Are we trapped in the solar system? Feeling out the lightyear

Before you start reading this, scroll down to the bottom of the page and check out the picture from NASA.

Space intrigues me. The stars are so far away that it dwarfs the imagination to think about what that distance really means for humans. What really is a lightyear?

Are we confined to our little part of the galaxy for the next million years? Or will we eventually unlock technologies that will allow us to travel across the galaxy with ease and encounter new aliens and planets? Will the universe become smaller for us as our technology evolves? Or will the physics of the universe forever put constraints on us? Will humanity be forever confined to this solar system?

Stars

Everything travels at most at the speed of light. That means getting to the nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, will take 4.2 lightyears traveling at the speed of light. And don’t forget, that also means you must have no mass in order to do that! Such a task alone would require significant upgrades to our current technology, and it would still take 4.2 years to arrive. If you go to the bottom of this list, The 53rd star is 16 light years away. Just think for a second, if everything goes right for humanity, one day, some little boy would grow up on a spaceship headed to a star 16 years away from us, traveling at the speed of light. And think about it, this is the most optimistic scenario so far.

Galaxies

But let’s look at this list now. That’s a list of the nearest galaxies. The closest one, Canis Major Dwarf, a kinda crappy galaxy, is 25,000 light years away. That’s right. If we wanted to travel there, it would be close to the amount of time homo sapiens have spent recording their history. That’s the length of time it takes for you to get to be a great great great great great great great great great great (x 20) grandparent. Of course, we existed for even longer prior to that and homonid life does starts millions of years before. Well, it’s funny you should mention millions of years, because Andromeda Galaxy, the largest full-fledged galaxy near us is approximately 2.5 million light years away. In other words, it would take 2.5 million years for us to get there by lightspeed. It’s just staggering. 2.5 million years! Well, at least that’s not 6 million years, that’s how long ago it was when the first hominid arose from earth,¬†Ardipithecus Kadabba (they used to look like this). So there’s a silver lining.

The Universe

Okay, so then let’s make a big assumption that one day it really is possible for us to travel millions of lightyears in a heartbeat. Note that the known observable universe contains one hundred billion galaxies. That’s trillions upon quadrillions upon googols of potential planets.¬†What kinds of technologies would we need to discover to get to explore the entire universe? Is it even physically possible for us to travel and populate across such distances? Given the numbers above, and the many things we likely still don’t know, even in the best case scenario, it’s not possible for humans to grow across the entire universe. It is far more likely for humans to eventually disappear in the next few thousand years and life would form again or elsewhere in the universe. The fate of yourself and of the entire of humanity seems bleak. It’s a bleakness that is challenging and provocative. It’s relatively easy to realize how small we are in the world and the universe, but the sheer number and scale of the universe challenges us to think about what is the best case scenario of all of humanity.

I think given the above picture, you can either take two major lines of thinking. The first is to consider the bleakness and the vastness and live a good life within that, coming to terms with the harsh impermanence of life and the universe. This is taken to certain extremes or logical conclusions in philosophies from existentialism to Buddhism. The alternate extreme mode is to consider that it is possible for us to keep improving our technologies until we can travel across the billions of galaxies and quadrillions of planets, believing in some faith that humanity will ascend to a god-like status, able to manipulate time and space at ease, traveling and populating the universe with life everywhere. I’m game for either one.