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Is interstellar travel really possible or just a distant dream?

For ages, humans have been daydreaming, pondering, and chatting about the idea of traveling to far-off stars, discovering planets where we could live, and setting up shop there. Eventually, the offspring of these brave explorers might establish a fresh society, and who knows, they might even cross paths with Earth’s descendants. Picture a future where folks can hop from one planet to another, cultures blend, and trading and mingling become everyday happenings. The possibilities for growth in terms of ideas, social connections, politics, technology, and money-making would be off the charts.

Taking humanity beyond our Solar System isn’t just some wild idea cooked up by science fiction writers and futurists. It’s a topic that’s been taken seriously by scientists, and there’s a renewed interest in it. Much like our efforts to send people to Mars, set up permanent bases on the Moon, and venture beyond our immediate cosmic neighborhood with astronauts instead of robots, there’s a growing feeling that interstellar travel might actually be doable.

But the big question is, are we prepared for this audacious adventure? Whether it’s the choice between using probes or sending crews, or the readiness on both technological and psychological fronts, can we really handle the challenges of interstellar travel?

The big question

This big question was a central focus at a public event with a fitting title: “Interstellar Travel: Are We Ready?” This event was part of the 8th Interstellar Symposium called “In Light of Other Suns,” which happened from July 10th to 13th at the University of McGill in Montreal, Quebec.

The symposium was organized by a collaboration between the Interstellar Research Group (IRG), the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and Breakthrough Initiatives, all in partnership with the University of McGill. They brought in a lineup of guest speakers and experts from various fields, covering everything from astronomy and astrophysics to astrobiology, geology, and cosmology.

An event happened on July 10th, put together by Professor Andrew Higgins from the Mechanical Engineering department and the McGill Interstellar Flight Experimental Research Group. What’s awesome is that this event was open to everyone, and they even livestreamed it for free. It was hosted by the famous author and NASA scientist Les Johnson, and they had a bunch of smart folks on a panel—scientists, educators, and space enthusiasts—who gave their take on this exact question.

Once each panelist gave a quick intro about who they were and what they thought, they all started talking about the whole deal with interstellar travel. They had a chat about the big challenges that come with it, whether it’s the techie stuff, our heads, what’s right and wrong, how it affects society and money, and all that jazz. Toward the end, they opened up the floor for questions, and they kept on discussing the tough parts of making interstellar travel happen, like what might happen, how we can solve the issues, when it might happen, and if we’re really up for it.

Also read: What makes dust swirl so quickly on the Moon without wind

Can we go interstellar?

If we stuck with regular space travel methods, it would be a whopping 19,000 to 81,000 years just to get to the closest star, Alpha Centauri. No wonder space and fancy research folks have been digging into ways to speed things up since the Space Age began. One early idea was using something called Nuclear-Pulse Propulsion (NPP), where they’d use nuclear reactions like blowing up nukes or smashing deuterium or hydrogen fuel together to push a spaceship super fast, even though it wouldn’t be as fast as light.

There have been loads of old-timey studies on this topic, like Project Orion (1958-1963), Project Daedalus (1973-78), Enzmann Starship (1973), Project Longshot (1987-88), Project Hyperion (2011), and Project Icarus (2009–14). They’ve also played around with the idea of using anti-matter to zoom through space, leading to things like Project Valkyrie (2009). And believe it or not, some folks have even tried to figure out how to go faster than the speed of light, with the most famous one being the Alcubierre Warp Drive, which Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre dreamt up in 1994.

Starting from the year 2000, there have been a bunch of plans and ideas for these cool DEP spacecraft. They’ve got catchy names like Sun-Diver, Project Dragonfly, and the big star of the show, Breakthrough Starshot, which made a splash in 2016. This Breakthrough Starshot thing imagines a whole group of sails and tiny spacecraft called StarChips getting a major speed boost from a massive 100 gigawatt laser setup, and they’d zip along at 20% of the speed of light.

If this plan actually works out, these ships could make a one-way trip to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years – basically, within our lifetimes – and send back pics and data from any exoplanets they come across over there.

Is humanity ready for interstellar travel?

Let’s tackle the big issue right up front. That’s basically answering the big question, “Are we ready?” Well, according to everyone on the panel, the answer is a solid “no.” What’s intriguing is that this was the one thing they all actually saw eye to eye on. While they were pretty sure that we could pull off robotic missions like Breakthrough Starshot in the relatively near future, the idea of sending humans on missions to the nearby stars is something that’s way out there on the horizon.

Based on what Johnson thinks, it might take us somewhere between 100 to 200 years to get those robot missions rolling to the closest star systems. But while we wait for that, there are more practical stuff we should be concentrating on, things that we can actually wrap our heads around and make happen. And by the way, Link brought up a crucial point about our motivations and what we value, which is a hurdle we need to deal with seriously before we even try to take on interstellar travel.

Also read: After Chandrayaan-3’s success will ISRO foray into space tourism?

Can we generate enough energy?

Here’s another biggie they talked about: the huge amount of energy needed, which is a topic that always pops up when folks chat about interstellar travel. Whether we like it or not, an interstellar mission only really makes sense if it can be done while someone’s still alive, for practical and economic reasons. But that’s exactly where the tech challenge that Johnson mentioned comes into play. During the panel talks, Lubin brought up a cost analysis he did earlier, and it basically said that the energy we need to make this happen is way beyond what we can do right now.

Lubin pointed out that directed-energy propulsion could be a game-changer for zipping between planets (like getting to Mars in just 30 days) and even reaching the stars because it’s the only tech that could get us moving super fast, like a fraction of the speed of light, in the not-so-distant future. But here’s the catch: right now, we can only really use it for things like sending power beams from space (or between Earth and the Moon) and fancy optical communication. Johnson, however, had some reservations about this.

In the years and centuries to come, things are going to change a lot for us. Before people actually go beyond the Heliopause, we’ll be sending robots on missions to check out stars nearby and their planets. But the groundwork needs to be laid today.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.