To the Stars!
Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin
It all sounds so easy in science fiction; Captain Kirk and Spock zooming around the galaxy, stopping off at Vulcan, fighting the Romulans across parsecs and encountering Lizard creatures on the other side of the galaxy. For the Enterprise with its dilithium crystals and warp drive it takes no time at all to cover millions of (light) years, but our Voyager I and II spacecraft – the fastest things in the sky -- traveling at 17.26 km/s (10.72 mi/s) are only now after 35 years reaching the edge or our solar system. Assuming they were traveling in the right direction, it would take another 70,000 years to reach the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri only 4.2 light years away.
It so happens that 70,000 years ago we humans almost bit the big one. Genetic analysis reveals that at that time the human race consisted of no more than 15,000 individuals most likely located in Southern Africa. Most scientists place the blame on the massive Toba volcanic eruption that blanketed the planet in ash, killed off many species and affected all life on Earth. Others suggest that the human catastrophe may have been due to disease or other causes but the timing of the eruption is extremely coincidental if nothing else. We survived and that crisis may have actually pushed us further and harder in our evolution than ever before but the key thought here is to consider the changes the human race has been through in the past 70,000 years and where we might be 70,000 years from now when a probe of human origin finally arrives on its one-way trip to Alpha Centauri. It would take another 70,000 years to return or should we decide to have it phone home we’d only have to wait an additional 4.7 years to receive the radio signal saying, “Mom, we’re here, we made it!” Given humanity’s history and status, you have to wonder if we will even be around in 700 centuries. Which brings us back to, can we ever realistically hope to reach other suns? Other planets? Can we even know if there is anyone or anything out there?
Not to be a downer, a party pooper, an Eeyore, but the bottom line is we may never know. We must face up to the reality that space is a damn big place! Bigger than anyone, or most anyone can even imagine. Perhaps you can begin to imagine it given the 70,000 year example above, but that is only to reach the single closest star to our sun. There are millions of suns in our Milky Way Galaxy which is itself 120,000 light years across – at Voyager speed it would take 2 billion years to cross and that would be without slowing down or stopping for potty breaks. The Earth itself at 4.7 billion years old is only a bit more than twice that galactic transit time. And that is only our galaxy, there are millions of galaxies out there far beyond our Milky Way. The nearest being the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million light years away. To reach Andromeda at Voyager speed would take 200 billion years and given that the universe itself is only 13.8 billion years old, that’s a long, long, long time!
To bring this back down to Earth, I know that when I look up at the night sky I’m filled with awe, watching Orion make his way across that sky, seeing the Big Dipper and the North Star -- visible even from my back yard in the city. And that view has no comparison to the immense view of the sky and stars visible in my youth growing up on a farm far from city lights. There the naked eye view of the Milky Way could make anyone weak in the knees. The millions of stars sparkling and the arcs of traveling satellites like Echo I and Telstar filled me with possibilities far beyond the cotton fields surrounding me. Even today in my light-polluted back yard while gazing in awe at the night sky I am starkly aware of the millions of years the light from those stars has traveled only to end its journey by striking my retina to register as a sparkle of light in my brain. And that thought creates an even greater sense of wonder inside me. This sort of experience makes it clear to me why ancient peoples filled with this spirit, this awe, this sense of wonder, adopted religion, rituals and worship of the world and the wonders around them.
Our space and terrestrial telescopes continue to improve and astronomers have recently discovered a number of “Earth-like” planets with the possibility of harboring life. They are in the so-called habitable zone and may have liquid water. One of these, HD40307g is virtually next door, only 44 light years away -- still ten times further than Alpha Centauri, but potentially harboring life (no such planets have been detected in the Alpha Centauri system). At that distance our radio signals from 44 years ago would just now be reaching them.
Image courtesy NASA/JPL
In 1968 the Vietnam War would be in full swing, in January of that year the Tet Offensive -- one of the bloodiest hard-fought battles of that war would take place, the political protests against the war would be a constant in the news broadcasts, the hippies, the flower children and sex, drugs, and rock and roll would be everywhere. The Summer of Love would arrive the following year. Martin Luther King would be assassinated in April followed by Robert Kennedy in June. Apollo 7 would orbit the Earth and Apollo 8 would swing around the Moon at Christmas time. Radio and TV signals of all these things would begin their trek towards HD40307g reaching there 44 years later in 2012.
But is anyone there, is anyone listening? And if so, what might they have already learned from the signals we’ve beamed into space for the past century? The first public radio broadcast was in 1910 of the Metropolitan Opera. Now if you happen to be scared of aliens like Stephen Hawking you can probably relax because if that opera stuff doesn’t scare them away, nothing will! But seriously, we have been beaming our signals and our presence into space for the last century. There is a bubble, a wave front of information 100 light years out there centered on Earth traveling at the speed of light and available to be decoded by any technologically capable society. It will continue to travel and gradually weaken as it does.
We are not just beaming our presence out even if inadvertently, we are also listening. SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) in various guises, incarnations and funding levels has been listening and searching since 1960 when it was started by astronomer Frank Drake (of Drake equation fame) and held its first conference in 1961 organized by Peter Pearman and attended by Drake, Carl Sagan and seven other astronomers, scientists, and inventors. Unfortunately nothing resembling intelligent signals have been detected though there have been a number of embarrassing misinterpretations. The latest variant is SETI@Home which is a distributed computing collaboration that uses volunteers’ home computers to analyze wide-band data collected from the SERENDIP IV system which piggybacks on top of astronomers scheduled observations. The hope is to isolate and identify signals that could be originating from intelligent extraterrestrial sources. Despite half a century of focused listening and massive passive observation from radio telescopes and other radio receivers, we’ve heard nothing, not a peep that could be consider intelligent extraterrestrial signals. As far as we know we are alone.
Is there any chance what-so-ever we will ‘reach’ the stars? Again, not to be negative, but given current physics and astrophysics the odds simply are not good – worse even than winning the lotto. We may or may not be able to visit Mars, our closest neighbor planet in the near future, but even to establish a long-term or permanent outpost there is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.
All-righty then, but what about travel to the stars themselves? Are there no generation ships, no poorhouses, no jails? Certainly there has been serious speculation and planning (such as Project Daedalus) for interstellar manned or unmanned missions and while building self-sustaining spaceships capable of traveling to other stars is perhaps on the bleeding edge of possibility in the long-term future where would we send them, which direction, and why?
Radio waves are our most likely means of detecting/contacting extraterrestrial intelligence, but against the backdrop of the cosmos even radio waves are slow. And given the miniscule amount of time we have been listening it is not even really possible to speculate on whether we might someday detect life out there, but it is not unreasonable to assume that we may never know.
On a brighter side of that coin however, given what we do know of physics, chemistry and life the odds are excellent that not only life, but intelligent life has arisen millions of times throughout our galaxy as and in the millions of other galaxies that make up the known universe. While we may never know or be able to verify directly that life is out there, we can be relatively confident that we are not alone. And with that in mind, let us raise a glass and make a toast, “To the Stars!”
Extinction or a Future in the Stars:
Planet hunting neighborhood image:
About the Author
Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B007S3SMY8. He may be contacted through his website at http://www.kacweb.com.