Will We Ever Really Travel to the Stars?

Image Credit: Paramount

Image Credit: Paramount

Interstellar space travel is one of the most common themes of science fiction, but the question is, will it ever become reality?

With our current understanding of physics, propulsion methods and the limits of our technology, there is currently no practical way to travel to other stars and solar systems. NASA terminated its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program in 2003, stating that no further breakthroughs appeared to be imminent. What this ultimately means is that we should not be expecting to see travel to other stars become reality any time soon, if ever. NASA did recently announce that they will begin work on a Warp Drive…whether anything will come of that, only time will tell. I personally would like to see this happen in the private-sector but that’s certainly unlikely for the immediate future.

In most sci-fi stories, starships zip around the galaxy at speeds far exceeding that of light, the universal speed limit of roughly 186,000 miles per second. The problem however is that the laws of physics state that absolutely nothing in the universe can travel faster than this (even though folks are trying to prove otherwise).

The Primary Issue – Distance

We know our own star simply as the Sun. The Sun is a star no different than billions of others in the Milky Way galaxy. To provide some important figures for reference, the Sun lies 93 million miles from away from Earth and it takes light eight minutes and twenty seconds to reach us.

Source: NASA

Source: R. Mewaldt & P. Liewer, JPL

The nearest star to Earth, other than the Sun, is Proxima Centauri of the Alpha Centauri triple-star system. It lies 4.24 light-years away, meaning that it takes 4.24 years for the star’s light to reach us.

The fastest launch speed achieved by mankind was that of the New Horizons robotic spacecraft which was launched at 36,373 miles per hour on its mission to the dwarf planet Pluto. The fastest man-made object is currently the Helios 2 solar space probe, traveling at 157,100 miles per hour. This speed was achieved by using gravitational assistance from the Sun. If the Helios 2 solar probe were to be sent directly towards Proxima Centauri, it would reach the star in approximately 18,000 years.

How Fast Can We Go?

There are technologies that exist which can achieve far greater speeds than those of space probes like Helios 2 or New Horizons.

One of these is nuclear pulse propulsion which basically uses nuclear explosions to power a rocket to incredibly high speeds. It seems plausible that such a spacecraft could reach speeds of around 5 percent of the speed of light, yet this would still take about 85 years to reach the nearest star. As demonstrated by the Project Orion effort of the mid-twentieth century, it is possible using only currently available technology. Of course, this speed is still too low, making it highly impractical. It is generally considered that, if a journey cannot be completed in considerably less than a human lifetime, it should not be started at all.

The only thing that is possible is to send out radio waves, traveling at the speed of light, to the stars. This allows us to send a message to Proxima Centauri for example, which would arrive in 4.24 years. Perhaps some day we will be able to send physical objects there at this rate.

Faster-than-Light (FTL)

Image Source: Nextbigfuture

Image Source: Nextbigfuture

Nothing can travel faster than light, as dictated by Einstein’s theories on relativity. Roughly 186,000 miles per second is the absolute speed limit. If practical interstellar travel is ever to become a possibility, we need to find a way around this speed limit.

To get around the FTL issue, sci-fi shows/movies/books often use things like warp drives that are capable of warping spacetime in such a way that it folds space. If this were possible, it would effectively enable FTL travel between two points. The Alcubierre drive, proposed in 1994, is the only serious attempt at theorizing a starship which travels faster than light. It does this by expanding space behind it and contracting space before it. The spacecraft travels in its own bubble at speeds slower than light. To put this in perspective, imagine a piece of paper with a point marked at each end. The shortest distance between these two points is a straight line, unless you fold the paper in half so that the two points meet each other directly.

The Alcubierre drive is highly theoretical and has one deal-breaking flaw – it requires something called exotic matter with negative mass, and this isn’t even known to exist.

The Bottom Line

Space Travel ConceptIf you could go back in time to the mid-nineteenth century and tell people that humanity was going to land on the moon in 1969, they would probably laugh at you. Since then, we have launched probes all over the Solar System and landed robotic spacecraft on the surfaces of Venus, Mars and Saturn’s moon, Titan. One thing is clear: Humanity’s potential is immense and science and technology are full of surprises. Interstellar travel may seem like a very long way off, but it will never become a reality if we don’t try.

