The other evening I was watching the History Channel which ran a number of episodes of the program, “Ancient Aliens” and followed those up with several episodes of “The Universe.” I find that the mysteries of the universe are even more mind-expanding and interesting than say, watching a football game or even commenting on political poltroons. After all, it might be argued (rather forcefully) that the universe is a bit bigger than either of these two – being, as it is, the sum total of everything.
As a child I remember spending summers in the Catskills and, after dinner, sitting outside our little cabin, staring up at the night sky. I was away from the glare of the lights in New York City and the stars shone bright and sparkly. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was just looking at a small portion of our rather average 300 billion star-filled Milky Way galaxy which was only one of billions of such galaxies. But even with my view that this little subsection of stars was the universe, I couldn’t help but be struck by a sense of true awe at the vastness and the possibilities that must exist in this amazing expanse.
Even the most entrenched city dweller whose view of the night sky is obscured with smog, haze and neon lights has seen the moon, if not the wide panoply of stars. And the moon has always fascinated me with its changing phases and the images which we project on it, “The Man on the Moon,” or if you’re Asian, “The Mouse on the Moon.” And it is well accepted science that the moon and the Earth have a symbiotic, gravitational relationship. We know that the moon is the reason that our oceans have tides and the reason that the Earth bulges as a result of the moon’s influence. And we also know that the moon is doing what it has done for billions of years. It is moving away from the Earth, now at the rate of about 1.5 centimeters a year. Egad!
About 620 million years ago or so, the Moon was so much closer that a day on Earth was only 21 hours long. But as our satellite’s distance from its host planet has increased, it’s gravitational influence has decreased, resulting in the Earth’s slowing rotation. One can only imagine the height of the waves in our planet’s oceans back then. Of course, there was no one around to document that phenomenon. But it would be reasonable to say that the weather and climate were far more extreme than what we know today.
Having spent a number of hours watching these programs, I retired for the night, thoroughly content with thinking about all the ideas which had been presented. Who did build all those pyramids around the Earth? What was the purpose and who could have constructed the Nazca lines in Peru? What must it be like to witness a super nova as a star implodes? And then the moon and its distancing itself from Earth sprung through my sleeping thoughts – and I awoke in a sense of panic.
Suddenly, I realized that in a mere 50 billion years the relationship between the Earth and our satellite would be over after a long and fruitful marriage. The moon would become an errant wanderer. There would be no more songs written about the moon, blue or otherwise. The Earth’s tides would cease. Our symbiotic relationship would be over. Life as we know it today would be forever changed.
So I thought about this and was going to start a campaign that we immediately develop a scientific project to figure out a way to keep the moon in place where it is today, just where it belongs. And then it hit me. Before the moon escapes the grip of Earth’s gravity, in about 45 billion years, good old Sol is going to consume it’s fuel and turn into a red star, forever altering life on Earth by ending it. I turned my focus to that startling event and realized that this was the predictable cataclysm which deserves our immediate attention. And we have 5 billion fewer years in which to find a solution than in the moon’s escaping the Earth’s gravitational force.
Astronomers are discovering that our Milky Way contains hundreds of exo-planets which exist around their respective stars. Some orbit their suns either too closely or too far to sustain life as we know it. Some are far too large and the effects of their gravity would quickly crush a human being who ventured on their surface. But with the incredible vastness of space, it seems inevitable that we will find a planet, or perhaps even many, that are capable of sustaining human life. But that’s just the first part of the equation. Then we have to get there.
With our present state of technology and keeping in mind Einstein’s premise that the speed of light is an absolute which cannot be exceeded, even if we were to find that our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri had planets which could support human life, it is 4.24 light years from Sol. So picture a massive spaceship with a few thousand pilgrim/explorer/settlers/ on board, confined to a relatively small space for a period of time of longer than four years. How would they get along for that amount of time when passengers on a plane here on Earth can barely handle sitting next to a stranger for four or five hours? The solution might be putting them all into cryo-sleep for the time of the journey and resuscitating them on arrival.
This, of course, assumes that we were able to develop a propulsion system which allowed us to approximate the speed of light at 186,284 miles per second. The fastest man made object to date was the Helios 2 probe, which sped along at slightly less than 150,000 miles per hour – which is about 1/24,000th the speed of light. That would make our theoretical journey a 100,000 year long trip. We have a lot of work to do not only in improving our technology to speed up our rate of travel but we probably need some collaboration from the Food Saver System to make sure those cryogenically frozen explorers don’t suffer from freezer burn.
Of course, even if we do find habitable planets in time and even if we develop the technology to shuttle some of our teeming masses to these brand new horizons, there is one factor which we probably won’t know until those stalwart souls show up at their new home. Those planets may be occupied by intelligent beings who have very strict laws about the immigration to their world of alien creatures and might tell these voyagers to go home and get lost. Now wouldn’t that be a pickle?
Some people see “global warming” as the issue which most challenges humanity on planet Earth. But I would suggest they have a very unclear concept of the dangers which truly imperil us. So I wish we would all get together and recognize that the moon’s wafting off into space and the sun’s ultimate burnout are the real threats to humanity’s survival. And I wish someone would get busy and try to figure out a plan to insure that we could make it to alien worlds so that I can get a good night’s sleep and put an end to my nightmares.