We dream of reaching the stars. Indeed, it’s at the core of what I’ve been writing, and the same is true for many other science fiction authors. It’s also the subject of intensive research by some fairly serious scientists, even if they don’t quite get the billing and notoriety of NASA projects focused right here in our own Solar System.
But is it truly possible?
I like to think so, but I also understand that the challenges are incredibly daunting, more so than the majority of interstellar-themed science fiction stories would have us believe.
Bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson tackles the challenges of so-called generation ships, in which people will be born, live, and die during the voyage, and only the grandchildren of the original astronauts will be alive at journey’s end in his 2015 novel Aurora. It’s a great read, and I highly encourage you to check it out. I won’t spoil it for you by talking about his conclusions in the novel.
But Robinson also wrote a blog post discussing his thoughts on the various challenges faced, Our Generation Ships Will Sink, and perhaps the title gives it away. He goes into some detail about the issues faced with biological, ecological, physical, sociological, psychological… lots of logicals there. Even upon arrival, the problems don’t cease.
Robinson’s article is a great read, but if you want a nicely wrapped up synopsis of it, I recommend Richard Rabil Jr’s Stars Beyond Our Reach, linked at the beginning of this post. Rabil is a technical writer, who writes both fiction and essays on subjects as diverse as technology and faith, and he tackles many interesting subjects on his blog (which I’ve only just discovered, but so far it’s very promising). He also does a great summary of the evolution of science fiction as a genre, another post I can strongly recommend.
If, like me, you are fascinated by realism in our quest to reach the stars, Rabil’s summary is a good place to start.
In the year of ’39 assembled here the volunteers,
In the days when lands were few;
Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn,
The sweetest sight ever seen.
Lately I’ve had this song running through my head, pretty much on constant repeat. It’s an old song, first released in 1975 on the album A Night at the Opera by Queen.
And the night followed day,
And the storytellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day sailed across the milky seas,
Ne’er looked back, never feared, never cried.
At first it seems to be telling a relatively ordinary story. Volunteers set sail in a ship for a dangerous journey. Is it 1939? Is this something to do with World War II? It’s not really clear yet.
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away,
Don’t you hear me calling you;
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew.
Wait, what? The land that our grandchildren knew? Ok, there is something odd going on here. And what’s this about being many years away? The song seems to be playing around with time.
In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day,
And they bring good news of a world so newly born,
Though their hearts so heavily weigh;
For the Earth is old and grey,
Little darling went away,
But my love this cannot be,
For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year,
Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me.
Right, this is definitely not an ordinary ship sailing ordinary seas, and time is certainly being twisted. The volunteers bring news of a new world, while the Earth is old and grey? We’re talking about space travel, aren’t we? In fact, we’re talking about interstellar travel.
It’s definitely not 1939.
Many music lovers might have been confused by this song, but by now it should be obvious to readers of this blog what’s going on here. For astronauts to travel far enough to discover another world (“so newly born”), one capable of replacing the “old and grey” Earth as humanity’s home, and return back with the news “older but a year,” they must have traveled very fast indeed. Perhaps even approaching the speed of light?
At speeds this fast, the theory of special relativity tells us (and experimental research has shown) that odd things happen with time. Time appears to slow down for the traveler, at least relative to the stationary observer, so that by journey’s end the traveler will have aged far less than those who stayed home.
In the year of ’39 assembled here the volunteers
2139, perhaps? 2239? It’s not completely clear.
In the year of ’39 came a ship in from the blue,
The volunteers came home that day
Not the same ’39, but 100 years later. 2239? 2339?
For so many years have gone though I’m older but a year
As it happens, given the parameters of the song, we can calculate how fast the ship was traveling, and thus how far away they went, and perhaps even speculate what star they visited! This is because, despite being such a non-intuitive phenomenon, time dilation due to relativistic effects is well understood, and there is an equation to calculate it.
t’ = dilated time
t = stationary time
v = velocity
c = speed of light
We want to know the ship’s velocity, so let’s parse this out (like traveling back in time to algebra class!):
Ok, let’s plug in some numbers! To keep things simple, we’ll express velocity as a percentage of the speed of light, and time in years, even though normally in physics equations velocities would be meters per second and time in seconds. But at this scale, those would be some big numbers, so we’re going to assume that c=1, and that v therefore is a percent of c.
In order for 100 years to have passed on Earth while only 1 year passed for the astronauts, the ship had to be traveling approximately 99.995% of the speed of light. That is some extreme time dilation, and so that is some extreme speed. Quite the starship!
Time isn’t the only thing dilating here, as traveling at these speeds does some interesting things to the fabric of space as well. Distances ahead of the travelers will appear to shrink somewhat, though even at this high fraction of the speed of light, it’s a minimal effect. Add a few more 9s to the significant digits, however, and it gets very strange indeed.
