To one day, reach the stars.
When discussing the possibility of interstellar travel, there is something called “the giggle factor.” Some scientists tend to scoff at the idea of interstellar travel because of the enormous distances that separate the stars. According to Special Relativity (1905), no usable information can travel faster than light locally, and hence it would take centuries to millennia for an extra-terrestrial civilization to travel between the stars. Even the familiar stars we see at night are about 50 to 100 light years from us, and our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. The nearest galaxy is 2 million light years from us. The critics say that the universe is simply too big for interstellar travel to be practical.
Similarly, investigations into UFO’s that may originate from another planet are sometimes the “third rail” of someone’s scientific career. There is no funding for anyone seriously looking at unidentified objects in space, and one’s reputation may suffer if one pursues an interest in these unorthodox matters. In addition, perhaps 99% of all sightings of UFO’s can be dismissed as being caused by familiar phenomena, such as the planet Venus, swamp gas (which can glow in the dark under certain conditions), meteors, satellites, weather balloons, even radar echoes that bounce off mountains. (What is disturbing, to a physicist however, is the remaining 1% of these sightings, which are multiple sightings made by multiple methods of observations. Some of the most intriguing sightings have been made by seasoned pilots and passengers aboard air line flights which have also been tracked by radar and have been videotaped. Sightings like this are harder to dismiss.)But to an astronomer, the existence of intelligent life in the universe is a compelling idea by itself, in which extra-terrestrial beings may exist on other stars who are centuries to millennia more advanced than ours. Within the Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over 100 billion stars, and there are an uncountable number of galaxies in the universe. About half of the stars we see in the heavens are double stars, probably making them unsuitable for intelligent life, but the remaining half probably have solar systems somewhat similar to ours. Although none of the over 100 extra-solar planets so far discovered in deep space resemble ours, it is inevitable, many scientists believe, that one day we will discover small, earth-like planets which have liquid water (the “universal solvent” which made possible the first DNA perhaps 3.5 billion years ago in the oceans). The discovery of earth-like planets may take place within 20 years, when NASA intends to launch the space interferometry satellite into orbit which may be sensitive enough to detect small planets orbiting other stars.So far, we see no hard evidence of signals from extra-terrestrial civilizations from any earth-like planet. The SETI project (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) has yet to produce any reproducible evidence of intelligent life in the universe from such earth-like planets, but the matter still deserves serious scientific analysis. The key is to reanalyze the objection to faster-than-light travel.A critical look at this issue must necessary embrace two new observations. First, Special Relativity itself was superceded by Einstein’s own more powerful General Relativity (1915), in which faster than light travel is possible under certain rare conditions. The principal difficulty is amassing enough energy of a certain type to break the light barrier. Second, one must therefore analyze extra-terrestrial civilizations on the basis of their total energy output and the laws of thermodynamics. In this respect, one must analyze civilizations which are perhaps thousands to millions of years ahead of ours.The first realistic attempt to analyze extra-terrestrial civilizations from the point of view of the laws of physics and the laws of thermodynamics was by Russian astrophysicist Nicolai Kardashev. He based his ranking of possible civilizations on the basis of total energy output which could be quantified and used as a guide to explore the dynamics of advanced civilizations:Type I: this civilization harnesses the energy output of an entire planet.Type II: this civilization harnesses the energy output of a star, and generates about 10 billion times the energy output of a Type I civilization.Type III: this civilization harnesses the energy output of a galaxy, or about 10 billion time the energy output of a Type II civilization.A Type I civilization would be able to manipulate truly planetary energies. They might, for example, control or modify their weather. They would have the power to manipulate planetary phenomena, such as hurricanes, which can release the energy of hundreds of hydrogen bombs. Perhaps volcanoes or even earthquakes may be altered by such a civilization.A Type II civilization may resemble the Federation of Planets seen on the TV program Star Trek (which is capable of igniting stars and has colonized a tiny fraction of the near-by stars in the galaxy). A Type II civilization might be able to manipulate the power of solar flares.A Type III civilization may resemble the Borg, or perhaps the Empire found in the Star Wars saga. They have colonized the galaxy itself, extracting energy from hundreds of billions of stars.By contrast, we are a Type 0 civilization, which extracts its energy from dead plants (oil and coal). Growing at the average rate of about 3% per year, however, one may calculate that our own civilization may attain Type I status in about 100-200 years, Type II status in a few thousand years, and Type III status in about 100,000 to a million years. These time scales are insignificant when compared with the universe itself.On this scale, one may now rank the different propulsion systems available to different types of civilizations: