How Do We Get from Here (Earth, 2012) to There (Dust, 2512)? Part II

Part I here.

Dust takes place on a colony of the same name established on a harsh, unforgiving world many light-years from Earth.  The single biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is how the heck do we get there?  For any story set against a backdrop of galactic exploration,  the author has to decide how the human race figures out how to travel beyond the bounds of the solar system.

There are three well-known mechanisms for this: generation ships, faster than light travel, or wormholes.  Generation ships are well within the realm of possibility but are not  conducive to my futuristic galactic Republic, so I’ll explore that topic another time.  Meanwhile the plausibility of faster-than-light travel took a blow this week, but at the moment, wormholes remain a theoretical possibility.  Do a search for wormhole experiments and you’ll find plenty of discussions on the  topic from all corners of the academic spectrum.  Currently, most of the conversation focuses on the theoretical aspects of the problem – that is is it possible to connect two different points in space-time and allow for quick transit between two points that are light-years apart?

Eventually, these discussions will move from the blackboard to the lab (which may already be happening).  Then at some point in the future, my guess here is the 22nd century, we will discover that scientific holy grail.  At that point, the frontier will be open for business.

First though, we’ll need to work on stability and safety.  The first wormholes created will be highly unstable and disappear within seconds.  They will also require tremendous amounts of energy to generate and open.  It’ll take years of experimenting and practice before we can really harness this technology.

Highly technical depiction of the wormhole transit paradigm in Dust

Then there’s the problem of knowing where that wormhole will open up.  The model that I’ve established in Dust is fairly simple, satellites have been deployed throughout the galaxy and link together to form a transit network.  A wormhole can be created between any two points in that network.  The satellites are needed to keep a stable link so that we know with certainty where the wormhole will open up.

With a stable means of transit in place, now we can actually start sending things through the wormhole.  Because the loss of human life in making scientific progress is generally frowned upon, no government will approve the use of wormholes for human travel without extensive testing.  This means the first traveler through a wormhole will be a friendly, sacrificial robot.

The difficulty with beginning to use this transit system will be getting the satellites in place.  If the only way we could accurately predict the exit point of a wormhole is to physically put a satellite in that location, then it’s going to take some time to put that satellite in place through conventional means.  Right now, the closest exoplanets that we know of are roughly 10 light years away.  Even assuming we’ve advanced conventional propulsion to the point where you can travel at roughly half the speed of light or greater, it will still take 20 years to get the first beacon in place and then another ten years for the two satellites to link up.

So when the frontier finally opens, it won’t be a gold rush at first but rather the slow trickle of molasses as humanity works to put a safe and reliable network in place.  Once that network is in place, then the fun begins and humanity will establish its first outpost beyond the boundaries of our solar system.

That won’t be the last of the struggles though, because at some point, there will be an accident and lives will be lost.  When that happens, human transit will be suspended until a root cause to the problem is found and the entire system is made safer.   Those initial flights will be fraught  with risk and it will only be after the system has proven reliable that governments will grant average citizens the opportunity to travel to distant stars.

For more on how I approached building the fictional world of Dust, please see my guest  post on the book blog Alchemy of Scrawl.

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About Jason
Family man. NASA manager. Writer. Football fan. Hockey fan. Deist. Left of center. Left-handed. Born in New Jersey, raised in Philadelphia, college educated in Massachusetts, now living in Houston. Thoughts here are my own.

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