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Should scientists focus on interstellar travel more than interplanetary?(Lightspeed travel)

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 10/7/2014 Category: Science
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 919 times Debate No: 62770
Debate Rounds (3)
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As in focus on getting us to Alpha Centauri rather than say Neptune. Basically faster-than-light travel. No religious nonsense please, only logical answers.


Such a focus would not be appropriate for the scientific establishment right now, given the limited resources of NASA, the government agency that would most likely undertake an interstellar travel project.

We've already shown it possible to launch a payload the size of a Volkswagen Beetle to interstellar space, which Voyagers 1 and 2 will traverse as far as distances separating us from nearby stars in about 100K years or so (although neither will pass close to Alpha Centauri).

Because I'm not a physicist, I'm forced to consult expert opinion on the matter of light-speed travel. Halliday & Resnick, Fundamentals of Physics, 10th ed. John Wiley, 2013, has a chapter on Einstein's Special Relativity, the theory that asserts the speed of light is a fundamental physical constant. In the equation that converts the clock and ruler read by one observer with the clock and ruler of another observer, who is moving relative to the first observer, inserting quantities close to c, the speed of light, gives very large numbers approaching infinity as the speed approaches c. Needless to say, the only objects moving near light speed observed to date are subatomic particles. Einstein's relativity has experimental and observational support, including explaining the precession of Mercury's orbit.

It's of course possible this state of affairs will change one day. I think that day is far, far away. Just imagine the energy required to accelerate a physics book (1 kilogram) to 99% of c. From K = (m - m0) c^2, the book's kinetic energy is about 5.5 x 10 ^17 Joules. That's quite a bit less than annual total world energy consumption of some 5 x 10 ^20 Joules, but still represents at least several tonnes of any conceivable nuclear fuel. However, if this fuel is carried aboard ship, the problem now becomes one of accelerating the fuel as well as the 1 kilogram payload. Now we're into many thousands of tonnes of nuclear fuel just to get that 1 kilogram up to a high speed that's still short of the speed of light itself. And 1 kilogram is short of a person, much less a colonizing spaceship!

Near-light speed travel involves engineering concepts that haven't been formulated yet, but even assuming it becomes theoretically possible, it will probably require more energy than humans can generate. It might mean being able to capture and use all the output of a star like the sun, just to propel our spaceship. I have serious doubts it will ever be done. We're having trouble just getting to Mars. Nor have I touched on the daunting problems of supporting life over the years or generations a trip to the stars would entail.
Debate Round No. 1


As you have appropriately said that NASA did not have enough resources, I do believe that if all major space agencies successfully collaborate together they may have ample resources. You also state that it will take massive amounts of fuel to propel a 1 kilogram object to 99% of c, but considering the sudden growth of innovative new technologies more efficient fuels are definitely on the way. If once again NASA put more of its resources into finding new fuels (or any science agency for that matter) I am sure that perhaps with 4-5 decades we may find an efficient enough fuel (and applications) to propel your textbook with say just a kilo of the stuff. I personally am a big fan of sci-fi, and I see interstellar travel as more than a trillion times more profitable than say putting a man on Pluto. As Interstellar travel opens up new habitable planets for us, Humans no longer need to fear of dying with the sun. Whilst certainly in the very short run inter-planetary travel might be helpful in learning more, in the long term mankind has much more profit outside of this solar system.
Let us say that the UN formed a science agency comprised of the best men and women from around the world and it had as much funding as the US give the military. If this truly could happen, the interstellar travel may be in the bag by the end of the 21st century. Maybe inter-galactic travel by the end of the millennia. As we know mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system, and as it might have had water, intelligent life clearly does not exist and the low gravity of mars proves that oceans may be lost into the solar system or the atmosphere will also escape mars' gravity. This is a theory thought to be a reason to why Martian riverbeds are seen, the water evaporated and escaped mars' weak gravity. This shows that humans have nothing to gain from mars. In Jupiter we cannot send a probe to deep otherwise it will be ripped to shreds so nothing other than observations from the giant. However Titan does seem like a possible habitable planet but its low gravity will not be able to sustain a water body. Also the temperatures do not help. Other than more water for Earth and some minor knowledge we clearly have nothing much to gain from inter-planetary travel. As if we do fervently research on a large topic as such, many new branches of science will open, dedicated to study samples of thousands of new planets. And as you said that propulsion might take a lot of fuel, there are other possible methods. One is Stephen Hawking's Wormhole theory (Whilst the energy expenditure for this is also very high, we can fit in a number of objects through it and in the long term may be much more efficient) and there are some really far out topics like inter-dimensional theories and traveling through black holes, but you must understand that propulsion may soon be an outdated version of space travel. It is inefficient, polluting and most of all wasteful. There already are scientists working on better ways to escape Earth's gravity. So it is safe to assume that propulsion is not the way forward (ironic don't you think?) and that we may need lots of complicated stuff. And for propulsion who said we need nuclear fuel? There are plans for using nuclear bombs as propellers or even a far out theory of using small black holes! Now again these are extremely far out theories but we have split atoms! We have divided the indivisible! We have come up with wonders as a race and can do more. Mankind has thought big but now we need to think bigger! Reach the unreachable! After all Albert Einstein famously said "Imagination is more important than knowledge"


