Voyager one was launched in 1977, and still transmitting, is now the furthest man-made object from Earth – yet even speeding along at over 10 miles per second – Voyager will still not reach the closest star to our solar system for just over 70,000 years.
Researchers constantly explore the possibility of interstellar journeys, knowing that. in terms of current technology, any such interstellar rendezvous and return mission could not be accomplished on any timescale that would compare to the life-span of those involved.
Any such mission would have to begin with an initial phase of boosted acceleration, after which the vessel would in essence coast to the target star system – this taking generations, in all likelihood – before the eventual deceleration and rendezvous phase, and the ensuing scientific data gathering.
Then a second booster phase would be enacted to make the return journey, but it would be descendants of the original crew who would eventually arrive back to an earth they had never set foot upon and could not possibly know or understand. How would they fare?
Even if such a mission were undertaken using an unmanned probe to complete an interstellar mission, the information it contained might already be known to earth science by other means, so the most important priority in considering such massively distant destinations has to be a propulsion system up to the task of safely returning any astronauts to Earth on much shorter times.
Voyager 1 was launched in 1977, and still transmitting, is now the furthest man-made object from Earth – yet even speeding along at over 10 miles per second – Voyager will still not reach the closest star to our solar system for just over 70,000 years. NASA started development of Solar Probe plus – aimed at studying our own sun – which will, via seven planet Venus gravitational assists – reach 125 miles per second – but even then the nearest star would be 6,450 years away.
Perhaps the Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation – one of the simplest equations governing spaceflight – will help explain, in that the equation tells us that to obtain interstellar mission speeds, exhaust speeds around the speed of light are needed. along with large mass ratios and large mass flow rates.
Antimatter is the only thing known that offers the highest possible energy density, rendering it ideal for interstellar missions, the reactions involved occurring spontaneously and not requiring any outside initiation.
Since a strong enough electric field can create electron-positron pairs out of the vacuum of space itself, lasers might just have the intensity needed to generate the electric field strength necessary to accomplish this, and recent experimental advances have raised hope that lasers may soon achieve such field intensities.
Using this technology, a star-ship would. on reaching the target solar system, assume a stable orbit around the star, unfurling gigantic solar panels to capture energy, which would then be converted into laser energy sufficiently powerful to create antimatter from the vacuum of space.
Once enough antimatter had been created and stored, the adequately fuelled ship could begin its return trip, in a much shorter time, opening the way for an expansion of such interstellar exploration. It should not be forgotten that no engine we can create with current technologies could ever reach light-speed, but an anti-matter drive created by lasers could help us reach nearby stars in much less time, but the truth is that such expeditions would still take several human lifetimes.