Can we travel to a planet orbiting another star?

Your life is falling apart, your carefully laid life plans have gone awry and you’re feeling blue, very blue. You had hit rock bottom only for a social media earthquake to reveal that “rock bottom” was in fact only about half way down. You need a new start, maybe a new country? A new country? No, you need a cleaner break than that. How about a new planet? Science fiction keeps promising that there are plenty of habitable even hospitable planets out there and as long as we have a working warp drive we can get there in a few parsecs (which is a unit of distance but when you’re sat next to a talking 7ft teddy bear you can say you got there in 12 rainbows if you like). That aside, can we just go and live on an extra-solar planet?

There are a couple of things to consider here. Can we get to another solar system? If so how long will it take?

OK lets start with the first question. Can we get to another solar system? Well there are no physical laws or boundaries to stop it as such. First off we need to overcome the Suns gravitational pull, but that’s doable. We’ve demonstrate we can do that with the Voyager space probes so no problems there. Then there’s the Oort cloud which is often picture as a dense halo of asteroids but actually each asteroid is a few km apart at least and so no worries getting through that. Then of course there is interstellar space. This could be a little like driving through a city at night… with no headlamps… or street lamps… or moon to guide you. A collision is possible but there’s not a lot out there. We believe that there are loads of dark planets out there that have been cast off from their star and roam interstellar space but space, it’s big. So the chances of hitting one is mercifully slim. So travelling to another solar system is certainly physically possible. Now maybe we have to wonder about the affects of deep space and horrible radiation on the travellers, but there were similar fears about going to the moon and we did that… or did we? (Spoiler alert we did. If you believe otherwise maybe you should reconsider the America plan, you’d find friends there).

Now question 2. How long will it take? In short, the phrase “are we nearly there yet” will have lost all meaning before you are even half way. The distance to the nearest star is huge, almost impossible to imagine. Lets perhaps consider our Sun first because we know where that is. The Sun is just over 90 million miles away. The fastest we travel on a daily basis is when we are barrelling along the motorway at 85, errr I mean 70 mph officer. Travelling at this speed it’s going to take a while. Imagine you pass your driving test on your 17th birthday and immediately set off for the Sun. You would reach it some time after your 168th birthday and that’s even before we take into account petrol stops and bathroom breaks (and lets be honest at 168 they will be quite frequent). The car isn’t the fastest transport there is of course. If you got a direct flight with EasyJet you’d make it in just 20 years or so. Now lets skip ahead to the fast man made object ever (faster even than the space shuttles) the voyager space crafts. They travel at a sprightly 35,000 mph and so riding on the back of one of these a trip to our Sun would take a measly 107 days. Hooray progress! But wait a minute our goal was another star not our own. The nearest star is a little further than the 90 million miles to the Sun. It’s about 25 trillion miles. So even travelling on the back of a Voyager space craft it would take 82,000 years which is unfortunate because to get there now we’d have had to set of before we as a species had invented cave paintings. So the truth is with current machines, no it’s not feasible because the journey wold just be too long. That is not to say we couldn’t do it with current technology. Certainly we have the technology to get there faster than 82,000 years but even with best case scenarios we are talking 100 years or so. Really we would need to look towards cryogenics for it to be feasible. Another issue is such technology would be expensive, very expensive, and it’s going to fly off into outer space never to return, good luck selling that one to investors. Moreover, this is the closest star, there is no guarantee that this solar system has a habitable planet, we may have to look further afield. So all things considered your most realistic chance of living on another planet is in a bubble on Mars. Interstellar relocation isn’t a realistic prospect for now so maybe revisit the Australia plan, the do have koalas.

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