This was the question Tim posed to us over the weekend after the discovery of the Gliese 581g, the first planet we’ve discovered capable of sustaining life. Reflexively, I answered “yes”. Space wasn’t called the final frontier for nothing. What could be more exciting than traveling through the unknown to find a planet where life exists as our imaginations could not conceive it from here on Earth?
The premise of Tim’s question, of course, was last week’s discovery of a planet, Gliese 581g, that is the right distance from its star to produce liquid water, and likely with sufficient gravity to hold an atmosphere. The planet is “only” 20 light years away, which is nothing in the vast scales of the universe. To have found such a planet only 15 years after the first planet outside our solar system was discovered provides for great optimism that more are to follow. So how soon will we be able to travel to Gliese 581g and hang out with our new interstellar friends?
There are two strands of pessimism clouding this joyous occasion. Some scientists point out that there are many factors that allowed life to proceed on Earth besides its proximity to the sun. This new planet is “tidally locked” to its star, which means about half the planet is always facing the star, and about half never is. Life, if it exists, would most likely be on the narrow band in the middle ring of the planet where the temperature is not too hot or too cold. One commenter noted that such a volatile mixture of climates would produce tremendous storms, beyond anything known on Earth. I’m undaunted by this line of thinking, and consider myself confidently in the camp of those who believe, in the words of the great Ian Malcolm, that “life will find a way.” Organisms survive in the Earth’s most unfriendly terrains, as did our microscopic ancestors billions of years ago.
The second, more troubling question is ‘how do we get there?’ Twenty light years is a very long time, and any mission, manned or unmanned, would have difficulty communicating with Earth in any useful way. This very negative Slate article points out that current rockets can only take spaceships 17,500 miles/hour, which means the trip, other factors aside, would take 766,000 years, assuming we solved other other massive engineering and physics issues.
So no, we can’t leave tomorrow. But technological innovation has had a wildly successful run for decades, however, and I see no reason to bet against it now. Recall the fantastic quote from the Simpsons, when Homer is shown his first computer, and Professor Frink thunders, “I predict that within 100 years, computers will be twice as powerful, 10000 times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them.” We really have no idea how fast long-term innovation will come in any given field- 50 years ago who would have predicted we’d have something as vast as the internet, but not flying cars? I might be wrong about our ability to send a mission to Gliese 581g in my lifetime, but the excitement behind this planet outweighs any reason to be pessimistic.
Given the heavy dose of negative facts I’ve been given since Tim’s original thought experiment, I don’t suppose I’d be willing to board an outgoing craft right now. Yet at some point, space travelers will have to take off, knowing they will neither return home nor make it to the new promised land. They will die in space, while a new generation is born on the space craft to take their place. Those brave travelers will be called “The Connectors”, because they will bridge the ties between the human customs of Earth to the advanced space life these new generations will know. It’s the only reason we could think of for a lawyer, a neuro-scientist, an entrepreneur and literary agent to be allowed on board such an important journey without knowing the first thing about engineering, astronomy or medicine.
Make no mistake, the crew of these early flights will be bold beyond measure, but our early astronauts took great risks too. The first U.S manned mission to the moon carried sufficient possibility of failure that Nixon had his speechwriters prepare an alternative text in the event that Apollo 11 shuttle was unable to launch itself off the moon for a return voyage to Earth: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace…”
There is no turning back from this breath-taking news that we may not be alone in our own stellar neighborhood, let alone the universe. Stephen Hawking says we shouldn’t necessarily welcome the discovery of alien life, because they make come not in peace, but bearing a sword. If that is the case, however, maybe us humans can be more like our movie brethren, and stop our bickering to unite against the alien onslaught.
At Living the Dream, we’ll continue following this story. With NASA’s budget approved only days ago, and private sector interest sure to be high, hopefully this news will encourage people to get fired up about science, space our friends and foes in the final frontier.