Meanwhile, though, our travelers have spent a year journeying at very close to the speed of light. How far have they gone? One light-year?
Oh no. They’ve gone much farther than that. The distance traveled is at a speed relative to time for the stationary observers waiting patiently back on Earth, so our starship has traveled a hundred light-years, though it seems to the astronauts to take only one year to do so.
So, what star might they have visited to find a “world so newly born” to which humanity could relocate? First off, this was a round-trip, so with half the time spent journeying out and half spent returning, that would imply they went no more than fifty light-years away (“no more than,” I say, as if this is no big deal, but fifty light-years is a very big deal). Gliese 163 is 49 light-years away and has one potentially habitable world, but it’s not considered an absolutely prime candidate.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that our starship took a little bit of time to accelerate and then decelerate on its journey, so that instead of 50 light-years, perhaps it really only traveled about 40 light-years away.
They went to Trappist-1.
Trappist-1 is a cool red dwarf star 39.6 light-years away, and it has seven temperate and terrestrial planets, four of which are considered potentially habitable even by conservative estimates. Trappist-1 is obviously a prime candidate for finding life, or at least worlds on which humans could live, and being at about the right distance, is also a prime candidate for our volunteers on their desperate and lonely journey.
Not that this provided much consolation to our narrator, who returns to Earth to find his wife long dead, and only a memory of her in the eyes of his (presumably centenarian) daughter (or granddaughter?).
Your mother’s eyes, from your eyes, cry to me.
’39 was written by Brian May, lead guitarist for Queen, in 1975. May, as some of you may know, is also an accomplished astrophysicist, and while the planets of Trappist-1 had not yet been discovered in 1975, he certainly understood the effects and impacts of time dilation on travel at relativistic speeds. May studied physics and mathematics up through the time when his music career began to skyrocket to success, though due to focusing on music after that point, it took him 37 years to complete his doctoral thesis (A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal DustCloud), finally earning his PhD in 2008. He was Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from then until 2013, and he was a science team collaborator for the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto.
Not just a fantastic guitarist and songwriter, but a serious scientist!
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away,
Don’t you hear me calling you;
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand,
For my life
Final note: Although Freddie Mercury is far more well-known as lead vocalist, it was Brian May who sang the lyrics for the studio version of ’39 (though Mercury sang for most of their live performances).
’39 from the album A Night at the Opera by Queen, 1975
Songwriter Brian May, copyright EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Special thanks to E=mc2 Explained for breaking down the physics of time dilation for us laypeople.
Three months ago I wrote about Orbital Mechanics, focusing on the ins and outs of how spaceships and satellites navigate their way around a planet’s orbital space. We got into the ins and outs of velocity vectors, inclination angles, and prograde vs retrograde thrust.
But what about when a spaceship leaves Earth — or whatever planet it happens to be in orbit around; Kepler 62f, perhaps? — and makes its way toward another planet in the Solar System. Mars, for instance. We’re all astute enough to realize that it’s not as simple as pointing the ship at Mars and firing the rockets. For one thing, of course, Mars is moving, as it is orbiting around the Sun just like Earth is, so even if a straight-line course were possible, we would need to “lead the target,” i.e. aim for the point in Mars’ orbit where Mars will be at the time we arrive.
Sphere of Influence
And, if that’s all it took, this would be a short post. But of course, it’s not as simple as that, as I’m sure you suspected by now. Once our spaceship leaves Earth’s sphere of influence, and until such time as we arrive in Mars’ sphere of influence, we aren’t just in some flat space with no gravitational pull on us. By sphere of influence, or SOI, I mean the region of space where the primary gravitational pull is from whatever celestial body “owns” that SOI. Close to Earth, or in orbit around Earth (even a very high orbit), the bulk of the gravity we feel is from Earth. And, if we don’t maintain sufficient velocity for the altitude of our orbit, then it is Earth into which we will fall. Likewise for Mars.
But in between Earth and Mars, we are still in an SOI — that of the Sun. So, once our spaceship leaves Earth’s SOI, we are primarily impacted by the Sun’s gravity, just as Earth and Mars are.
In fact, once we leave Earth’s SOI, we are still in orbit. It’s just that it’s no longer Earth that we’re orbiting, it’s the Sun.