One thing that is preventing many scientists from taking interstellar travel seriously is also the fact that we don’t really know where to start. There are countless stars out there, but until something truly interesting and worth visiting shows up, interstellar travel will remain a thing of science fiction. That being said, more than 850 planets have been discovered orbiting other stars and more are being confirmed every week. We are now learning that every star “up there” likely has a number of planets rotating around them (the same thing that happens in our neck of the universe). That’s a very, very large number of planets. It is likely just a matter of time before we find an Earth-like world out there in the lonely depths of space. Perhaps that will truly give humanity something to aim for resulting in a renewed interest in reaching the stars.

Reference:

Ford, L., & Roman, T. (2000). Negative Energy, Wormholes and Warp Drive Scientific American, 282 (1), 46-53 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0100-46

Hill, J., & Cox, B. (2012). Einstein’s special relativity beyond the speed of light Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 468 (2148), 4174-4192 DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2012.0340

González-Díaz, P. (2000). Warp drive space-time Physical Review D, 62 (4) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.62.044005

Hansson, A. (2003). Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965 Space Policy, 19 (2), 149-150 DOI: 10.1016/S0265-9646(03)00011-0

Endl, M., & Kürster, M. (2008). Toward detection of terrestrial planets in the habitable zone of our closest neighbor: proxima Centauri Astronomy and Astrophysics, 488 (3), 1149-1153 DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361:200810058

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  • Will We Ever Really Travel to the Stars? http://t.co/PBJbEFax #space #exploration #astronomy #nextfrontier

    • Christopher Angel Brannan

      Humans will have limitations outside of this world as we are born to laws of Earth’s physics and rely on them for survival.

      Limited travel will be achieved. But to explore deep outside our physics and reality we must change from the inside and outside. Do we even have the right resources or biological ingredients?

      Aside from special crafts needed, cloning and other biological breakthroughs may be a start. But then, what are we becoming? A different spicies?

      Can we even accept to become something else in order to travel into different laws? Perhaps this is happening already away from the public eye. Too much panic and negative opinions. We want change but do not understand or accept what is needed to achieve.

      I believe assistance (not human) is already here or will come from outside this world. If our desire is lo leave we might have to answer why? We can run away from this earth, but we can’t run away from ourselves.

  • Great article. I’ve heard about the “folding space” type theories, but never known what it was actually called. Now I do!

    • Jason Carr

      Awesome! Thanks for reading Randy 🙂

  • Jason I grew up believing in the final frontier and interstellar travel like it was a religion, but as I’ve learned more about science and the reality of the great distances between the stars I’ve become an atheist to my own beliefs.

    We’ve never even been able to create a sustainable fusion reaction, so I find it very hard to believe we’ll ever create energy sources that can warp space. I’m not saying interstellar travel is impossible, I’m just saying it will be so hard that I’m not sure we’ll ever attempt it.

    But there are other barriers that keep us on Earth that’s not like the physical barrier of the speed of light. After six manned missions to the Moon we essentially gave up on space travel. We’ve been going in LEO circles for forty years. We had the technology to colonize the Moon and Mars and we never used it. Most citizens of Earth see little reason to leave our planet, or spend the billions and trillions it will take.

    I truly doubt we’ll ever have manned interstellar travel. I have great doubts about manned interplanetary travel. I think we’ll develop ever more powerful robots to travel in space for us, until space is colonized by AI beings. Interstellar travel is practical for machines, not biological creatures.

    • Jason Carr

      Great thoughts Jim! I can’t say that I don’t hope you’re wrong on these points but like you, I am more inclined to believe that our best opportunities during the next 50 years likely lie within lunar, Mars, and low-orbit travel/missions.

  • James Sherridan

    Like Jim I tend to think we’re a long long way off from interstellar travel. It’s a shame, especially considering how far tech has come over the past few decades. Guess it will take pending annihilation from a giant space body heading our way or some man-made disaster before we decide that this is a priority. Of course, by then it will be too late. Gotta love human behavior!

