Imagine a future in which humanity wants to expand its domain to distant stars and colonize other planets, but that all the sci-fi stories had it wrong, that faster-than-light travel really is impossible. Could we still conquer the final frontier?

Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to our solar system, is 4.5 light years away. The closest known Earth-like planet is 12 light years away, orbiting Ross 128. Even if we build ships that can approach relativistic speeds, actually traveling to other star systems would take several generations for those on board the ship. Time dilation gets the opportunity to wreak even more havoc, because different parts of the galaxy are moving at different times relative to each other, causing events that seem simultaneous on Earth to appear out of sync on other planets. On top of all this, space is expanding exponentially. Galaxies far, far away are getting even further away, some of them faster than the speed of light, as the space between our galaxies inflates.

Even simple communication between colonies and the homeworld would be limited to the speed of light, meaning several decades of delay for a message roundtrip. This is a significant barrier to political cohesion. History has shown time and again that the span of a civilization is limited by the speed of communication. At the highest point of the Roman Empire, the fastest trip from Britannia to Rome would have taken 30 days, as shown in ORBIS, an interactive travel map from Stanford University. In case of a crisis, it would take at least two months for the Emperor to hear of a problem and to send instructions for a course of action. When the idea of colonialism swept through western Europe in the 1600s, ships relied on good winds during the two month journey to make it across the treacherously large Atlantic Ocean.

One solution to the long journey would be to put the passengers’ lives on pause by slowing down down their metabolism with long term hibernation, or halting it entirely with cryogenics. Such a ship would be fully automated, with systems in place to attend to the precious cargo. Upon arrival, an army of robots would assemble the basic necessities of survival, repurposing the ship as a temporary shelter. The colonists would wake up to the beginnings of functioning city, where they could start a new life far away from anything the have ever known. Choosing the life of a colonist and abandoning any prospect of life on one’s home planet requires a lot of incentives, however.

Even with apparently insurmountable challenges in the way, there are multiple reasons why humanity might wish to colonize other planets. Overcrowding on Earth may push some to look for a new place to put down roots. The prospect of new research or insatiable curiosity might push others to explore far away star systems, and return with invaluable data on quasars, planetary nebulae, and possibly extraterrestrial lifeforms. The wealth of information waiting to be discovered and applied to improving our technology is incalculable. The sites of recent supernovae are likely to be resource-rich, and mining asteroids could be the future for extraction of rare metals. But in the most long-term sense, spreading to other planets increases the chances of our survival as a species, and maybe one of the most important stepping stones in the history of life on Earth.

If you find yourself interested in delving into the details of complex ethical and scientific dilemmas, or if you enjoy inspecting the future of technology from multiple angles, join us in Wean 5310, every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Come for the pizza, stay for the discourse!