Up, Down, and the Plane of the Ecliptic
If you’re like me, you probably grew up thinking of the Solar System as basically a flat plane (the plane of the ecliptic), with the Sun in the center and the planets in their various orbits sliding around that plane at a given distance from the Sun. Each of the planets has a north pole that points roughly in the same direction, “up” from the plane. Well, each of the planets except Uranus; Uranus is completely lying on its side, with an axial tilt of 98°, rolling through its orbit like a ball whereas the others are more like spinning tops (apologies to Fraser Cain of Universe Today for borrowing his imagery; I can’t think of a better way to describe it). Anyway, Uranus aside, this way of thinking about the Solar System and the plane of the ecliptic leads to the idea that the Solar System has something of an “up” that all the planets’ north poles somewhat point to, and a “down” that the various south poles point to.
This is not a useful way to think about space. Thinking like this is what leads to engineers constructing the Death Star, with such obvious design flaws that both the first and second versions suffered catastrophic failure with just a tiny nudge. Don’t be one of those engineers.
Astronauts onboard the ISS don’t think of the general direction of Earth’s north pole as “up.” If anything, it’s sort of sideways. The effects of free fall notwithstanding, the ISS and everyone in it remain subject to Earth’s gravity at about 90% of what we feel on the ground — they just don’t notice it because they are falling all the time, just as I described in my previous post on this topic. If there’s a “down,” it’s toward the Earth’s surface, and “up” is away from Earth.
So likewise, when we are orbiting the Sun, and outside any planet’s SOI, it’s more useful to think of “down” as being toward the Sun, and “up” as away from the Sun. On a more technical level, the inner planets (Mercury and Venus) are in lower orbits, and the outer planets (Mars and beyond, though the belters of The Expanse might have a thing or two to say about referring to Mars as an “outer” planet) are in higher orbits.
Delta-V, Prograde and Retrograde
So, referring back to the earlier post, you’ll recall that it’s not possible (or at least not feasible without a very powerful torchship, but that’s beyond the current discussion) to travel from a lower orbit to a higher one by simply aiming the spaceship “up” and firing the rockets, and that likewise we cannot travel from higher orbit to lower orbit by aiming the spaceship “down” and firing rockets. Well, we could, but it wouldn’t give us the desired result.
Instead, we need to fire our rockets either prograde (to raise our orbit) or retrograde (to reduce or lower our orbit). Either way, what we want to achieve is the appropriate delta-v, or change in velocity (often expressed as Δv), required to match orbits with our target.
To get to Mars, once we have left Earth’s SOI (achieved an Earth orbit high enough that the Sun’s gravitational influence takes over), we don’t point our spaceship toward Mars at all. Instead, we point it forward along the direction of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, i.e. in a prograde direction, and fire the rockets. We are already orbiting the Sun at the same velocity as Earth, which just like the orbital velocity of a satellite around Earth is defined by the same equation, √(GM/r), that you surely recall from Orbital Mechanics. Without going into the equation’s details, the Earth moves along its orbit at a rate of approximately 108,000 kilometers per hour, which is fast.
So our spaceship already has this much velocity around the Sun. Mars, in contrast, orbits at an average of 86,760 km/hr (you’ll recall that objects in higher orbit move slower). What we need to do is accelerate prograde, expending delta-v to raise our orbit until it matches that of Mars.
In Orbital Mechanics I didn’t go quite far enough into the details of just how raising or lowering an orbit works, other than discussing about thrusting prograde or retrograde. However, the principle remains exactly the same, whether in orbit around the Earth or orbit around the Sun.
When we accelerate prograde, the orbit as a whole doesn’t just expand outward to the higher altitude. Instead, it takes our current mostly circular orbit around the Sun and reshapes it into an elliptical orbit instead, with the perihelion, or closest point to the Sun, being the distance (altitude) of our starting orbit, i.e. Earth’s orbit. As we apply thrust, either more powerfully or for a longer period of time, our orbit becomes more and more elliptical, with the aphelion raising higher and higher, or farther and farther out.
The perihelion of our orbit doesn’t change, however. Eventually, after we have accelerated for a long enough time, our aphelion matches the orbit of Mars, but our perihelion remains at the orbit of Earth. We are now in what’s known as a Hohmann transfer orbit, and if we do nothing else, our spaceship will cycle endlessly back and forth between Mars’ orbit and Earth’s orbit. That, of course, could be quite useful if our intent is to set up some kind of shuttle or cargo transport back and forth, assuming we can match up the times of aphelion and perihelion to when Mars and Earth will be in the same space as our transport craft.
But we aren’t setting up a cargo shuttle. We want to get to Mars, and we want to stay there (for now). We could, upon arriving at aphelion (and thus the orbit of Mars), once again burn prograde. By burning at aphelion instead of perihelion, we won’t be further raising our aphelion; instead we’ll be raising our perihelion. This has the effect of (slowly) reducing the elliptical eccentricity of our orbit, i.e. of circularizing it. And indeed, this is precisely how we would set a satellite into, say, geosynchronous orbit around the Earth.
