Stargazing, Exoplanets and Space travel

I have always liked Science fiction and have been inspired by H.G Wells and Jules Verne and later Asimov. So as a writer I wanted to incorporate this as an element in my books.  Information technology means that we all have instant access to the latest developments in technology and we can see that Science Fiction is steadily becoming Science Fact.  Scientists at NASA are discovering more Exoplanets with their Kepler planet-hunting telescope every day.  So I thought I would tell you about one of the latest ones named Kepler 22-b.  It has been identified as having many similarities to our own planet Earth, making it the latest best potential target for life. It is about 2.4 times the size of Earth and lies in the so-called, “Goldilocks zone”, (the not-too-hot and not-to-cold habitable zone). It has a comfortable surface temperature of about 22C (72F) and orbits a star not unlike our own.  Astronomers believe that it probably also possesses water and land but this has yet to be proved.

Kepler 22-b is an impossible 600 light years away. So the question is, even if we think there is life on a faraway planet, how do we get there?

The nearest star is 4 light years away, a round trip of 8 light years. Actually, going at the speed of light would be impossible for anything with mass but at a velocity of 99% the speed of light, the journey would take just over 8 years as measured by the crew of the spaceship, but about 57 years as measured by an observer on Earth. Can you imagine that?  If you went on such a trip when you returned, a good many of the family and friends you had known would have died or aged much faster than you. If you left children of eight or nine years behind they would be Old Age pensioners when you returned to earth!

If it were possible to travel to Kepler 22-b, 600 light years away, at 99% the speed of light, it would take many generations of human life to arrive there.  So the films and series depicting families living on board a space ship would become reality instead of fantasy. Neil Young’s wrote about such a vision of the future in his evocative song, “After the Goldrush” when he sang, “Well I dreamed I saw the silver Spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun, there were children crying and colours flying all around the chosen ones.  All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun. They were flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun. Flying Mother nature’s silver seed to a new home.”

Imagine that, there would be some people who would be born and die on the space ship and never experience the smell of new mown grass, the feeling of warm sun on their faces, hear waves crashing on the shore or even see a live football match! But the flip side for these pioneers would be amazing sights and awesome experiences during their space travels that others left behind on earth would never see.


So is there anything on the horizon that could make space travel a more viable possibility? Could we travel as fast as light? Could we like the “Star Trek” crew of the Starship Enterprise go into warp drive and travel at superluminal speeds or like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars switch our spaceships to light speed.  The laws of physics may prevent us from doing that but we will be able to go many times faster than our current propulsion methods allow.

Aerospace engineers are devising several innovative ways to travel to the stars. One of these being proposed is the use of electromagnetic propulsion. Unlike the rocket engines of today that run off chemical propulsion, this type of spacecraft would be jolted through space by electromagnets. When cooled to extremely low temperatures, electromagnets demonstrate an unusual behaviour: For the first few nanoseconds after electricity is applied to them, they vibrate. David Goodwin a program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy and Nuclear Physics, proposes that if this vibration can be contained in one direction, it could provide enough of a jolt to send spacecraft farther and faster into space than any other propulsion method in development.

Another method being developed by NASA is one that harnesses the power of the Sun. Basically; fusion-powered spacecraft are designed to recreate the same types of high-temperature reactions that occur in the core of the Sun. The enormous energy created from those reactions is expelled from the engine to provide thrust. Using this type of propulsion system, a spacecraft could speed to Mars in just about three months. It would take conventional rockets at least seven months to reach Mars.

Yet another innovative method of space travel is to use light propulsion. To reach space, we used to use the space shuttle, which has to carry tons of fuel and have two massive rocket boosters strapped to it to lift off the ground.  The basic idea behind light propulsion is the use of ground-based lasers to heat air to the point that it explodes, propelling the spacecraft forward. Lasers would allow engineers to develop lighter spacecraft that wouldn’t need an onboard energy source. The light craft vehicle itself would act as the engine, and light — one of the universe’s most abundant power sources — would be the fuel.


Perhaps the most interesting of all the proposed new methods of space travel that Scientists are working on is developing an interstellar spacecraft engine using antimatter. What is antimatter? Well, it’s exactly what you might think it is – the opposite of normal matter, of which the majority of our universe is made.  Until just recently, the presence of antimatter in our universe was considered to be only theoretical, but in 1928 British physicist Paul A. M.Dirac proposed a new theory and a new paradigm was born revising Einstein’s famous equation <strong>E=mc²</strong>.


When antimatter comes into contact with normal matter, these equal but opposite particles collide to produce an explosion emitting pure radiation, which travels out of the point of the explosion at the speed of light. Both particles that created the explosion are completely annihilated, leaving behind other subatomic particles. The explosion that occurs when antimatter and matter interact transfers the entire mass of both objects into energy. Scientists believe that this energy is more powerful than any that can be generated by other propulsion methods.

So, why haven’t we built a matter-antimatter reaction engine? The problem with developing antimatter propulsion is that there is a lack of antimatter existing in the universe. If there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, we would likely see these reactions around us. Since antimatter doesn’t exist around us, we don’t see the light that would result from it colliding with matter.

It is possible that particles outnumbered anti-particles at the time of the Big Bang. As stated above, the collision of particles and anti-particles destroys both. And because there may have been more particles in the universe to start with, those are all that’s left.  However, scientists discovered a possible deposit of antimatter near the centre of the galaxy in 1977. If that does exist, it would mean that antimatter exists naturally, and the need to make our own antimatter would be eliminated.

For now, we will have to create our own antimatter. Luckily, there is technology available to create antimatter through the use of high-energy particle colliders, also called “atom smashers.” Atom smashers, like CERN, are large tunnels lined with powerful super magnets that circle around to propel atoms at near-light speeds. When an atom is sent through this accelerator, it slams into a target, creating particles. Some of these particles are antiparticles that are separated out by the magnetic field. These high-energy particle accelerators only produce one or two picograms of antiprotons each year. A picogram is a trillionth of a gram. All of the antiprotons produced at CERN in one year would be enough to light a 100-watt electric light bulb for three seconds. It will take tons of antiprotons to travel to interstellar destinations.

So you can see that there are problems with producing antimatter. But if it can be made, an antimatter engine will take us far beyond our solar system and let us reach nearby stars in a fraction of the time it would take a spacecraft propelled by a liquid hydrogen-engine like the ones currently used.


So there we are, electromagnets, light, fusion or anti-matter may lead to great developments in space travel. Technology is growing exponentially.  When you think of it the first working airplane was invented, designed, made, and flown by the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903. A 12-horsepower water-cooled engine supplied the power to the two propellers. When the motorcar was first seen on our roads in the late 1800’s someone walked in front of it waving a red flag! Since then we have developed jet propelled aircraft, beaten the sound barrier, sent men to the moon and constructed a manned space satellite orbiting the earth. In the last 100 years science and technology has taken giant leaps and new inventions are developing at a faster and faster rate.


So in the next hundred years there is a possibility that we may develop a fast method of space travel.  We may discover some forms of life on far away planets and who knows we may find some form of intelligent life.  But are we ready for this? The Altairians in my book “The Grail of the Unicorn planet” are in effect aliens and they describe Earth as a primitive planet. Life is not exactly harmonious here, with wars, squabbling politicians, natural disasters, and global warming. We humans are hardly exemplary so would aliens even want to be our friends?   Another thought is that they may be a threat to us.  But I am ever an optimist and I like to think that aliens would be benevolent and perhaps help us to grow.