Science Writing

Leaving Earth

Would you leave Earth and travel to another planet if the opportunity dropped into your lap?

If your destination is the moon, why not? It’s only three or so days away and relatively safe. It’s been done before and there are at least two programs at the moment intent on achieving that feat again.

What about Mars? It seems to be the one that everybody is focusing on these days and it makes sense. NASA has been sending probes there since the 70’s and the red planet has held a place of fascination in popular culture for over a hundred years. Would you go to Mars if someone offered it to you?

There’s a lot of caveats to a question like that. Does humanity already have a base on the planet in this hypothetical? Or are you going to be one of the first ones there?

Both of those have their attractions; imagine being the first human, ever, to step onto the rocky surface of another planet but with that comes some inherent, horrifying dangers. If, on the other hand, you are travelling to a base that has been set up and proven safe (as safe as it can be), the dangers are diminished but so is the achievement.

One other thing to consider is the people you would be leaving behind (if you are lucky and privileged enough to have people). If you’re going to the moon, not a big deal. If you’re going to Mars as one of the first explorers…well the chances of coming back from that are slim, very slim. You would be saying goodbye to all those you love, most likely forever.

Does that complicate things for you? Did that thought create a lump in your throat?

Let’s zoom out to the objects a little further from home. Jupiter is 880 millions kilometers away. Based off the probe Galileo, it would take six years to get there, if you want to be going slow enough that you enter it’s orbit and don’t just fly off. Jupiter is incredible and probably deserves it’s own post but for now, I would rather talk about one of it’s moons, Ganymede.

Ganymede is a moon that is larger (though less dense) than the planet Mercury. It’s about 100 million kilometers away from Jupiter on average and it consists of a huge subsurface salty ocean and ice that is held together by a liquid iron-nickel core.

Humans could live on Ganymede. With artificial environments it is entirely possible, however, six years is too long a time for people to travel there. Would you go? Six years of your life on a ship to live on a moon, in an artificial environment, right next to a gas giant’s turbulent atmosphere?

The same question arises, could you leave your family and friends? Your loved ones who would live simultaneously, but apart.

We have hit the realm of science fiction already in this post but bear with me as we go deeper and further. Travel near light speed becomes possible and suddenly the galaxy is open to human exploration.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system that has three (two confirmed, one maybe) planets around it. It’s ~4 light years away which equals…37 842 923 108 478 kms…or 37.8 trillion kms. But hey, let’s say that humans can travel at the near the speed of light and it only takes four years to get there.

Would you go? It’s four years, two years less than a trip to Ganymede right now, why not go?

Because if you travelled at 0.99c (0.99 the speed of light, because no, you match light speed), it’s true that to you your trip would take four years, however, to your family on Earth, the loved ones you left, thirty six years would pass.

This is a quirk of special relativity and time dilation which will, eventually, get it’s own post.

People would live their best years or their last years in the time it takes you to travel to our nearest neighboring star. Would it be worth it now? Or do we have to accept as humans that if we want to reach out into the stars and into our solar system, we have to leave people behind?

I don’t know that it would be worth it.

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