Could we survive the trip to another planet?

There is third obstacle we would have to surmount if humans like us were to colonize another planet even after we’d found it.  That’s the problem of getting there in the first place.  To put this in perspective, it was a mere four centuries ago that Europeans began sailing across the Atlantic to what we now call the Americas.  It was a perilous journey that thousands did not survive.  Many ships were lost at sea, and illness killed many more on the journey.  Nor was survival assured once they hit land.  Even though it was already inhabited by earlier arrivals, many newly founded colonies died out, killed by starvation and disease. 

How much more challenging would be a trek to another planet?  How much more treacherous surviving once the space ship touched down?

First of all the trip itself.  We don’t know how far the nearest habitable planet we might find is, but the best candidate so far is more than 20 light years away.  A light year is the distance light travels in a year which is 186,282 miles a second.  Multiplied by 60 is the distance in a minute, multiplied by 60 again is the distance in an hour;  multiplied by 24 is the distance in a day;  and multiplying that by 365 is the distance in miles light travels in a year.  That’s 5,874,589,152,000 miles.

The fastest astronauts have ever travelled so far is 7 miles a second.  That means it would take more than 26 thousand years for us to travel the distance of a light year.  The good news is that optimistic scientists think we could eventually multiply the speed of human space travel by 100, so that it would take only 260 years to travel the distance of a light year.

The bad news is that the nearest scientists think an inhabitable planet might be is 10 light years away, and the nearest planet scientists have at this point actually found that might be potentially inhabitable is 20 light years away.  So optimistically, we would have to assume that it would take between 2,600 and 5,000 years for us to reach the nearest inhabitable planet.

So the trip itself poses gigantic obstacles.

First, we would need volunteers to go into space where they would spend the rest of their lives, with no expectation that they or any of their offspring for thousands of years would reach land.  Space stations that we set up along the way might help break up the journey, but it would also slow it down.  And space stations themselves as permanent support stops are not yet feasible.

Second, we would have to solve the problems associated with the fact that humans have evolved to live in a world with certain levels of gravity and pressure.  Without it, our bones tend to disintegrate.  So far, we haven’t any idea of how the human body would cope with living from birth to death in an atmosphere without gravity.  The question of whether new human life could be conceived and nurtured successfully in a space ship is an obvious one that would need to be solved.  So would questions of disease, and the inevitable friction that would develop when a small group of people are living permanently in a cramped space – not even able to get out for a walk.

Of greatest concern would be one of genetic diversity.  Would the original humans take along a large gene pool so that the pioneers would not eventually become a small incestuous group highly vulnerable to disease?

Then, of course, we would have to build a space ship that could fuel itself for 5,000 years and provide food for its passengers.

When I think about it, I think it might be easier to save this planet.  Because the problems don’t stop with getting to a new planet.  More thoughts about that in the next post. 

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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34 Responses to Could we survive the trip to another planet?

  1. Michael Charles Enwright Jr says:

    5,874,589,152,000 miles is one light year. You would still have to multiply that by 10 or 20 or even more! 5,200 years with lesser gravity, the human body structure would most defiantly evolve into something much thinner because there would be no need for extra weight or bone structure, maybe making them appear flaccid. And with lesser food and sunlight it would effect growth significantly. It makes me think if they where to come back after our time, would the be regarded as aliens?

  2. HAHAHA says:

    UHMMMM>>>

    UHHNNMMMM…

  3. Leslatinkas says:

    This is quite interesting.

    In your language, I am Leslatinkas, the decendant of Noforikanlapf. My name is common on our planet. We only have one name and no middle or last like here on your planet where you may have three names or more. And we do not have differant genders as humans do. We diferancilactenact or in your language, conceive, at a certain age. usually between 760 and 960 mellanompis years. mellanompis is camparable to 906,593,020,456 of your average years. A halinskis, or as you might say “alien” does not age the way that humans do. On our planet we do not have pollutants or diseases. In addition our atmospehic stucture and molecular make up is differant in many ways than yours here. In addition we are too far for you, the humans, to travel. It is a good thing in that as well. If ONE single human being touched foot on our planet our grounds would become contaminated and we would all die. As would the human that landed here for our world is too pure. No, we can NOT visit your planet, Earth, for it is a very dirty planet. my ancestor Noforikanlapf visited this planet in your average year 1796 and died almost immediatly once there. Soon after the remains of the body were set on fire and left no remains for any human to find. The details of this are highly confidential and that i may not disclose. Now, in presant day, your planet is even more dirty than it was in 1796. We will not blow up your dirty planet unless you threaten ours in any way. This cannot happen for 48,590 more of your average years because the human race is still immature and young. With the way you human beings dont take care of your planet you will run out of all your necessities long before that time with no reversal. Take care of your planet now before it is too late. You are aging your planet very fast and time may be limited for all if EVERYONE does not help. now. I am not allowed to communiacate with you, but i had to warn you that what you do to your world is getting to the point of no repair. but there is still time.

    folikknas or goodbye
    Leslatinkas the “alien”

  4. Leslatinkas says:

    [so its just a joke.. dont take it seriously lol]

    • Well, yes, your comment is a joke from one point of view. But it does suggest an underlying truth, doesn’t it? It’s a poetic way of saying that we should be worried about what we are doing to the only planet we have, and thinking about what a planet might be like that was respected by those living there.

