When Will We Become Interstellar?

by Fraser Cain on December 27, 2013

Dr. Ian O’Neill is one of the coolest scientists we know, so we sat him down at the YouTube spaces and asked him a real zinger – when will we humans become an interstellar race, like the ones we’re used to seeing on Star Trek? Here’s what he had to say to us!

“I’m Dr. Ian O’Neill. I work for Discovery News – I’m their space producer. My background is as a scientist – I’m a solar physicist. I got my PhD in Coronal physics.

“I think it is possible for humans to become an interstellar race. I think it’s possible, but not within my lifetime, not the next hundred years without some really transformative technologies in between. The key one on the International Space Station right now we’re testing life support systems, and doing phenomenally well. But the International Space Station is close to earth, so if something breaks down, you can conceivably just hop down and bring something back up, although it is conceivable more complicated than that. As for putting human colonies on other planets, yeah, that’s hard, but you’ve got a gravitational well and you’ve got a base there, you assume that they’ve got some sort of infrastructure working.”

“But if you put everybody onto a space ship and send them out into interstellar space, there is no infrastructure there, no connection to Earth, especially when the years go by and the travel time of messages starts getting very long because of course we’re talking about light-years. It could conceivably take several years for one message to get from A to B, so you’ve got the relativistic issues there as well.”

“And certainly, without some massive breakthroughs in propulsion technology, I don’t think that humans are going to become the Star Trek race we want to be, unless we develop the warp drive. That would be fantastic – then we’ll be able to travel around the galaxy at any speed we like. We can even travel faster than the speed of light, with the warp drive. So, ideally, it would be great to create the warp drive.”

“But within our current understanding of technology and where it is going, the iterative steps that we hope make between that and sending a probe to another star, I just don’t see us becoming that space-faring race, not within the next hundred years, not perhaps within the next thousand years. But again, these are timescales that I can’t even fathom within my small existence. We’re talking about a galaxy that’s billions of years old – we’re talking about missions that could conceivable take hundreds of years to get to the nearest group of stars. I think we need to start changing the way we think, and science fiction helps – it helps with the warp drive and all that – it kind of pushes us in ways that we wouldn’t understand. But in realistic terms, at least a hundred years before that even becomes a possibility.”

You can circle Dr. Ian O’Neill on G+, follow him on Twitter as @astroengine, read his website here and watch his channel here on YouTube.


Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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