Is Humanity Ready to Realize the Dream of Interstellar Travel?

The 8th Interstellar Symposium was held from July 10th to 13th at McGill University. Credit: Interstellar Research Group (IRG)

For generations, humans have dreamed, speculated, and theorized about the possibility of journeying to distant stars, finding habitable planets around them, and settling down. In time, the children of these bold adventurers would create a new civilization and perhaps even meet the children of Earth. People could eventually journey from one world to another, cultures would mix, and trade and exchanges would become a regular feature. The potential for growth that would come from these exchanges – intellectually, socially, politically, technologically, and economically – would be immeasurable.

Expanding humanity’s reach beyond the Solar System is not just the fevered dream of science fiction writers and futurists. It has also been the subject of very serious scientific research, and interest in the subject is again on the rise. Much like sending crewed missions to Mars, establishing permanent outposts on the Moon, and exploring beyond cislunar space with human astronauts instead of robots – there is a growing sense that interstellar travel could be within reach. But just how ready are we for this bold and adventurous prospect? Whether we are talking about probes vs. crews or technological vs. psychological readiness, is interstellar travel something we are ready to take on?

This was a central question raised at a public outreach event aptly named “Interstellar Travel: Are We Ready?” that took place at the 8th Interstellar Symposium: In Light of Other Suns, held from July 10th to 13th at the University of McGill in Montreal, Quebec. The symposium was hosted by the Interstellar Research Group (IRG), the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and Breakthrough Initiatives – in coordination with the University of McGill – and featured guest speakers and luminaries from multiple disciplines – ranging from astronomy and astrophysics to astrobiology, geology, and cosmology.

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Suddenly Slowing Star Could Give Hints Of Its Interior

Artist's conception of a neutron star flare. Credit: University of California Santa Cruz

Why would a spinning star suddenly slow down? Even after writing a scientific paper about the phenomenon, astronomers still appear to be in shock-and-awe mode about what they saw.

“I looked at the data and was shocked — the … star had suddenly slowed down,” stated Rob Archibald, a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal. “These stars are not supposed to behave this way.”

Archibald led a group that was observing a neutron star, a type of really, really dense object created after huge stars run out of gas and collapse. The studied star (called 1E 2259+586, if you’re curious) has a massive magnetic field that places it in a subcategory of neutron stars called magnetars.

Anyway, the astronomers were watching over the magnetar with the NASA Swift X-ray telescope, just to get a sense of the star’s rotation and also to keep an eye out for the odd X-ray explosion commonly seen in stars of this type. But to see its spin rate reduce — that was definitely something unexpected.

An artistic impression of a magnetar with a very complicated magnetic field at its interior and a simple small dipolar field outside. Credits: ESA - Author: Christophe Carreau
An artistic impression of a magnetar with a very complicated magnetic field at its interior and a simple small dipolar field outside. Credits: ESA – Author: Christophe Carreau

Previous neutron star observations have showed them suddenly rotating faster (as if spinning up to several hundred times a second wasn’t enough.) This maneuver is called a glitch, and is thought to happen because the neutron has some sort of fluid (sometimes called a “superfluid”) inside that drives the rotation.

So now, the astronomers had evidence of an “anti-glitch”, a star slowing down instead of speeding up. It wasn’t by much (just a third of a part per million in the seven-second rotation rate), but while it happened they also saw X-rays substantially increase from the magnetar. Astronomers believe that something major happened either inside, or near the surface of the star.

The magnetic field surrounding the mysterious magnetar (NASA)
The magnetic field surrounding a magnetar (NASA)

And, astronomers added, if they can figure out what is happening, it could shed some light on what exactly is going on in that dense interior. Maybe the fluid is rotating at different rates, or something else is going on.

“Such behaviour is not predicted by models of neutron star spin-down and, if of internal origin, is suggestive of differential rotation in the magnetar, supporting the need for a rethinking of glitch theory for all neutron stars,” read a paper on the results.

The work was released today (May 29) at the Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA)’s annual meeting, held this year in Vancouver.

You can read the entire paper in Nature.

Credit: CASCA/McGill University