When I was young I enjoyed science fiction. Heinlein and Asimov were its leading exponents, with Heinlein in particular resorting to an odd mix of 1950s conservative Cold War politics and sexual liberties of unrestrained patriarchs. I’m not quite that old, yet it would be difficult to publish a book like Stranger in a Strange Land today because of its violations of political correctness, while at my first reading, no unabridged edition was available because of morality fears. How much the world changes in a relatively short time!

Another thing I see changing is the phenomenon of technological optimism. Back then inventions such as the wireless and the airplane were still in living memory. My dad’s teenage home bought a new thing called television, in black and white with vacuum tubes and a rabbit ears antenna on top. Shortly trips to the moon were ongoing. The dizzying pace at which life modernized brought a feeling that anything at all would be possible within a lifetime or so.

Since then, the pace has slowed a bit. Tech is being refined, but nothing as fundamental as radio waves has been discovered since the early 20th century. Emphasis has switched from massive projects (Space Shuttle and Fermilab alike are shuttered now) to the less expensive directions of genomics and computerization. We still have forms of tech optimism, but they lie more in things like health care than in Jetsons lifestyles lived off-planet.

It’s not clear we will even go to Mars. President George H. W. Bush proposed an effort in 1989 he thought would cost $250 billion in 1980s money, and as you allude to, suggested international partnerships with Japan and Europe. But nothing’s been done. We’re also losing interest in putting people into orbit, with closure of the Int’l Space Station expected in about 6 years. You’re correct to note that arid Mars will never be a self-sustaining home for human beings, yet terraforming it in the way Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy envisions might be easier than finding a habitable planet outside the solar system and going there. The energy needed to change Mars or Venus into Earthlike worlds is probably less than the energy needed to make any kind of wormhole, although I admit I’m speculating. Hawking doesn’t provide an estimate on that.

The most efficient fuel is of course antimatter, which can react with matter to convert all the fuel mass into radiant energy. The warp drives in Star Trek used this. The problem here is that antimatter must be manufactured in some way in a plant using conventional energy sources. Fermilab took more power than its hometown of Chicago just to make a few subatomic antimatter particles. Currently, we have no idea how to make it in quantity, or how to store and use it once it’s made. We have yet to prove that technology can indeed develop without the ecological or mental ceilings that some analysts believe will come into play.

I think interstellar travel could ultimately become reality. It’s not in the 21st century’s cards, however, or likely before thousands of years pass and our civilization discovers stuff it has no inkling of now. We need to solve our problems of war and getting along on the one habitable planet we know before going on to become galaxians. The sun isn’t due to expire anytime soon.

