With the Mars One mission ramping up for 2025 we’re making our next foray into the universe. It struck me the other day while talking to a friend about space travel how uneven our progress has been (in some ways) into the universe.
If you track the technological progress from the first airplane flight in 1903 to the moon landing in 1969 you can see the huge strides we made. We were a species confined to the ground till we learned to harness lift and defy gravity, forever changing travel and how we thought about our world. In 60 years we took that all the way to leaving our planet and visiting other celestial bodies. In the next 50ish years we saw a different rate of change.
I certainly don’t want to downplay the significance of international space stations and the Voyager satellites that expand our knowledge of remote worlds, but our personal exploration of Mars does seem like a long time coming. And the more we learn about our universe the more we need a stronger word than “insignificant” to describe our own fingerprint in the unfathomable enormity of what we’ve learned.
How big are we talking?
Movies like Star Trek make science geeks everywhere yearn for interstellar travel, but when you truly consider the distances between things it brings a new perspective about what that would entail. It’s 238,900 miles to the moon, the closest thing to us in the cosmos. And in the case of visiting Mars, even at its closest orbit to us we’re still talking almost 35 million miles.
Before we go deep into our galaxy, we first have to make it past the Oort Cloud. This is like the asteroid belt except substantially huger and farther away — in fact it’s the outermost point of our sun’s gravitational influence and is basically the border of our solar system. Voyager 1, which has been flying away from us since 1977, will take 300 years to reach the Oort Cloud (and 30,000 years to exit it). Whaaaaaaat! And that’s at roughly 38,000 mph.
Sometimes I wonder if being a cosmologist is a depressing job. As exciting as traversing the universe sounds, the sheer mind-boggling size of everything can make you feel lonely; our big rock is just one of an infinite number of them floating around in the blackness. Even our asteroid belt, which is often depicted as a dense cloud of rocks, has average gaps of a million km. So all that fancy looking maneuvering of space ships in and out of asteroids? Yeah… you’d probably pass right through the belt relatively undisturbed.
When we think of visiting another planet like Mars, it’s easy to envision two stationary points in space and flying that straight line between them. But since both planets have their own orbits, and considering the vastness between them, there’s a lot of calculation that goes into that. At a basic level, it involves knowing where Earth is in relation to Mars at the time of blast off. How fast is the ship going to be traveling in relation to the speed at which Mars is orbiting the sun? If the journey takes 6 months, you can’t plan based on where Mars is now but rather where it will be in 6 months, meaning you’re initially aiming at a target that isn’t there but will be by the time you get there.
When I was younger I used to fantasize about humans accomplishing light speed travel, the theoretical speed limit of the universe. But once I learned the real distances of things even that incredible speed simply isn’t enough. It’d take a year to reach the Oort cloud, but hundreds of years to the other end of our galaxy. And millions of years to reach the closest galaxy to ours — Andromeda. Warp speed, similar to what we see in Star Trek, is being theorized by scientists and is really the only way we’d realistically visit anything outside our solar system.
If you’re into space and haven’t seen How Big, How Far, How Fast I definitely recommend it. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Look out for VY Canis Majoris.) Here’s to the next step in our exploration!