Intergalactic Planetary, Planetary Intergalactic

October 2nd, 2010

Unless your cave dwelling in Afghanistan doesn’t have the internets, you have probably heard about the planet in a nearby solar system that could possibly harbor life. For years, astronomers have searched for earth-like worlds in what’s called the “goldilocks zone”, meaning a planet that’s not too close or too far away from its sun. This newly discovered planet, awkwardly named Gliese 581g, is about 20 light years from Earth, which is super close in space terms. Still, it’s too far away for humans to ever reach in our lifetime. But I wonder if anyone has thought about some long term autonomous mission to this far off world yet? Even if we sent a probe to investigate, it could take a couple centuries to get there. That brings up all sorts of questions, like how do you design and build a power supply that would work that long? And how do you construct a delicate and complex machine to survive such a long journey with prolonged exposure to radiation and  micro meteoroids? Once the probe reaches its destination, it would also need some kind of artificial intelligence (AI) to determine proper orbit and the like. The on board AI would also need to make decisions about how the planet would be studied and what data should be transmitted back to earth (which wouldn’t reach us for another 20 years). Of course you could always include large telescopes in the payload package that would allow us to study the star system long before the probe reach it. Even if the probe failed in the last stages of the mission, the deep space data would likely be worth the effort.

The only practical deep space concepts from NASA I’ve seen are ones designed to study the interstellar regions just outside of our solar system. I’ve never seen detailed plans for a probe designed to travel to another solar system (other than rough concepts for nuclear powered crafts from interplanetary societies dating back to the ‘60s and a few really out there newer ones like Project Icarus). But even if we could design a probe that travels just one-tenth the speed of light, it would still take 220 years to reach Gliesse 581g. Of course our current propulsion technology does not offer anything that could get us to one-tenth the speed of light, so we would have to develop something pretty revolutionary. The other thing I thought about was slowing such a fast moving probe down once it reached this new solar system. I suppose that’s where the AI would come into play again. Once the probe reached the destination star system, it would have to calculate and execute a maneuver that would put it into a stable orbit around Gliese 581g. While the obstacles to creating and deploying a probe to this new planet are formidable, I would love to see scientists and engineer at least brainstorming hardware/software concepts — even if they are totally far fetched.

Entry Filed under: Science

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