This week NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1—an ultra-cool dwarf star located approximately 39 light years away from Earth. At least three planets in this system are believed to exist within a habitable zone, indicating the potential to support Earth-like life.
Announcements such as these spark conversations about whether technological advancements might one day allow us to visit these distant worlds. Currently, the fastest traveling man-made spacecraft is New Horizons. At 36,373 MPH, it took New Horizons just over nine years to travel three billion miles to reach Pluto. However, as impressive as this may sound, at that speed it would still take New Horizons approximately 18,000 years to travel just one light year; so over 700,000 years to arrive at TRAPPIST-1.
With the state of our existing technologies, this feat is impossible. So, what are scientists doing to change that? For starters, they’ve set their sights on some slightly more feasible targets. Last year, another Earth-like planet was discovered orbiting Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf located 4.243 light years away from our sun. A few months earlier, a new space travel initiative known as Breakthrough Starshot was announced by Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner. The project is funded by Milner, and also backed by Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg, and many more.
Breakthrough Starshot proposes to propel mini spacecrafts known as nanocrafts or starchips (no larger than a postage stamp) 100,000,000 MPH through space with the use of a 100 gigawatt laser beam. This high speed will allow for the crafts to travel a full light year in just five Earth years. Initially, the plan for this mission was to be aimed at Alpha Centauri (4.367 light years away); however, with the discovery of an Earth-like planet existing within the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri (4.243 light years away), the mission was redirected to focus on a trip to this system. The total trip time would take approximately 20 years, with a four year waiting period for data to return to Earth.
Another initiative comes straight out of Star Trek: warp drive, also known as Faster Than Light (FTL) travel. This option is still quite theoretical in that it would require a craft that can essentially bend spacetime in the same manner as gravity, and the technology and type of energy required to do this (negative energy density), do not exist/have not been discovered yet. The notion behind this was developed by Mexican astrophysicist Miguel Alcubierre and fine-tuned by NASA engineer Harold “Sonny” White. If successfully developed, FTL spacecrafts could travel several light years in a matter of days.
Whether it’s a trip to our closest neighbor, or to something a bit farther such as TRAPPIST-1, or maybe one day outside of our Milky Way, it is an exciting time to experience the advancement of space travel and discovery. However, since technology has yet to give us eternal life, we’ll just have to wait and hope to see if even a fraction of these advancements become a reality within our lifetimes. Fingers crossed.