Given the “big bang” of exoplanet discoveries over the past decade, I predict that there is a reasonable chance a habitable planet will be found orbiting the nearest star to our sun, the Alpha Centauri system. Traveling at just five percent the speed of light, a starship could get there in 80 years.
One Earth-sized planet has already been found at Alpha Centauri, but it is a molten blob that’s far too hot for life as we know it to survive.
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The eventual discovery of a nearby livable world will turbo-boost interest and ignite discussions about sending an artificially intelligent probe to investigate any hypothetical life forms there.
But no nation will be capable of paying the freight for such a mission. Building a
single starship would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the Apollo
moon missions. And, the science goals alone could not justify the cost/benefit
of undertaking such a gigaproject. Past megaprojects, such as Apollo and the Manhattan Project, could be justified by their promise of military supremacy, energy independence, support of the high tech industry or international prestige. The almost altruistic “we boldly go for all mankind” would probably stop an interstellar mission in its tracks.
The enormous risk and cost for starship development aside, future nations would also be preoccupied with competing gigaprojects that promise shorter term and directly useful solutions — such as fusion power plants, solar power satellites, or even fabrication of a subatomic black hole. However, the discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization at Alpha Centauri could spur an international space race to directly contact them and possibly have access to far advanced
alien technology. (Except that it would take far advanced technology to get
there in the first place!)
Microsystem technologist Frederik Ceyssens proposes that there should be a grassroots effort to privately organize and finance an interstellar mission. This idea would likely be received with delight at Star Trek conventions everywhere.
What’s the motivation for coughing up donations for an interstellar mission? Ceyssens says the single inspiring goal would be to establish a second home planet for
humanity and the rest of Earth’s life forms by the end of the millennium. Such
a project might be called “Ark II.”
“It could be our privilege to be able to lay the foundation of a something of unfathomable proportions,” Ceyssens writes.
He envisions establishing an international network of non-governmental organizations focused on private and public fundraising for interstellar exploration. The effort would be a vastly scaled up version of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
“Existing space advocacy organizations such as the Planetary Society or the British Interplanetary Society could play a central role in establishing the initiative, and gain increased momentum,” Ceyssens says. He proposes establishing a Noble foundation or a government wealth fund that can be fed with regular donations over, literally, an estimated 300 years it would take to have the bucks and technology to build a space ark.
This slow and steady approach would avoid having a single generation make huge donations to the cause. Each consecutive generation would contribute some intellectual and material resources. A parallel can be found in the construction of the great cathedrals in late medieval Europe. An incentive might be that one of the distance descendants of each of the biggest donors is guaranteed a seat on the colonization express.
Unlike the British colonies in the great Age of Discovery, it is impractical to think of another star system as an outpost colony that can trade with Imperial Earth. There is no financial potential to investors.
What’s more, there would be a strong temptation to postpone the starship trip indefinitely until superior and cheaper technology presumably comes along through some extraordinary breakthrough in physics. Sci-fi stories imagine warp drives, stargates, and quantum tunnels. Would the 184 mile-long Chesapeake and Ohio Canal ever have been started if its builders could have imagined that the era of human flight was a little over 100 years away?
The crew for such a colonization odyssey would need to be placed into suspended animation. In all practicality, any animal life cargo would have to be reduced to genetically modified frozen embryos that could be grown inside artificial wombs upon arrival at Earth II. Intelligent self-repairing robots would have to tend to the starship and revive the crew upon entering orbit.
Just don’t let the crew watch a replay of homicidal HAL 9000 megacomputer from the
film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Per my earlier article on robots ruling the galaxy, imagine a scenario where robots overtake Earth and send a message to the space
ark’s computers to jettison the onboard biological cargo.
What’s lost in almost all sci-fi stories about space colonization is that if the target planet is habitable, what if it is already inhabited? Animal life from Earth plopped down on such a world could not compete for resources and would be doomed.
A dilemma is that Earth-based telescope could only ferret out the target planet’s chemistry, weather, and geography, but not the nature of its indigenous life. Colonists could find themselves on a world ruled by dinosaur–sized monsters, or the nightmarish creepy creatures out of Stephen King’s, The Mist. Colonists might come face to face with neosapiens, emerging native intelligent life forms that are very hostile the visitors.
Better pack a death-ray pistol, there’s no ticket home.
Publication: “Organizing and financing interstellar space projects – A bottom-up approach,” (PDF) Ceyssens et al.
Image: The second stage of the British Interstellar Society’s Project Daedalus interstellar spacecraft arrives at its target star system. Could that target be Alpha Centauri? Image courtesy Adrian Mann