Maybe you’re feeling fed up with the economy, being out of work for two years, global warming, a dysfunctional congress, the UK rioting, and the current political campaign lineups. Are you thinking it’s nearly time for mankind to journey to the stars for a fresh start? It doesn’t look like we’re quite ready for prime time.
I updated my time and distance spreadsheet on my November 10, 2010 Astronomy posting “Interstellar Time and Distance.” This came about thanks to a reader question about distances and times from the Orion Nebula (M42). That calculation has enough steps that I fluffed them on my PC calculator. So I redid the spreadsheet, adding Neptune and Orion M42 to the range. For good measure, and comparison of the vast difference between interstellar and intergalactic travel distances, I also added the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).
If Pioneer kept chugging along at 132,000 miles per hour to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, it wouldn’t get there for almost 30,000 years. Scientists think we may attain higher speeds around 0.1% of the speed of light within the next century. This might enable future space travelers to get to the Orion Nebula in only 1.2 million years. Better stick to Alpha Centauri at 3,900 years, which will be do-able, though at enormous energy, construction and human cost.
If a colonization team left now for Alpha Centauri, and another left in year 2111, the second team would probably arrive about 26,000 years before the slower first team!
But you’re thinking, “we’ll have Star Wars technology by then.” Unless we discover real live Wormholes and figure out how to survive that transit and predict the destination, travel at even 10% of the speed of light would get us to Alpha Centauri in about 42 years. That would be nice, but it’s still pure science fiction.
Light from our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda Galaxy, takes 2.5 million years to get here. There’s absolutely no use in even speculating: we’d need at least 25 million years travel time to get there!
Best we just spread more marmalade on the breakfast toast and ponder how we’ll get through the 2012 elections …