Hey Out There: A Lot of Smart Folks Are Working on Space Travel

Do you remember how Krypton ended? Perhaps you don’t even know what Krypton was. Krypton was the ancestral home planet of Superman. He came to the Earth as a baby put inside a rocket by his sad parents on Krypton, and then sent off and out of the solar system where Krypton resided to find another place to live, far, far away. Krypton was suffering earthquakes and firestorms due to some sort of planetary mismanagement and was about to explode. Indeed, as the rocket left the solar system, carrying off this baby, that’s what Krypton did. And everyone went down with the ship, so to speak.

Now the rest of the story is that here on earth, the rocket landed safely in a cornfield, where it was found by a couple riding an old car down a narrow road alongside some railroad tracks. They went over to look and found that the baby was now a toddler, in a diaper, and quite uninjured by his journey. Not thinking much of it, Mr. and Mrs. Kent took the toddler home to their nearby farmhouse, and there raised their boy to become Superboy and then, after he left home and moved to Metropolis, Superman.

Now this story was started by comic book writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in the late 1930s. And I am delighted that Superman is here, protecting us all from darkness and evil. But what really interests me is how similar this story, the first part of it, is to what is now going on in the 21st century here on earth. Earth is doing badly. Hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes. It’s been mismanaged, and it’s getting worse.

And so now, efforts are underway to make it possible for some of us, perhaps explorers, rich people, politicians, astronauts and others to escape the planet and head out. Where to? Well, we’ve been looking through telescopes at the stars to see which one or two of them might be a place with babbling brooks, sunshine and vitamins and minerals. And we’ve also been looking at ways to get to them fast. For example, in the Superman story, it apparently takes about a year and a half. But that’s only possible if you can approach the speed of light. So that must be possible.

Here are some of the latest developments along these lines.

WHERE TO GO

Mars has always been considered uninhabitable. But now it seems that although it is currently not inhabited, at least on the surface, it might once have been. Samples derived by NASA’s little cars Opportunity and Curiosity, currently driving up and down and all over the surface of Mars, have drilled down to find the building blocks of life—hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Could life have once been on Mars?

“From what we know now,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, “the answer is yes.”

Meanwhile, a geoscientist from Stony Brook University here on Long Island, Deanne Rogers, has been working with an international team to find water on Mars, and they think they may have gotten there. Spectral images from the two thermal emissions system orbiters that circle Mars have shown what they believe may have once been a stream of water below the Mars surface. It’s located three miles down inside of the McLaughlin Crater. She told Newsday that “we found specific minerals that only form in the presence of water.”

Closer at hand is the moon. To get a better idea of how this might work out, NASA is expected to move forward with a plan, funded with $100 million by President Obama, to lasso a 500 ton 25-foot-diameter asteroid in 2019, haul it up near the moon and, using the moon’s gravity, keep it suspended there so astronauts can set up a sort of gas station, do further observations and go for spacewalks.

According to Donald Yeomans, who heads up NASA’s Near-Earth Object program, 25-foot diameter asteroids pose no problem to earth because they would burn up in the earth’s atmosphere if they came down here.

Further away, scientists now believe there may be as many as 4.5 billion habitable planets in our galaxy in the universe out of the 17 billion that are believed to be of our approximate size there. Two studies, separately, have come to this conclusion. One was conducted by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which presented a paper to that effect. The other study, made by the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Hawaii, separately came up with the statistic that 17% of distant stars have planets that are the same size as Earth or slightly larger.

Meanwhile, the Kepler spacecraft continues to spot planets as they pass between Earth and the star they orbit. Recently they found 461 new candidates, to bring the total of potentially habitable planets to 2,740.

Also recently, I read an article on the front page of The New York Times headlined “Two Promising Places to Live, 1,200 Light Years from Earth.” They are Kepler 62e and Kepler 62f, fraternal twins, that orbit around a sun that is 7 billion years old, about 2.5 billion years older than our sun. According to the story, Kepler 62e is about as warm as Hawaii, while Kepler 62f is more like an Alaskan climate.

“It’s an amazing moment in science [finding these planets],” Dr. Lisa Kaltenegger told the Times. “We haven’t found Earth 2.0 yet, but we can taste it, smell it, right there on our technological fingerprints.”

GETTING THERE

A lot of new research is underway to figure out ways to get us to our new home in a Krypton snap of a finger.

As an example of how long it would take using current-day travel abilities, consider that the spacecraft Voyager took nearly 40 years just to get out of our solar system and into the vast, cold void of space. That it has done this was reported last week. It is the first contraption from earth to escape the solar system. It took off from Cape Canaveral inside a rocket in 1977. It’s still out there, beeping and sending back information from a cassette tape hooked into a radio and a primitive 1977 computer, and it’s not expected to reach a star anytime soon (as in the next few centuries.) That’s even longer than Superman might expect to live.

But now there’s the plan being put forward by Eton Musk of the Tesla Motors company, and the Colorado company ET3. He says that he hopes to build an elevated, enclosed vacuum tube the size of a subway tunnel in which a six-passenger capsule could travel at more than 4,000 miles an hour. The train would be propelled by magnet force and the vacuum tube would make the journey almost frictionless. From New York to San Francisco would take less than two hours. From San Francisco to Los Angeles would be only minutes.

But that is not the order of magnitude necessary for space travel, either.

It’s in Houston, Texas that scientists are working in a lab to see if travel can take place faster than the speed of light. Until now, that has been believed to be as fast as you could go.

The lab is in a building that is part of the Johnson Space Center. And it floats. That is necessary because the work being done by NASA at this lab is so sensitive that even the slightest shiver of the earth can affect outcomes. Inside this lab, scientists are trying to slightly warp the trajectory of a photon, so it travels a greater distance but nevertheless still gets from point A to point B.

“Space has been expanding since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago,” Dr. Harold G. White told the New York Times. “And we know that when you look at some of the cosmology models, there were early periods of the universe where there was explosive inflation, where two points went receding away from each other at very rapid speeds.”

In other words, Dr. White is trying to discover Warp Speed. And that would do it.

That’s the speed Superbaby flew to earth at when Jor-El and his wife Lara put the baby in the rocket ship on Krypton. That’s also the speed that Chewbacca ordered the space freighter the Millenium Falcon to fly in Star Wars.

If you’re interested in all of this, well, you can buy a ticket. There is Richard Branson, the wealthy Virgin Galactic businessman who is selling them for $250,000 each. You buy the ticket and your seat is reserved on the first commercial rocket ship flight that will take you off the earth. To where, at this point, is not known. But off it is, before the explosion.

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