The Science of Interstellar

With the release of the new Sci-fi block buster ‘interstellar’ we’ve decided to take a look at the real science behind interstellar travel as humankind once again dreams of the stars.  As a species we have made some amazing technological advances over the last 200 odd years and with break through after break through being announced every month, you can’t help but dream of amazing things for the future, but it’s not all good news. Climate change and pollution are real and present dangers that the world seems to be floundering on when finding a solution and this is exactly the plot of Interstellar. Nothing motivates like total destruction.

In the real world we have been dreaming of travelling to the stars ever since Sputnik but we quickly realised that despite our advanced technologies we still had a long way to go. There is even a meeting that is held every year to discuss / debate the challenges , risks and technologies required to begin colonizing other solar systems, it’s called the 100 Year Starship Symposium. Don’t think for a second that this is a group of teenage nerds discussing star trek episodes, this is a real, high level discussion group to get humanity to the stars. Even NASA and DARPA are involved so it has credibility in spades but what are the most pressing issues that we have to overcome to truly become and interstellar species?

It's going to take all of us
It’s going to take all of us

Global Direction

This job is bigger than one organisation or government and the unfortunate thing is that in order to kick start a global effort, we need strong political and business leaders that can see past their terms of office. In our eyes the motivation is simple, the preservation of our species is paramount, as it would be foolish to have all our eggs in one basket, but convincing the rest of the world of the importance will be an extremely difficult task. You just have to take a look at the climate debates of the last decade to see how difficult it will be but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.

Space has to become more than just a government enterprise if we want to get to the stars, as government funding is fickle and is heavily dependent of election cycles, not the multi generation commitment that is required to create the technologies to leave our solar system. Even the current space private sector is going through a difficult time with the loss of an Antares rocket and the death of a test pilot from the Virgin Galactic, but we have to get past our fears and mistakes.

As with most technologies there is always spin-off products that can be very lucrative for businesses and as long as the private sector can make money, the future will be bright for the space industry. We need to encourage and foster the private sector to invest and develop deep space technologies, creating a self-perpetuating industry of super advanced technologies with the end aim of leaving our solar system.


An Artists Interstellar Design
An Artists Interstellar Design

The Right Stuff

Although the end goal would to have as many humans as possible travel to the stars, colonizing our solar system and beyond, it can’t be denied that we don’t all get along together. Being locked in a room with even the politest person in the world would eventually get on your nerves, no matter how tolerant you are but this would be a clear problem for the first interstellar travellers.  Think about the dynamics of a small town or close knit community and how quickly rumour, distrust and misinformation can spread, let alone trying to deal with anything in a crisis scenario. It is very important to get the right combination of people to mitigate as much risk as possible, but how do you go about selecting?

Well governments and organisations around the globe are trying to nut this out by setting up controlled analogue experiments that basically lock people in a room or area for extended lengths of time to see how they react and deal with day to day issues.  One home grown example of this is the Mars-Oz experiment and a notable international version, the Mars HI SEAS Experiment in Hawaii. Once these and other experiments around the globe have been completed, we will have a better understanding of human interactions and behaviours during the long time frames required for interstellar travel.

Time is a big issue
Time is a big issue

It’s all about time

One of the largest issues facing interstellar travel is the sheer amount of distance between solar systems. Our nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri is a meagre 4.2 Light years away, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that you would need to travel at the speed of light to get there in 4.2 years.  So to really get that in perspective for you, a photon travels at 299792.5 km per second, our fastest craft so far has been voyager 1 and she is only traveling at 62,136 km per hour which translates to a very poor 17.26 km per second.

So how do we travel as fast as light? Well we can’t and even if we invented some amazing Sci-fi inspired engine, the laws of physics will only allow us to travel up to 99.9% the speed of light. We are working on some fancy engines like the Bussard Interstellar Fusion Ramjet that would scoop up free floating hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe) compress it down and feed it into a fusion reactor. Why not something more exotic, like the Antimatter Propulsion Engine? This design is quite simple, Get some normal matter then produce some Anitmatter, smash them together to release huge amounts of energy. Fuel would become so cheap that sending people to mars would cost you 10 grams of antiprotons but unfortunately both fusion and Antimatter technologies are still in their infancy and any alleged speeds produced by these designs would only be estimates.

Another problem is time dilation, let’s say human kind bands together and we invent an engine that travels at 99.9% the speed of light. If you decided to visit Proxima Centauri you would be looking at am estimated 10 year round trip, that’s 4.5 years each way and 1 year of exploring. Thanks to time dilation from moving at near the speed of light your 10 year round trip, would translate to 224 years for everyone else on earth!

This isn’t a car or plane!

When most people think travel, their minds instantly drift to travelling in a car or a plane but interstellar travel is so much more than just point A to B, as you have to take everything. That’s no understatement you literally have to take everything, a self-replenishing atmosphere, food, water, medical supplies, bacteria and more. The list is almost endless as trust me you don’t want to be 1 year in to a 5 year journey and realise you don’t have something.

We have been experimenting for a while now with enclosed atmospheres, the most famous one being the basis for the 90’s comedy Bio-Dome which was shot in Arizona Universities Bio-Sphere 2.  We won’t go in to detail but the various missions held at Bio-Sphere 2 came up against crop failures, animal deaths, low morale and even vandalism. So we have a long way to go before we know and understand all the small intricacies that make a self-sustaining atmosphere let alone packing everything that is needed along the way.

One technology that promises to solve many issues is the development of 3D printing. The major benefit of 3D printing is the fact that you can print out spare parts as long as you have the raw materials, meaning that you don’t have to bring along thousands of spare parts just in case something breaks, as long as you have the designs you can just print out another one. NASA is even working on a 3D printing robot that could be sent to a planet prior to humans and would use the natural surrounding materials to print habitats.

soooo Many Exo Planet
soooo Many Exo Planet

Billions upon Billions

We could seriously write a 500+ page book on the ins and outs of what is required to achieve interstellar travel (far too many things for one little article) and maybe one day we will, but rest assured that as you sleep there are thousands of scientists working to get us there. As a species we must become children of the stars in order to preserve our race and place in the universe as earths destruction is not science fiction but pure fact, whether it’s our own doing, a rogue comet or the sun consuming us, it will happen eventually.

In our galaxy alone there are billions upon billions of planets just waiting to be explored and it is the choices that we make now that will influence human kind’s future. We haven’t seen Interstellar yet but we are glad that the tradition of making thought provoking and inspiring scientific films is still alive, so go see it and who knows, you might be the next inventor or scientist that makes galactic exploration possible.

Stay Curious – C.Costigan


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