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  • JohnHunt

    Hi Jason. I think that several of your assumptions are preventing you from seeing a solution to the problem of interstellar travel. The first assumption is that we need to get there within the lifetime of a person. If the purpose for such a mission were either science or colonization for he sake of colonization, I would agree. But if the reason is to ensure a back-up of the human species at distance, then the travel time is not the issue. Success in such a mission would come after the viable craft got far enough away from he solar system to be safe.

    The second assumption (presumably) is that the humans on board would be awake. But if they were either in a state is suspended animation the the amount of time for them would not matter.

    OK, so how practical would a slow boat with a frozen crew to Alpha Centauri be? Obviously, a slower ship is easier to construct than a fast ship. Likely, more conventional means of propulsion are likely easier than warping space which would probably require massive amounts of energy and probably mass.

    As for the suspended animation, we can now sequence he genomes for all hibernating and freezable species for relatively cheap. There could be a breakthrough there. Scientists in Japan are able to use microwaves and freezing to freeze sizeable chunks of meat without creating ice crystals. So, there might be a breakthrough there.

    Also, we are much further advanced towards ectogenesis and android parenting than many people realize. I have written a paper about such a concept. Just Google: “The EGR Mission” to see.

    • Jason Carr

      Thanks for sharing your paper with me John (bookmarked).

      Regarding your response. First, thanks for reading, I’m glad you’re here. Okay, you’re absolutely right…this post was written with the assumption that we can’t do it in a person’s lifetime (unless we figure out the whole relativity thing) but suspended animation is certainly another way to look at this. I’ve often written that this may be the way that advanced ETI civilizations may traverse the universe to reach us. It makes sense that this could apply to humans as well in the future. I’ll admit, I find the idea of cryogenics fascinating. I hadn’t read about the Japanese advancements you mention…I’ll look them up. Yours is certainly a valid argument however. If we could figure out how to make it work, it’s worthy of exploring further. My next question would of course be, who would we get to agree to go? Traveling to space with a reasonable expectation of surviving is one thing. But it seems to me that this (suspended animation) would be an even riskier route to take. We’d have to assume that a robot would successfully get us there in one piece and of course that the machine would wake us up. We’ve seen this in sci-fi and I like the idea of it. Do you feel that if we had the capability, we could find individuals that would be willing to leave knowing that it may be thousands and thousands of years before they return to Earth (if ever)? Finding such brave and noble explorers would be a tremendous thing…I just wonder if there are any left.

      Interesting thoughts you’ve provoked and I have no doubt that I’ll now start watching advances more closely in this arena. Thanks so much John and I do hope you’ll continue to read/contribute in the future. I encourage everyone to read John’s article…interesting stuff: http://www.peregrinus-interstellar.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=135&Itemid=60

      • jen157

        Well Mars One is planning on bringing prop;e on a one way trip to Mars, which is a desolate place to hang.

        I think we could easily find people to go on a life long trip to be the hero of humanity.

        http://www.mars-one.com/en/

        • anasthasia talia marika

          i would be the person that would go on such a mission. the stars are my live and i never grow tired of them.
          as long as i could be with my boyfriend. he also would like to go on such a mission

  • Christine

    Outstanding article. Very thought provoking. Thanks and keep up the good work! 🙂

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  • John Rogers

    I believe we will, given time and a lot of patience and resources.

  • Arn.Sweden.

    Yes we will !.

    Mitar Tarabic – Serbian Prophet – dead 1899 – Has predicted –

    Man will travel to other worlds to find lifeless deserts there, and still, God forgive him, he will think that he knows better than God himself. There, except the eternal peace of God, he will see nothing, but he will sense with his heart and soul all of God’s beauty and power. People will drive in rigs upon the moon and stars. They will look for life, but life similar to ours they will not find. It will be there, but they will not be able to understand it and see that it is life.

    Further – the Bible has a very interesting prophesies in

    Jeremia – chapter 31 verses –

    35 Thus saith Jehovah, who giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, who stirreth up the sea, so that the waves thereof roar; Jehovah of hosts is his name:

    36 If these ordinances depart from before me, saith Jehovah, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever.

    37 Thus saith Jehovah: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith Jehovah.

    Comment – Yehovah who cant lie cant say – If You do something You will Never do – Then I Will do something I will never do.

