A spacecraft design expert discusses the viability of interstellar travel

Dr. Hank Pernicka, distinguished professor of aerospace engineering and spacecraft design expert at Missouri S&T, says humans probably won’t be able to visit the TOI 700 e planet anytime soon. Credit: Michael Pierce/Missouri S&T.

NASA researchers recently announced the discovery of another planet about 95% the size of Earth that is 100 light-years away and could potentially support life.

Could this new discovery lead humans to one day travel to the TOI 700 e planet and enjoy its resources, such as the potential for liquid water? This is a question that people may naturally ask, but they may not like the current answer.

“It’s not going to happen in our lifetime, but it’s fascinating to discuss,” said Dr. Hank Pernicka, distinguished professor of aerospace engineering at Missouri S&T. “This planet is 100 light years away. This means that if we develop a spacecraft that travels at the speed of light, it will still take 100 years to reach that destination.”

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. Pernicka, who is an expert in spacecraft design, says the first issue to consider is getting a vehicle to reach the speeds necessary for interstellar travel.

“There’s going to be a lot of enthusiasts with this, the first of which even gets that fast,” he says. “The concept of a light year and the distance involved in this journey is mind-boggling.”

Pernicka says another area to consider is the number of uncertainties with the spacecraft itself.

“When you’re traveling at these speeds, there’s going to be a large amount of variables to consider,” he says. “For example, even a small piece of debris in the path of a spacecraft can cause major damage.”

How the spacecraft is fueled must also be considered. Currently, all NASA-sponsored long-distance missions use nuclear power, and this fuel source will eventually run out.

For example, NASA’s Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977 and is the only spacecraft to travel to interstellar space, will likely run out of fuel in the next few years. This space probe, traveling at about 38,000 miles per hour, is now more than 14.8 billion miles from Earth.

“Voyager 1 has been on an amazing journey and has blown all of NASA’s expectations out of the water,” says Pernicka, “but it’s still nowhere near the distance of even a light year.”

Pernicka says the key to one day reaching the necessary speeds may lie in the concept of solar propulsion, which would propel spacecraft using the pressure of solar radiation. Another option might be to use a wormhole, he says, but neither option will be possible anytime soon.

“With a wormhole, it would almost be a form of cheating,” he says. “However, it could theoretically work. In this situation, we would have to design the spacecraft so that it could survive the journey, which could be very violent.”

Although interstellar tourists or even space probes may not travel to the TOI 700 e planet anytime soon, Pernicka still has hopes for the future of space travel and Missouri S&T’s contributions.

Pernička says that the university has professors in many disciplines who explore space in different ways. He says his current projects include developing thruster technology satellites to be launched in the coming years in collaboration with NASA, as well as survey satellites for the United States military.

“The research we do is out of this world,” says Pernicka. “I’m excited to see how our efforts continue to impact space travel in the future.”

Courtesy of Missouri University of Science and Technology

Quote: Spacecraft Design Expert Discusses Viability of Interstellar Travel (2023, January 24) Retrieved January 25, 2023, from https://phys.org/news/2023-01-spacecraft-expert-discusses-viability- interstellar.html

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