      I wish you well!

      Lo!
      Terry

  5. Megan says:

    In the Earth there is
    32% Iron
    30% of oxygen
    15% Silicon
    14% Magnesium
    3% Sulfur
    2% Nickel
    Plus there is smaller piles of calcuim & Alnium also other traces of Elements. If there is any planet were going to live on it would be the planet Mars because the planet marsis made of…
    Basalt
    17% Sulfur
    & scientists think that Mars is made up from 1,480 km Radius

    ~Aliens~
    You may think this ain’t true but the Goverment are Hidint what they have found they have found in deed an arm on mars now if you think bout it no one yet has actually been to mars because it would 2,400yrs to get there but now they have estimated it to go for about 500yrs so basically we would be dead no this arm could be no others except for an alien life form how ever it could be something the Goverment are hiding with the space ship we might be able to travel that far because after all they did find that we can do time travel within space they took a clock from exactly at the same hour same minute, same secon & and same mili-second they flew around the moon and got back to earth and it was 7 seconds out now if they thought of how to improve that then they could’ve indeed got mars and back by my calculation within 10yrs but who’s arm is it and how did it get there.

    Thankyou for reading
    Megan

    • Megan,

      Thank you for your comment which I found extremely interesting. I am not familiar with the exact chemical content of our planet Earth, but I do know it is very special and there may not be another one like it anywhere in the universe. In any case, since we haven’t found it, I think we ought to be taking better care of the home we have, don’t you?

      I also share your lack of complete trust in everything the government tells the public. Sometimes they hide things, sometimes they tell outright lies. A democratic country needs people who question and think before believing everything government says. It’s a lot better for us if politicians don’t find it’s too easy to deceive people.

      Unfortunately governments are not the only ones who lie, who cover things up, or who just get things wrong. I suspect what you heard about finding an arm on Mars might be the result of a misunderstanding. I think the arm might not have been the arm of a living thing but the arm of the explorer Beagle that was sent to crawl around Mars to look for life but got lost during landing. On the other hand, it might be another kind of mistake or misunderstanding, somebody’s over-active imagination, or even possibly an outright lie, though I can’t see any reason for that. I would be most interested to know where you heard that an arm was found on Mars, and whether it was from a credible source. I’m not inclined to believe it without a lot more evidence than I’ve seen.

      It does not, by the way, take 2,400 years to get to Mars. Depending on where Mars and Earth are in their respective orbits around the sun, it can take as little as 1 1/2 years — not as long as it took to sail around the earth 500 years ago. Right now, there are astronauts in training for a four-year round trip to Mars. As I’m sure you know, though, there are a lot of other problems to be dealt with before they actually set out.

      For people who think about travelling to another solar system besides ours or beyond, they assume that entire generations would live and die while they were travelling in space for perhaps as long as hundreds of years. But then, it’s something that I doubt either of us will ever see happen.

      That seven seconds you are wondering about, by the way, is the result of what Albert Einstein identified as the relativity of time. I had to think/read/study/struggle with this concept for almost a year before I finally understood it. So maybe I’d better not try to explain it quite yet.

      Thank you again for your comment. And I mean it – I would be most interested in hearing about your source where you heard that an arm was found on Mars.

      Terry Sissons

  6. Megan says:

    By the way sorry for the spelling mistakes did’nt go through it I can spell lol :)

  7. Amy says:

    Hey I think thats true because at certain points on Earth you set your watch exactly like you said and then you may look at it and its time has gone like a minute ahead I live in London & I set my time to the big ben and when I done it before and came back the next day the time was a minute out on my watch so yh I think it’s true deep within what you said lol

    From Amy :)

    • Amy,

      You are right that time can change, and scientists have evidence that it does. As I said to Megan, Einstein’s theory of relativity is a difficult concept to grasp but it does seem to be true.

      I doubt, though, that your watch getting out of sync with Big Ben in 24 hours is due to time’s relativity. Your watch and Big Ben are just not perfectly accurate. Even atomic clocks, which are the most accurate clocks anybody has yet devised are inaccurate by at least a second every thousand years. Your watch and mine are a lot worse than that — though they are good enough for most of us living in London.