    That is – what Yehovah here says will come to pass.
    This can only take place when Mankind travels to Outer Space.

    Further –

    Jeremia – chapter 33 verses –

    19 And the word of Jehovah came unto Jeremiah, saying,

    20 Thus saith Jehovah: If ye can break my covenant of the day, and my covenant of the night, so that there shall not be day and night in their season;

    21 then may also my covenant be broken with David my servant, that he shall not have a son to reign upon his throne; and with the Levites the priests, my ministers.

    22 As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured; so will I multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levites that minister unto me.

    23 And the word of Jehovah came to Jeremiah, saying,

    24 Considerest thou not what this people have spoken, saying, The two families which Jehovah did choose, he hath cast them off? thus do they despise my people, that they should be no more a nation before them.

    25 Thus saith Jehovah: If my covenant of day and night stand not, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth;

    26 then will I also cast away the seed of Jacob, and of David my servant, so that I will not take of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: for I will cause their captivity to return, and will have mercy on them.

    Comment – Same interpretaition as above.

    Arn.Sweden.

    • kiljoy616

      In the end gibberish that is what I read. Interpreted anyway anyone wants to.

      • Arn.Sweden.

        Thats right – a coin has always two sides – as Reality !.

        Arn.Sweden.

        • Robert Ferguson

          No, I say gibberish.

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  • liam

    I always wonder what the meaning of life is. Just think of how big the universe is and all the other lifeforms out there. Just thinking about the fact that we’re aware of our own existence and the universe and all of our intelligence fascinates me. I’m a 16 year old kid, and I always wonder about the meaning of life. Just think about the other life forms out there, and we’re just like one of them. Like all the things we do, like governments, and all the scientific terms, we just made all of that up. There’s no actual meaning of these words. We made them up. I don’t know how to explain this, but we’re just like other life forms out there. But most people’s minds don’t think that way and I just find it really interesting. Like, why were all these lifeforms put here? What is the purpose of living? What’s the meaning of life itself? It’s very hard to explain how I feel, but I tried to do so as best as I could.

    • charleschaperon

      I also think about that.. that in itself is probably the biggest unanswered question….

    • Rorschach

      Earth itself is the most complex for us now, and we are still too primitive to stand for a healthier society to truely take care of ourselves and nature. That’s what most matters. unfortunately if we dont it’s more likely we disapair not due a natural cataclysm and meteor but our self-dedtruction but that’s pessimitic.Sorry my english is no good.

  • space

    Thing is I one day hope we will, but I have the idea that I wont be alive to witness the beauty of other stars and planets, even the fact im only 16. All this facinates me so much, lime the amount of stars out there makes you think doesnt it? I mean how did it all start? The big bang? But what created the Big Bang? And what created the things that made the big bang? It makes you wonder where the start is or even if there is one. So many questions that could maybe be answerd but would eventually raise even more questions. If you go to the religious side of things..about god creating everything..then how was god made etc? But the fact that we could eventually venture to new worlds makes me hope that our children or our childrens children etc appreciate the meaning of whats been achieved<3

    • Excellent questions and thoughts. I wish I’d had your insight at 16. Keep learning and asking these questions. I think that’s how we gain better understanding as we age. Thank you for reading.

  • dorf

    The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, not 182,000

  • E=mc^2

    Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon, so from
    that moment the scientific community asserts that: “to fly you need to
    be lighter than air”, that is called a PROTOCOL. Than the Wright
    brothers came in and sayd: “Hey we can fly too”, “so” reply the
    scientific community “lets see, we need to apply the PROTOCOL”, the
    scientists took the airplane and started to try and INFLATE the aircraft
    or biplane and say: “what are you saying Wright brothers, this thing
    doesn’t even blow”.

