I guess you saw that the latest in the Star Trek movie series (Star Trek Beyond) has just come out? It’s a hardy perennial, even though everybody knows that the travel to the stars isn’t possible for us humans because it would take so long to get there.
When the first Trekkie came out, that was a true statement. Now with several companies girding up to go to Mars and other planets, at least the planetary part of the space equation looks doable (see my recent post “Space will be the New Driver of Global Economic Growth”). But travel to the stars, nah, still impossible. You can’t just repeal the laws of physics and Einstein’s MC2 is a particularly difficult one to crack.
But never say never. You might have heard of a doughty Russian entrepreneur called Yuri Milner. Together with Stephen Hawking he’s got a plan to get to the stars, and yes, it gets us there there within our lifetimes. That’s something. No more “are we there yet”!
The plan is amazingly simple (well, comparatively speaking). Just build spaceships weighing no more than 5 ounces and then blast them with ultra-powerful lasers till they reach about 20% of the speed of light. That gets them to Alpha Centauri, a mere 4 lightyears away, in 20 years or so. Piece of cake right?
Of course these little starships don’t exist yet. Nor do the ultra-powerful lasers. But if they did, in principle it could work. Leave it to Elon Musk.
But, I hear you say, how about getting humans to the stars, just like in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Isn't that the real goal? The Hawking-Milner plan is a good one but it just doesn’t achieve this goal. And that’s what all tech visionaries are really rooting for.
But could humans even survive once the mini-starships arrived? Maybe the planets are so different they can’t. So what then?
Well here’s a little bit of lateral (dumbass?) thinking from yours truly. It goes along the following lines.
We have already decoded the human genome. Recently biotech tools have emerged that allow us to easily edit it. With these editing tools we can modify genomes in numerous ways.
In essence these new editing tools have given rise to kits of preformed molecular components that can be utilized to form new combinations of DNA. Let’s call these kits LegNA (after Lego-DNA). We won’t know til we get there what the conditions are. So now we can customize this human DNA to let the bodies it forms survive no matter where.
So the best shot (get it?)is to send the expeditions with the right molecular components to be able to build organisms that can survive no matter what the planetary conditions. That includes things like temperature, gravity, radiation, gases, energy sources and so on. The LegNA has got to be capable of handing the full Monty of planetary conditions. That can be done in a tiny package all right, but it’s gonna have to be devised to cover everything.
We aren’t talking just about human DNA. We should be talking about the DNA of all terrestrial animals. After all they have genes that might be more useful for survival on a strange planet than human DNA.
That shouldn’t be too difficult. We have decoded much of the genome of the animal world. It shouldn’t take that much storage space. After all, much of our DNA is common to all of the animal world; there isn’t that much difference between insect and human DNA.
So we could place much of the terrestrial DNA on a USB drive. Call it Noah’s Ark on a stick. THAT”S what we send to Alpha Centauri!
So the starships are going to need to carry an animal-generator. Sort of a Maker for animals for any conditions. 3-D animal printing. Note: also including humans if they could survive.
Getting there is gonna just be a small part of the challenge.
So a 5 ounce spaceship is all we need to get deliver humans or whatever beings will survive there! We don’t need to send humans, we can send their DNA! And the DNA of the whole terrestrial animal kingdom! And we don’t even have to send the DNA in one piece. We will send it in multiple packages for redundancy purposes and as LegNA.
We could call them DNA bio-packets, just like the packets we get in electronic networking. These bio-packets would then be assembled on arrival to manufacture organisms that have the right types of characteristics to survive in the very different worlds they will certainly meet.
Now of course there are some ethical issues in polluting other planets with our DNA. But would the Russians or Chinese care if they could colonize Alpha Centauri and its planets? How about the North Koreans? That would put those uppity Americans in their place! I think it’s likely that military considerations are going to play a big role here, like it or not.
For those of you who are aficionados of the history of science you will likely have seen a (distant) version of this idea before. It’s called panspermia. The scientists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe published a version of this theory in the 70s. They saw organic cosmic dust providing the raw material for panspermia and as the possible origin of life on Earth.
Another version of panspermia is that either aliens sent life here, or it evolved somewhere else and somehow floated here. I’m just turning this idea on its head and asking why humans couldn’t or wouldn’t be the original source of panspermia rather than some nameless aliens in a universe far, far away.
Once we have 5 ounce spaceships and big lasers we’re just about to be ready to seed the universe with human (or other terrestrial) DNA. Think of a modern Noah’s Ark. Modern biotech has almost assembled the kit of tools we need to do this.
And btw, it doesn’t need to be DNA. It could be XNA, a synthetic DNA that is already being made by molecular engineers. Ingenious, these molecular collections called humans.
Of course, we humans might already be made of DNA sent out by alien civilizations. If we did our own panspermia shot, we would just be sending our stuff back to them. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, on a cosmological scale. So they couldn’t blame us for copying them.
My recent post, “Space will be the New Driver of Global Economic Growth”, argued that space exploration would drive the next big round of economic growth. In the telling of this post, planetary exploration is already passé. It’s the stars that are going to take over that role, maybe in another 50 years.
And a lot of that economic activity is going to derive from a totally new human activity, synthesizing totally new types of animals from scratch. Maybe at least in part to replace those that we have condemned to extinction down here on Earth by virtue of our wanton destruction of our own cosmological habitat?
Don’t laugh. A secret military unit somewhere on Earth is probably already working on all of these.
Area 51 perhaps? Together with the flying saucers?