      Terry Sissons

  8. jessylab says:

    that is totally, totally, totally true!

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes! And the more I learn, the more “totally’s” I would add. I think it is very possible that we could eventually colonize Mars, and even some day find another earth-like planet and figure out how to get there.

      But it isn’t going to happen soon, and we need to take care of where we are now or we won’t be around any more to even try to get some place else.

      Terry Sissons

      • Opeyemi adewole says:

        I love your article/comment.it was absolutely interesting.i would you to be my physics teacher…just kideding

  9. Pingback: Announcement of Aliens Coming Soon - Page 6

  10. Opeyemi adewole says:

    WOW!!!,great comments,fantastic articles and wonderful ideas.all of your ideas are very educating.terry,you are an outstanding scientist.thank you very much.

    • Thank you for such positive feedback. Being able to share ideas about this incredible world in which we find ourselves is a great delight for me. Your excitement about what we may understand and continue to learn about the universe makes the process doubly rewarding.
      Again, thank you. Terry Sissons

      • Opeyemi adewole says:

        Human beings can’t live in a place where there is no water.mars,our neighbour planet lacks water.venus is too hot for man.jupiter, em a dont know the reason why we cant live on jupiter.i suggest that it is better to save our planet but a lot has to be done cos our ozone layer is wearing away az a result of cfcs.thank u a 3 million times.

      • Opeyemi adewole says:

        Human beings can’t live in a place where there is no water.mars,our neighbour planet lacks water.venus is too hot for man.jupiter, em a dont know the reason why we cant live on jupiter.i suggest that it is better to save our planet but a lot has to be done cos our ozone layer is wearing away az a result of cfcs.thank u a 3 million times.Thanjs for reading opeyemi

  11. Opeyemi adewole says:

    Sorry i mean thanx for reading opeyemi.thanx for all your wonderful,interestingand educating comments.pls wats your age and country.you are a geniu.emm goodbye.

    • I am an American, retired, and living in Cambridge, England. And you? How old are you, where do you live, and what are your hopes for yourself for the future?

      Terry S

  12. Opeyemi adewole says:

    I am a Nigerian,a yoruba guy.I am eleven years old and would like to be an astronaut.I have a question:why is it that the sun is immensely hot and is there any planet beyond the sun and what ix the future of our mighty planet.dear terry goodbye.

    • To answer you question about the sun. It is intensely hot because it is a medium-size star and at it center burns a huge nuclear fire. Stars are the hottest things in the universe. They burn for billions of years, but eventually they burn out. Our sun will probably burn for another 4-5 billion years. After that, our planet Earth will be cold and dark, and life like ours will no longer be able to survive here.

      There are billions of stars in the universe and many of them have planets going around them. Today scientists are looking for planets like Earth which has oxygen and water and where human life could perhaps one day survive. If they find a planet like this, it would be wonderful. But it would probably take about 500 years to get there in one of our space ships.

      There are two websites that I think you might find interesting. One is * http://www.NASA.gov *which is the U.S. government’s website with some incredible photographs from outer space. Right now it is showing pictures that are being taken by the explorer Curiosity on the planet Mars. The other website is *www.AllOfTime.com*. It tells the story of the universe since it first began more than 13 billion years ago. Both websites are like thick books, so don’t expect to get through them quickly. It could even take years to read everything.

      I think to be an astronaut is a great ambition. It takes imagination and courage and hard work, and above all the desire to push against our familiar frontiers. In some ways any great ambition requires these things – to be a great teacher, to look for a cure for malaria or cancer or aids, to find new ways to feed the hungry in this world. My wish for you is that you are one of those who can fly away into outer space. But even more than that, I wish for you the heart of an astronaut – whatever you become.

      Terry

  13. Adewole opeyemi says:

    Thank you very much.Your words inspires me.According to the wikipedia’there are seven universes.If that’s true,the problem is our planet do not know if there is a habitable place for man in other universes.so i agree with all your ideas

  14. stardust says:

    All the talk about planets lightyears away an we die before we would get there is a load of bullshit to keep us NOT thinking it possible. E.g. If u were on a spaceship.. Once u left (our)earths solar system there would be no timezone. Its actually our solar systems rotation around the sun that causes the effect which we call “time”. Once out of the solar systems rotation around around the sun. Time would cease to exist. Do ur research

    • Stardust – I have approved this comment to appear on my blog because I appreciate that you may not understand that it is a forum for dialogue. It is not a place for insults. I have no problem whatsoever with your disagreeing with me or any other view expressed here, but to dismiss ideas as “bullshit” is unacceptable.

      Having said that, I think you may be misunderstanding Einstein’s theory of relativity. His theory is that time is relative to where we are in space. The theory does not say that time ceases to exist outside our solar system. A space ship leaving our solar system would not escape time, the people inside the space ship would not become ageless or protected from illness, disease, or dying. But even if they did, time as we know it on earth would continue here. Messages cannot travel faster than the speed of light so it could be hundreds or even thousands of years to transmit messages to and from earth to the space ship. Effectively, we would never knowwhether the space ship arrived safely anywhere and began a new life.

      Having said that, I think if we do not destroy our earth’s environment prematurely and so do not survive ourselves, that humans will almost certainly colonize other planets some day. It may be within the life time of people living today that a colony is set up on Mars.

      Is it something that you can imagine yourself doing?

  15. Christian Vera says:

    I don’t think human colonization of other planets will be possible. Not because we lack the mental power to do so, but because we suffer from living under control of these overly powerful malignant rulers(banking families, royal families, government officials, executive officers of some of the world largest companies, . With this public school education system that for years has been miserably faulting, we daily continue to lose the minds that could have one day dedicated their lives to the exploration of Science and the Universe. These malignant rulers plan to depopulate a large percentage of the 3rd world and plan to dominate every aspect of our lives by controlling our finances with radio-frequency identification chips and I can go on for days about this specific topic. Regardless of all the problems in this world, I hope one day in the next 5000 years or so, we can begin the exploration of Earths buddies. This article is very intriguing and everything written is completely accurate and true. I hope all the good for mankind and for you live.

    Regards from Christian Vera,
    Australian living in New Haven, Connecticut.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I understand your concern about a small nexus of global power. I too share your concerns, particularly about the future of public education.

      On the other hand, even the wealthy – maybe even especially the wealthy – may want to colonize another planet, especially if the environment on mother earth deteriorates as radically as some scientists fear it could. The history of evolution tends to support the view that progress is often made because current conditions are becoming too challenging – not when things are going well. When the first plants and animals left the sea for a life on land, it was because the earth’s oceans were becoming very competitive places to survive. And Homo sapiens almost certainly left Africa in search of a better life. So who knows? It is unlikely that you or I will live long enough to see the answers. But we can hope.

  16. Micheal scott says:

    There is no place in the universe that could be like our earth.in the solar system,we cant live in mercury because its nearness to the sun,venus cos its the hottest,mars cos it lacks water,jupiter has minor amount of water,saturn,uranus,neptune and the pluto (no more included)too cold.and the problem is that we cannot travel to another solar system even if it exists.we cant think of travelling to another planet.all we need to do is to make sure we keep our planet well and maintain the pride of our beautiful planet. the one and only micheal scott.gqihthe so

    • Like you, I am convinced that there is no substitute home for us beyond earth. Perhaps – perhaps – we could set up an outpost on the moon or on Mars. But the problems needed to do even that at this point are still huge. In any case, humans could not conceivably survive there without a permanent lifeline to mother earth for a very long time. Planets in other solar systems may theoretically be livable, but we haven’t found them, and at current rates of travel even the closest would take us several hundred years to reach.

      Yes, if we want to survive as a species, we must take responsibility for “our beautiful planet.” It almost breaks my heart to think that so many people think there is nothing we can do or should do or that they want to do.

      Still, the worst thing any of us can do is to wring our hands in helpless frustration, and do nothing ourselves.

      Thank you for your input. We are all in this together!

      • Micheal scott says:

        you ar absolutely right.but i just av a question.can an asronaut be lost in space?

      • Yes, an astronaut could be lost in space. If you read about some of the flights that have already taken place, you will discover that if it wasn’t for the fast thinking and very cool head of the US astronauts, one of the capsules was on its way into outer space with no return ticket. There were also rumors among journalists in some of the main US news media that a Russian astronaut died in space some fifty years ago. They said that messages were received from him, but something had gone wrong and they couldn’t get the capsule back to earth.

        It’s still a risky business is space travel.

  17. Brad says:

    I don’t think we would send people on the ten thousand year journey to inhabit another planet, I think we would send a robot/machine that is capable of creating a human.

    • Ah, thank you for offering this interesting possibility. I never thought of sending robots that would presumably be capable of creating a human when conditions permitted. Still, that has a lot of compromises and challenges involved – not the least of which is the need for the human species for socialization. It would have to be an accomplished robot who could pass onto a human community the prodigious accomplishments of humanity on earth – language, reading & writing, respect for others, not to mention the advanced communication capacities of modern science. I think perhaps scientists who talk about robots who themselves excel the capacities of modern humans could be closer to the mark.

      The future is a fascinating country, isn’t it?

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