  • Jonathan Gilchrist

    This is what I believe. There are countless religions in this world. Everyone has their own belief. I am not saying one is right and one is wrong. Everyone finds out the truth when they die. So I don’t worry about it. I do not have a belief. In my mind, the meaning of life is to live your own to the fullest, do not care what other people think, love your friends and family and live with a free mind. Whether when I die I am just a corpse in the ground and nothing afterward, or there is something else, it doesn’t matter to me now. The world is so fucked up with negativity, murder, rape, killing, depravity, torture, and terrible no good very bad shit that I am glad where I live on this very small planet. I work, maintain my house, watch and enjoy football, and live my life to the fullest. All this talk of going to the cosmos. The world is killing itself. Terrorists are killing people and blowing themselves up for no fucking reason. Alah is not a fucking reason. It’s an excuse for murder. The world is going to be a dusty wasteland before we can even think about going to the stars. At the rate we are going at, in my opinion, interstellar space travel will always be just a dream, because humans are going to implode on themselves. If anything, I want interstellar space travel to happen to get me off this bullshit rock.

  • ex sea org member

    FTL is highly unlikely to happen given that it may not be a question of only technological requirements but to build something so large that it is near impossible – I.e. The device may have to be exceptionally large.

    There is no doubt we will be able to send ships of sorts to “near” stars but one has to ask why we would do that.

    There is no reason to expect as a planet that the challenges of just living here will ever be settled enough for the planet to go off and spend virtually all of the available money to send tiny ships to stars that will likely take hundreds of years.

    We are wealthy enough to send a ship to Europa and Mars yet due to financial constraints of running space ship earth these have not been sent.

    The future of sci-if fans whereby earth is united as one and would provide massive massive massive resources to just getting one tiny ship to the nearest star is science fiction.

    Even with AI units sent the trip will still take minimum 100s of years to a worthwhile planet like the Wolf system.

    But why would we do it?

    The future of this planet is uncertain and the chances of us navigating this one planet correctly may not even happen so there may not ever be expansion to other stars.

    Our idea of humans immortality is sadly misplaced and the idea a planet can not be destroyed is a myth surrounded by vast amounts of evidence (Venus and Mars).

    What it will take to get earth in order and functional dwarfs the requirements, technical requirements and will required to send a ship to the nearest star system.

    Our challenges are huge here on spaceship earth, and we are in trouble.

    My guess is many advanced civilizations run into the same problem and few navigate it well to make it on other planets.

    The distances are so large, the requirements so immense that have been disguised by sci fi movies with tiny ships “starting all over again”.

    I would imagine a ship large enough to carry humans to the nearest star and start life would likely be on the order of a half cubic mile of steel and resources.

    It would take the worlds oil production for the next 20 years just to get the ships components into earth orbit – let alone jet off to the target.

    The challenges are so daunting and expensive that without FTL there never will be humans in other star systems.

    And I doubt FTL can happen for an object with some realistic mass. Just because you can bend space, it doesn’t mean you can bend it to a destination, and it also doesn’t preclude a horrific incident whereby the time space of the planet you are on or near when you start these experiments doesn’t suffer a catastrophic scientific accident.

    I like the dream though, and dreams are as important if not more so than reality.

    • ightrider65

      the “ship” would have to be as big as a city!! Remember we will have hundreds of generations living & dying on this “ship” as we sail the cosmos to a sun 200 light years away…or MORE!!!! We will never do it! Even if we had the unlimited fuel, we just don’t live that long.

  • ightrider65

    We will never make it 2 the stars. Never! Distances are staggering plus we as a species do not live long enough even to get to a nearby sun. Never happen!!

  • Aditya

    The only way humanity could reach other solar systems is by mastering the use of Nuclear Fusion. A spaceship using this piece of kit could (theoretically) carry on for several generations, harvesting asteroids and comets and other water rich bodies on the way – probably by towing along a comet in its wake. Several hundreds of such spaceships will need to leave together with families, many of whom will never know what it is like to live on the Earth for several hundred generations. Mankind will have to make this journey some day, if our species is to outlive the Sun. We really have no choice.

    • Dan

      Do not travel, but jump the space in between. This is the only possible way, there is no way yet, but in due good time with hard study through generations there will be a way, the same as America was founded.

