Charlie is Right, of Course

The esteemed Mr. Charles Stross, author of Accelerando, has a refreshingly realistic (hence pessimistic) viewpoint on the feasibility of star travel and star colonization.

See here

Here is a money quote:

Here’s a handy metaphor: let’s approximate one astronomical unit — the distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 150 million kilometres, or 600 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon — to one centimetre. Got that? 1AU = 1cm. (You may want to get hold of a ruler to follow through with this one.)

The solar system is conveniently small. Neptune, the outermost planet in our solar system, orbits the sun at a distance of almost exactly 30AU, or 30 centimetres — one foot (in imperial units). Giant Jupiter is 5.46 AU out from the sun, almost exactly two inches (in old money).

We’ve sent space probes to Jupiter; they take two and a half years to get there if we send them on a straight Hohmann transfer orbit, but we can get there a bit faster using some fancy orbital mechanics. Neptune is still a stretch — only one spacecraft, Voyager 2, has made it out there so far. Its journey time was 12 years, and it wasn’t stopping. (It’s now on its way out into interstellar space, having passed the heliopause some years ago.)

The Kuiper belt, domain of icy wandering dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris, extends perhaps another 30AU, before merging into the much more tenuous Hills cloud and Oort cloud, domain of loosely coupled long-period comets.

Now for the first scale shock: using our handy metaphor the Kuiper belt is perhaps a metre in diameter. The Oort cloud, in contrast, is as much as 50,000 AU in radius — its outer edge lies half a kilometre away.

Got that? Our planetary solar system is 30 centimetres, roughly a foot, in radius. But to get to the edge of the Oort cloud, you have to go half a kilometre, roughly a third of a mile.

Next on our tour is Proxima Centauri, our nearest star. (There might be a brown dwarf or two lurking unseen in the icy depths beyond the Oort cloud, but if we’ve spotted one, I’m unaware of it.) Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years away.A light year is 63.2 x 103 AU, or 9.46 x 1012 Km. So Proxima Centauri, at 267,000 AU, is just under two and a third kilometres, or two miles (in old money) away from us.

But Proxima Centauri is a poor choice, if we’re looking for habitable real estate. While exoplanets are apparently common as muck, terrestrial planets are harder to find; Gliese 581c, the first such to be detected (and it looks like a pretty weird one, at that), is roughly 20.4 light years away, or using our metaphor, about ten miles.

Try to get a handle on this: it takes us 2-5 years to travel two inches. But the proponents of interstellar travel are talking about journeys of ten miles. That’s the first point I want to get across: that if the distances involved in interplanetary travel are enormous, and the travel times fit to rival the first Australian settlers, then the distances and times involved in interstellar travel are mind-numbing.

In reaction to Mr.Stross’ article,  here is what Centauri Dreams has to say.

The money quote:

Matloff has studied sail mission concepts using so-called Sun-diver trajectories that deploy a sail at perihelion. In a subsequent telephone interview, he added: “We’ve learned that it is quite possible to take both large ships and small probes to the nearest star within a thousand years or so. Using the sail alone. But it is very difficult to get the trip time down below 800 or 900 years.”

It is precisely for reasons like these that I put star colonization in my book THE GOLDEN AGE so remotely, impossibly far in the future, and only after mankind had engineered a nigh-endless energy supply from singularities. Even at that, star colonization was only the crackpot scheme of one absurdly-rich rich man’s son.

Hate to throw cold water on your naptime, fans of warp drive, but star colonization simply ain’t gonna happen, not until and unless science discovers the universe is put together in a way fundamentally different from and far different from what we now believe, and not until and unless our race (or any new races we produce, AI or biotech or what-have-you) have a radically different method of economizing the available energy of Earthly civilization.