Space: really very very big

Paul Raven @ 14-02-2011

This Lee Billings guest post at BoingBoing sums up the possibilities – given our current understanding of the laws of physics – of travelling to other star systems. Probably won’t be news to many readers here, but even unmanned missions beyond the heliopause will be technologically challenging, hideously expensive and incredibly slow to deliver results. None of which are reasons to write the idea off, though, at least not in my book.

I just wanted to pull out this paragraph, though:

… space is vast, and even the distance to the nearest star is mind-boggling. Let’s say the Sun is the size of a large orange, 10 centimeters in diameter. Place the orange on the ground, walk a bit more than 10 meters away, and you’re in Earth’s orbit. Finding our planet might prove challenging—it would be the size of a millimeter grain of sand. The walk out to Pluto, a speck of dust ten times smaller than our sand-grain Earth, would be nearly a half-kilometer, and along the way you’d be lucky to encounter any of the planets: Even the largest, Jupiter, would be no bigger than a small marble.

That pretty much sums up the sensawunda kick for me. So much space out there… and we’re still arguing over patches of ground and bits of coloured cloth down here at the bottom of the gravity well.

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7 Responses to “Space: really very very big”

  1. Daniel Casy says:

    Now, this is why I read this blog, it causes random mis-firings in my own grey matter spaces…
    Seriously tho’, good paragraph to pull out, kinda puts way too many things in perspective… Now I’ve got something to work with when talking to my 13 yr old who seems to think that fashion is worth arguing over…

    Dan.

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    Horton Hears a Who, anyone?

  3. Athena Andreadis says:

    “Even unmanned missions beyond the heliopause will be technologically challenging, hideously expensive and incredibly slow to deliver results.”

    One-word rebuttal: Voyagers.

  4. Apesofmath says:

    “So much space out there… and we’re still arguing over patches of ground and bits of coloured cloth down here at the bottom of the gravity well.”

    It has readily available air and water, and you can grow food on it. You can’t say the same of space. As Charlie Stross puts it, “Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!”

  5. James says:

    We did this illustration at school with my great Physics teacher (hello Mr. Davies!). A dustbin lid was the sun, the planets were plasticine. We got to Mars, diagonally across the school field. Awesome.

  6. Paul Raven says:

    Athena: point acknowledged! I should have been more precise, in that what I meant was “missions more advanced than throwing out a simple probe on a one-way jag”… which isn’t to demean the Voyagers in any way, I might add! Though I’d say they actually confirm the “expensive” and “slow” conditionals in many respects; e.g. Voyager 1 was launched the year I was born, and has only just reached the heliopause. That sort of timeframe puts extrasolar probes well beyond the normal frame of politically viable projects (“more than five years? We’ll be in opposition again by then!”), even if they were offering economically useful functions. Sadly, it’s all about bang for the buck, at least with the nation-state space agencies, and the commercial outfits are still at the ground-to-orbit phase of development. Lots of opportunity for change in the near future, though, and believe me, I’d love to see it!

    Apesofmath: point taken, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that both the Gobi and the North Atlantic do have small groups of native inhabitants. Sure, it’s a tough marginal existence, but when tough marginal existences are all you’ve got on offer (imagine for a moment that the worst predictions of global climate change come true), a marginal existence that frees you from an oppressive majority might not seem such an unthinkable step. And remember that we’ve now found the Moon has water below the surface, plus other potentially valuable resources; there’s an asteroid belt full of rare elements, and big cometary chunks of water scudding around as well. Shorter version: space offers enough resources to support the truly determined; all that we currently lack is an incentive to climb the well, and resource shortages coupled with climate change (plus the amplification of the afore-mentioned fighting-about-flags problem) could well provide that pioneer impetus pretty soon. 🙂

  7. Athena Andreadis says:

    Paul, what you mentioned may prove the slow part but the Voyagers (and Sojourner, and all their relatives) gave amazing bang for the buck considering that they made all the planetary rendezvous they were calibrated for, and sent back data that changed our mindsets about how planets look and behave. Also, the Voyagers were not built for speed in any case — they were meant to linger over their targets both to gather data and to position themselves for the next slingshot. We’ve spent a lot more money into sending shuttles into orbit for far more anemic goals.

    I agree that most politicians have thinking horizons and attention spans that go only as far as their next campaign, if that, and knowledge acquisition is low on their totem pole. This makes it quite possible that the first long-term crewed expedition will be from a splinter political or religious group.