  • jdevola

    What I want to know is can we even AIM at alpha centauri? I mean, I assume that system is moving at some speed relative to our own system, and though we have successfully done the calculations for intrasystem travel, I suspect because of the great distance that even being off our aim by the merest of millimeters or milliseconds would mean overshooting or undershooting by huge distances — especially when we have no clue about the gravitational or other effects of such unknown forces as “dark matter” and such.

    • That’s a good thought. It would certainly require very complex planning and calculations. I’ll have to do some research to see who’s published on this (if anyone). Great insight!

  • Paleo Paul

    I’m optimistic that humans are in a position to even consider there place in the cosmos. This gives us a starting point at the very least. I think the harnessing of massive gravitational fields is the answer that will eventually prove to be a viable and workable solution to this problem. How long this takes is another matter. But sticking our heads in the sand won’t achieve anything. The universe seems incredibly exciting, and I for one would love to explore it!

  • Acceleration

    It would be impossible as your body can only take so much acceleration before you die (9 G’s is max and even if you reached this you would die in less then 1min) If our body’s could withstand the force we could be nearly has fast as the speed of light, Because of how weak our body’s are traveling to other planets like Pluto could even be impossible as it would take to long to get there. In our lifetime no it is impossible maybe in another but with our technology we will never see our galaxy fully.

    • JayMan

      G forces are a measurement of acceleration not speed. Humans lose consciousness around 9g’s not death, death comes around 40-50g’s depending on body orientation in relation to the direction of travel. The space shuttle launch is about 3g’s (17,500m/h^2). Lets just say once you escape earth orbit and you could maintain a comfortable 1G of thrust, it would only take roughly 9 days to reach Pluto, and about a year to reach light speed.

    • Respectfully

      G force is not a matter which scientists are worried about.. theories about intergalactic travel and I think a point made by this article.. is the so called “warp drive” would stretch and constrict time around you while you still move at a pace that’s comfortable.. speed as we currently know it is not the goal…

  • Jimbobogie

    Think of the movie “Passengers”. Regardless of the review it raised a valid concept. On a long interplanetary trip would it not make sense to have a couple of people “awake” at all times? The is could be done on a rotating basis so that nobodyc”grows too old”.

  • siltec

    At sub light speeds the talk is usually of generation ships, assuming ftl is not possible. However the biological alternative of extending the life of the crew is never considered. It has been proposed that the first person to live to 1000 has already been born. A bit tounge in cheek maybe, but as the claim came from an emminent scientist in the field it is a genuine suggestion.

    If genetic modifacation can extend our life spans indefinitely then generational travel is no longer needed.

    Of course it would need to be pretty big ship and hopefully the crew keep themselves amused. Biggest problem I see is finding ftl has been developed during their travels and there is someone waiting for them.

  • Tetra

    According
    to the theory of special relativity, the closer you travel to the speed
    of light, the more time has to give up to the occupants. So, if you
    theoretically made a ship with a powerful ion drive, or something else
    that has a light speed propellant, and could get enough fuel on board to
    give yourself a constant 1G acceleration towards the Andromeda galaxy
    with proper deceleration time, to the traveler in the spacecraft it
    could take as little as 3 years. You would need a particle shield to
    keep free floating atoms from melting your ship to nothing… but we are
    talking what’s theoretically possible, not what’s practical.

    It
    would be a one way trip though, and you would need to plan for where
    Andromeda is going to be, not where it is now, and if you returned, more
    than 5 million years will have passed on Earth even though the Traveler
    would only be 6 or so years older.

    • Great thoughts! Thanks for reading. 🙂

      • tetra

        Thanks Jason! Great Write Up.
        My belief is that our whole understanding of properties of universe will undergo a sea change and we will identify a possible way of achieving interstellar missions.

        All laws of physics for interstellar travels are based on lot of assumptions.

        None of the galaxies can
        be reached by humans – probably ever unless we discover some new
        physical property of the universe that brings those galaxies closer
        together on space-time. So far, pretty scant evidence exist to accomplish such feat.

        But more than the technology i think, the whole logic given to the universe system by humans will go under a tectonic shift.

  • Stephen Kepple

    It’s doubtful whether our civilization will reach the year 2100, much less reach the stars . . .

  • Tommy Anomaly

    Can I put exotic matter with negative mass into the gas tank of my Ford Focus?

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