Article Title
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Ingenuity and New Worlds

by Josh Zeisel

Ingenuity and New Worlds

One of the things that sets the human species apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is the human desire to explore. If you think about it there are quite a few things needed for exploration. Adaptation, technology, and quick thinking are all things that humans do very well. Actually, the only place besides deep oceans that hasn't been touched by "modern" man is North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean (those natives keep shooting arrows at our helicopters). I can go on to Google Maps and look at any part of the world. The pictures may show vast forest inhibiting my ability to view the ground at those points, but I know these places exist and how big they are. Space, as Star Trek suggested, is man's next frontier. Unfortunately, there are things that are complicating the journey.

Recently, there has been a lot of news out of NASA about the discovery of new planets. These new planets vary in style. In other words, most are big gas giants like the outer planets in our Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, etc. Some are balls of rock, but they are so close to their suns that there is no way an atmosphere can exist in such extreme heat. Then are the planets that are about the same size as Earth and/or live in what's called the "habitable zone." This is the zone that we know allows life to exist as this is the spot Earth inhabits in our Solar System.

The one planet discovered that has gotten much press lately is Kepler-22B (NASA operates a satellite called "Kepler"). This planet lives in the habitable zone and is only about 2.5 times bigger than Earth, making its existence promising. But we aren't sure what this thing is made out of. It's important to know what this giant ball of mystery is made of because that will tell us how much gravity exists on the surface. All things that have mass have gravity. You, me, the moon, and an atom of hydrogen, we all make our own gravitational fields. But the more mass you have (mass is the stuff that we are made out of) the larger your gravitational field is.

There are some important things that come about from gravity. Gravity allows for an atmosphere to exists. Most likely Kepler-22B has an atmosphere. It's in a cool enough area in the habitable zone and it has mass which allows for gravity to exist and allows for gases to stay close to the surface. The planet may just very well be all gas and no rock. But if the planet is made of rock, then the gravity is even more important. Gravity makes living things evolve to grow supporting structures. Trees grow thick trunks and animals grow strong bones that keep the rest of our bodies aloft instead of blobs of goo flowing along the ground. With bones we can lift heavy objects, creating tools that allow us to build structures or just run after our prey. Gravity allows us to know which way is up, to walk around without floating away.

Gravity may also be the problem with our future home planet. With our favorite new summer vacation destination being 2.5 times larger than our very own planet there may be too much gravity. For those of us (like myself) who can leg press 600 pounds, this may not be a problem, but eventually even I will get tired of walking around weighing 2.5 times what I weigh now. Life as we know it is very fragile. Slight changes in our environment would cause dramatic changes in how we live and what we look like. A little more gravity and even Homo erectus wouldn't have been able to stand up. Homo Sapiens would have never evolved to our present glory. With a little extra gravity, life may have never even left the oceans.

Forgetting about the physical characteristics of the future site of Kepler-Disney, there is one key problem that needs to be overcome. Kepler-22B is about 600 light-years away, give or take a light year or so. A light year is the distance light takes to travel in one year. Light travels at 300,000 kilometers every second or 186,000 miles every second, making Kepler-22B roughly 35 million billion miles away. The fastest thing man has ever built is the Saturn V rocket that was used to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions. The Saturn V reached a top speed of 12.3 kilometers per second. That's about 24,000 times slower than light. Since I've already bored you with so many numbers let's just all agree that it;s just a really long time to travel.

So jack up the Saturn V with more fuel, right? Great answer! Actually, if you add more fuel you just need more power to get that fuel going to that faster speed. That leads to needing more fuel, which is more mass...which you'll need more fuel to get it moving...and you get the picture. Unfortunately, that means we'll probably need to find a fountain of youth to be able to have a group of people living for 600 plus years at best or you'll have to send a lot of people who actually like each other and will reproduce with each other for multiple generations to be able to explore Kepler-22B. And any communication we send back to Earth when we finally get to Kepler-22B will take 600 years to travel back to Earth (radio waves travel at the speed of light).

Fortunately for our species, we have ingenuity. We thrive on being challenged and we use technology to overcome those challenges. Christopher Columbus had rickety wooden boats that he used to prove everyone wrong. Lewis and Clarke knew nothing about where they were going and ended up mapping the mid-western United States as they went. With advanced engineering and physics it may be possible to get to Kepler-22B faster than light. I'm not saying I know how to do it or will ever be able to figure it out, but seeing how powerful these smart phones are getting every year, I'm sure we can focus some of our abilities on bending space and time for faster travel turning that 600 light year trip into a trip that lasts only about an hour. Do we really need a phone thinner than the Droid Razor? We can do better with our talents.

Image courtesy of NASA / Ames / JPL Caltech via Talking Points Memo

Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]