It’s beginning to look like the universe is more habitable than we ever thought possible. Not only are astronomers discovering and cataloguing Earth-like exoplanets with stunning regularity (69 and counting since 2009), they are now finding them right in our own interplanetary backyard.
The latest buzz in astronomy circles is over Kepler-186f, a planet that appears to be a dead-ringer for our own planet Earth. It’s almost exactly the same size as Earth and the same relative distance from the sun in the Kepler 186 solar system. It’s also the first-ever planet that is located within the “habitable zone.” This is big news for planet-watchers since it means that the surface of Kepler-186f could theoretically support liquid water rather than just ice or vapor. Best of all, Kepler-186f is only 500 light years away from Earth, making it practically a next-door neighbor if you compare it to something like the Andromeda Galaxy (the Milky Way’s neighbor, located 2.5 million light years away from Earth).
If other planets within our galaxy are indeed inhabitable, it might just usher in the next great era of manned space exploration. In many ways, this new era of manned space exploration would be similar to the Age of Exploration centuries ago that led to the discovery of the New World and the creation of new trade routes around the globe. Hundreds of years ago, it seemed just as daunting to reach these new lands by crossing the world’s oceans in wooden ships. You can almost imagine explorers setting off with maps marked with cryptic phrases like “Here There Be Dragons” and hoping for the best. In short, explorers were uncertain whether they’d ever return.
However, it’s likely that NASA would play a supporting, rather than a starring role, in any future plan to colonize space. This is primarily a reality of the new budget situation in Washington and the inability of Congress to agree on NASA’s future strategy. You can’t just legislate a mission to Mars. Instead, the starring role would be played by the new generation of exciting new private sector space exploration companies — just as the starring role during the first Age of Exploration was played by brave adventurers and commercial companies willing to take on risk.
This weekend, for example, when NASA needed to refuel the International Space Station, it was the “Easter Dragon” from SpaceX that came bearing gifts and supplies, not a NASA shuttle. NASA has also opened up its treasure trove of intellectual property as part of a massive open source giveaway — including the software to power a rocket guidance system. In a best-case scenario, this open-sourcing of space IP could accelerate the creation and launch of new commercial space exploration ventures.
Supporters of Mars colonization efforts – such as famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin — have already put forward a comprehensive set of proposals for how to create an interplanetary system of ferrying men, women and supplies to and from the Red Planet. The asteroid mining community, led by Planetary Resources, has been floating ideas for launching expeditions to nearby asteroids in order to mine precious metals. This, too, is reminiscent of that previous Age of Discovery, when tangible financial gains – the discovery of spices and precious metals – made it possible to finance increasingly bolder trips to explore and colonize the world.
Best of all, there is new technology making a plan to colonize space a future reality. NASA has been experimenting with new kinds of xenon-ion engines capable of remarkable speeds that are helping to refute the logic that any destination beyond the solar system is simply beyond our reach. This is the really exciting part – a new xenon-ion engine is theoretically capable of carrying space explorers at 90,000 mph through the solar system. One xenon-ion engine at NASA has been chugging along for 48,000 hours (roughly five and one-half years), giving rise to the hope of some kind of “Warp Drive” for navigating the universe.
No doubt, manned space exploration is a long-term venture. That’s why we need a 50-year or a 100-year plan, not a plan that’s renewed annually depending on national budget priorities. Assume spacecraft can get up to 90,000 mph and can travel for five years at such sustained speeds – that’s roughly 800 million miles per year. As a point of reference, one light year is 6 trillion miles, so there’s still a long ways to go with the technology in order to travel just one light year within a reasonable period of time. However, continuing to innovate is better than the alternative – blasting rockets at the moon at high speeds and waiting for some other nation like China to make the first move.
Launching a new Age of Discovery could potentially galvanize nations the same way that the previous Age of Discovery did, leading to all sorts of new innovations and new opportunities. If nothing else, it will give the people of Earth a backup option once global climate change starts to be a problem by the year 2100. That’s 100 years to start thinking of how to make the interstellar trek to a “near Earth” that takes us beyond the moon, beyond Mars, to the furthest reaches of the Milky Way.