’ll say this: if the climate feels like San Diego, I’ll just hop on the nearest one-way rocket off this rock. Just have enough supplies to carry (one heck of a stretch for a Daily Prompt, right?) our mass, fuel, the ship itself, and my collection of Magic: the Gathering cards. You might be thinking the same thing except for the Magic cards (but if you have some – interested in a few rounds of “Commander”?). How far can 4.25 light years be, after all?
How about really, freakishly far?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: a light-year is a measure of distance, not time. It is really the distance light travels in one year. Assuming that light travels at 300 million meters per second (I am not about to get into an argument about significant figures), this is a distance of 900 trillion kilometers covered in a year. 4.25 light-years, then, is 3.825 quadrillion kilometers. You want a nice, round figure? Chew on this: 3,825,000,000,000,000 kilometers. I could translate this into miles, but would it really matter? Now, why is this an issue? Let’s try something out: Voyager 2 was launched in 1977 to study the outer planets of our dear solar system. According to NASA, it is 16,600,000,000 km away from the sun as of June 2016. That means it took just shy of 39 years to cover that distance. If our little new-Earth spacecraft (which if I had any power would be named after Bloody Stupid Johnson) was travelling at the same speed, it would arrive, hopefully intact, into our new earth in…
…about 9 million years.
We don’t nearly have enough resources to carry us there, and our current understanding of science just can’t bend our minds around getting to that distance. If we want to get there faster, we need more fuel to push the “Bloody Stupid Johnson”, but even then we may be only to save ourselves probably a few millennia. We may have to develop some kind of mathematical understanding of physics that involves probably dividing by close to zero and not accidentally tearing up time-space. And let’s not even talk about what physically happens to an object, like a rocketship or Jonny from sci.casual, as it approaches the speed of light. I would say until we do some more research in physics and maths, let’s try to take care of the rock we’re on and not trash it up like a ’70s rock star in a hotel, yeah? After all…
“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” -Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Featured image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA (CC-BY-30)