Debate Round No. 2


I have not heard about those books and may read them in the future. Thanks a lot though. Anyways, back to the topic, you state that "the pace has slowed a bit" I beg to differ. With the massive speed with which the Internet is growing. Smart phones are also quite new. We certainly may not be getting new technology as fast as we were but the technology we do get perhaps have more uses. These are like little helpful stuff for the general population, not for advancing physics to it's ultimate goal. (Theory of everything) You say science as fundamental as radio waves are not being made. Silicon was a huge win for mankind and now after the discovery of Graphene, we have a new super-material. Even though producing this in mass quantities is tough now, at the time of silicon the same problem was there and we fixed it, and graphene might be widespread by 2020. We have tablets, phones which are now mini computers. We have curved t.v's and phones. In reality I think mankind has once again set it's sight to small. Sure we are getting a couple of new stuff, but that is the entire point of the debate; Mankind thinking bigger. Super computers vs computers in a home. Smart phones vs phones. Even gaming consoles are hand held! And to think that these items are more powerful than the "super-computers" NASA had during the Apollo missions? The current "adult" generation has set it's sight on perfecting this technology rather than expanding. While I am totally for getting 5 GBPS Internet speed, visiting the moon being as easy as going to another city? That's much more interesting. Going to another country the equivalent of a drive? Why not?
While I do not have any bias against the current adult generation, the previous one with all the geniuses certainly thought bigger. Perhaps this was because of the flawed education system where by hearing was more important than understanding. But, back to the topic.
You claim that Terra forming may require more energy. That may be true but the technology related to it may be only a teeny bit less advanced than inter-stellar travel. For Terra forming think of all the things we have to change. Gravity, Atmosphere, maybe even orbit. Our most powerful bomb drawn (Tsar Bomba-100 megatons) does not even have a hope to shift Mars out of it's orbit. Then again, it is gambling as it always is. Mankind betting against time with developing certain technologies. Unfortunately, greed has led to many bad choices. Nuclear bombs (that debate is for another day), small ideas, more warfare out of fear for a country's security (Like U.S.A), generally stuff that will not help mankind. Then comes into play our topic, how it will profit us. You said that we might not reach Mars, I sincerely doubt that. The ISRO put a satellite into Mars for less cost than a movie (Gravity) and whilst that did not have many sensors or give new data, the real objective lay in sending a cheap, fast satellite. Mankind definitely will send a man to Mars by latest 2050. Then again, modern ideas currently take time to develop. We no longer have EUREKA! Moments but rather like a tube light. We take time to turn on, but when we do we are the brightest.
Once again you bring the problem of fuels. This is a problem that certainly can be fixed! However due to rising Earth's health issues we are focusing on energy conservative products or also non-polluting fuels. I however agree that first we can fix some of our own problems before exploring out, but we do not need to be perfect. The moment we are we have lost our humanity. Lets fix pollution. Let us learn to take care of a planet before destroying others. The new movie interstellar brought a new idea into my head, mankind's survival.
Mankind probably will survive the demise of the sun (5 billion years) or be extinct by then, but what if a calamity occurs before that? A meteoroid appearing for Earth. Mankind's first thought? Avoiding it all together. Find a way to stop or destroy it. However I do remember seeing a Nat Geo episode on this that how will we survive a neutron star headed for Earth? What if the calamity seems impossible to stop? Interplanetary travel won't help us. So? We head for interstellar travel. You said that a man can't survive such a long journey, but what about a family? What about a whole generation living in only space? And then comes the selection of these families, which all described in the show there- (watch it, its great!) And also what if we do push Earth to it's limits and ultimately destroy it? We must focus on Interstellar travel.
Now let us consider that none of these "death events" occur. You have (what I believe) wrongly stated the fact that interstellar travel will not occur for thousands of years. Sure, maybe my estimate of this century may be unlikely but by say 2500 I would have liked a man to at least have been outside the solar system, maybe even in Alpha Centauri. By then we would certainly have reached new heights of interplanetary travel. Saying that whilst researching on one and not finding information on another will definitely be a huge lie, but then again, we can take our time and do wonders or we can do many small, minor wonders and perhaps a big one in a millennia. This is the ultimate "deep meaning"(My English teacher obsesses with this, please excuse me) that should mankind bring new cards to the table or just polish the existing ones? Think of the fact that the only fault with interstellar travel in reality is time, and if mankind can save Earth, mankind has what feels like infinite time. So, spend it on interstellar or interplanetary? Right now, interplanetary hands down as it is a much more basic topic and we can focus on it and also focus on saving Earth. Once Earth is saved, we have 2 choices (metaphorically speaking)- Wait for a couple of years and get a spin wheel with a 90% chance of getting it big or getting a prize wheel that are very low probability of hitting big and are simply basic. I personally would play the first choice as the other 10% is still bigger than the latter choice. Now this is purely an opinion based question and not very factual.

I would like to thank you for giving me a real taste of debate. This being my first debate I have really enjoyed it and look forward to more debates. Thank you all the voter/viewers for voicing your opinion (please do so). I do intend to post a debate every other week and I don't really care who takes it as long as the arguments are as logical as my opponent here. Thank you and have a nice life. (Think big)


It made for a friendly discussion. Impacts are known in relatively recent geological history, i.e. Chixulub and the dinosaur extinction ca. 65Mya. Nothing has erased life on Earth since it started, however. That could just be good luck, of course. Neutron stars usually emit so much hard radiation that one wouldn't even need to hit the Earth - coming within a light year could be devastating to living things on the surface. Yet there's always risk in life, and death, too, is part of what it means to live. Individuals eventually die, and so do species. If humankind doesn't die out, then it will evolve into something we wouldn't recognize as human anymore. Perhaps it would be to us the way we are to spider monkeys.

The question on debate was not whether interstellar travel is a possibility, but whether it's a good immediate science goal. I still think there are preliminaries to be worked on first. As you stated, perfection in society isn't necessary - like eliminating all conflicts or killing, or achieving universal love - but we do have to reign in war enough to make sure that a large war won't wipe everything out, and we have yet to agree on a verifiable and enforceable nuclear bomb ban treaty. I was glad to see the Cold War end. But we still keep enough bombs to turn civilization into a joke if they're ever used.

And a lot of it is an inside job. War won't recede until big countries (say the USA) agree to quit using the rest of the world as a resource bin to maintain their own consumption lifestyles. While the "poor" countries need to reform as well, getting rid of the corruption and patronage that contribute as much to their poverty as economic imperialism does. There may be science to be done in learning how to build a sustainable global society. It's this sustainable society that will have better odds of getting to the stars, I think.

Best wishes...
Debate Round No. 3
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Vote Placed by bladerunner060 2 years ago
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Total points awarded:03 
Reasons for voting decision: An interesting debate. In the end, I think the problems that Con brought up were sufficient to justify interplanatary taking precedence, currently, over interstellar, and as such, arguments to Con.