But, this would negate all the efficiencies of the Hohmann transfer, and require a lot of burning, a lot of propellant, and a lot of time (unless we use a continuous thrust engine, such as an ion drive; more about this later).
Instead, if we are clever and time our launch window so that our arrival at Mars is close to when it will be 180° around the Sun from where Earth was at launch time, then we arrive with least travel time (and least delta-v), and the last thing we want to do is now waste all that by raising our perihelion. Instead, by arriving at just the right time, we will insert our spacecraft into Mars’ SOI (sphere of influence, you’ll recall) and decelerate to slow the craft down enough that it is captured by Mars’ gravity.
Now we’re in Mars orbit! From this point, all the same rules apply about adjusting our orbit around Mars as did for adjusting it around Earth, or for that matter around the Sun. Or around Kepler 62f if that’s what we’re talking about.
Return to Earth
So now it’s time to go home. How is it different? It isn’t, really. In fact, it’s just the same as any orbital maneuver aimed at reducing altitude. We need to reduce our altitude from 228 million kilometers to 150 million kilometers. To do this, we burn retrograde, against the direction of Mars’ orbit. This has the reverse effect from before, in that it reduces the altitude (from the Sun) of our perihelion until it matches Earth’s orbit. We aren’t actually orbiting the Sun in the reverse direction now — we aren’t burning nearly hard enough for that to happen — we’re just pushing back against our orbit so that we start falling in toward the Sun.
Again, we want to time it with a launch window, one in which it will take us just about one-half of a revolution around the Sun to arrive at Earth’s orbital altitude just as Earth arrives to the same spot. And, upon reaching Earth’s SOI, we need to decelerate so that we are captured by Earth’s gravity, and just like that, we’re home! Well, in orbit around home, anyway, but we know what to do from here.
Interplanetary Transfer Summary
When rockets launch from the surface of Earth to reach orbit, or beyond, they usually do so in an easterly direction, and from as close to the equator as practicable, in order to take advantage of the velocity already imparted upon them by the Earth’s rotation. In other words, to reduce how much delta-v needs to be expended to obtain the velocity required for orbit.
When spacecraft leave Earth to go to Mars, they take advantage of the velocity already imparted upon them by Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Burn prograde, and you ascend to higher orbit, or to the outer planets. Burn retrograde, and you descend to lower orbit, or to the inner planets. It’s really no different, whether in Earth orbit, or interplanetary.
But what happens if our spacecraft leaves the Solar System entirely?
Leaving out for now questions of faster-than-light travel, Alcubierre warp engines, and other such exotic drives, interstellar maneuvers are no different from interplanetary maneuvers. It’s just a question of scale. Just as the Earth and the other planets in our Solar System revolve around the Sun, the Sun and the hundreds of billions of other stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy all revolve around the center of the galaxy. Just as each planet has an orbit around the Sun, each star has an orbit around the galactic center.
And just as there is a path, and a sequence of burns, that describe an efficient Hohmann transfer route between two planets, there is likewise a Hohmann transfer route between any two stars within the galaxy. There are even more or less ideal launch windows, though given the timescale of stellar orbits, we don’t have as much choice about them; we pretty much have to go when we’re ready to go and accept the less-than-ideal configuration.
Interplanetary and interstellar movement is really the same thing; it’s just a matter of scale. A rather large matter of scale, to be sure, but conceptually no different.
So when we’re ready to travel between the stars, if our means remains conventional — whether with a short-burn, high-thrust reaction drive, or a continuous-burn, low-thrust drive, or a continuous-burn, high-thrust torch drive — then the way in which we plot our course doesn’t change. We burn prograde or retrograde about the galactic center, and we utilize our home star’s orbital velocity to impart a delta-v advantage upon ourselves.
There are no straight lines. And our spacecraft is always, always in orbit around something.
The 4th installment of my little space opera is now up, another 1000 words for you to enjoy and critique.
Which begs the question: what makes a story a “space opera”? Does it need to have a large cast, multiple points of view, numerous intricate subplots, and galaxy-spanning empires? Or is any story that takes place primarily in space, far from Earth, visiting other planets and star systems, a space opera? What’s your view?
Either way, please take a moment to read Ring and drop me a comment, tell me what you think!
Episode 3 is ready for your critique and enjoyment. At almost 2400 words, this scene is more than twice the length of either of the previous scenes, but I hope you’ll find it worth it.
Aniara and her crew are still on approach to Kepler 62f, the exoplanet that has drawn them 1200 light-years from home. Anna Laukkonnen, pilot and astronomer, searches for evidence of life or any technological civilization on the planet.
Please let me know what you think. Remember, this is a first draft, and you are my beta readers!