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Travelling to distant stars – a thought experiment

Peter King
April 2, 2019

We’ve spent 200 years building a star ship that will take pioneers on a journey to find other inhabitable worlds in other star systems, possibly Proxima Centauri – a journey that we expect to take 45,000 years, and last several generations.

It’s a huge ship – 300 miles long and 100 miles wide – the size of a small country.

On board, we have everything we think we need – farming, seas, towns, power from nuclear reactors, schools, hospitals – our intrepid pioneers will want for nothing.

Congratulations! You have been appointed as the leader of this mission. You need to make sure that it is set up to succeed; you have to make sure that your ship and the descendants of your crew make it to Proxima Centauri.

What are the key things you need to worry about? Here’s a starter list …

  • Population growth – your ship can only support 10,000 people, you can’t let the population get too large.
  • Water – while you have lakes and seas and plenty of water, you need to make sure that you have enough drinking water to keep your population alive.
  • Energy and heat – your ship is very efficient, but it retains heat as it flies through the vacuum of space and could overheat, and your nuclear fuel needs to be rationed.
  • Society – you need a stable society, what happens if the population of your ship is unhappy with your leadership? You might be forced to walk the plank into the abyss!
  • Reuse and recycling – you have limited supplies of raw materials, such as iron and oil, so you need to reuse and recycle. Otherwise, future generations will not have enough to make the tools to plough the fields

There are things, such as growing GDP, that were really important back on Earth, but probably aren’t that important on your ship.

The twist

Now let’s imagine that we’re not going to Proxima Centauri, and in fact we’re just going to orbit the sun, and we’re not getting on a huge ship, we’re staying on Earth.

What of the things that you were worrying about as a starship captain do you still worry about on Earth? Is the list any different? Maybe you’re not the captain of Earth, but shouldn’t you worry about the same things?

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