Almost three million years ago, our early ancestors Homo erectus, gazed into night sky for the first time. What they saw still resonates with us all today, as few sights can topple the sense of awe that is felt from witnessing the light of a billion stars. In the last hundred years our curiosity has driven us to distant worlds, although we have yet to truly scratch the surface of our journey into the cosmos.
The most recent product of our exploration has been the pictures taken of Pluto by New Horizons. In an image recently released to the public, we were given a glimpse of what a sunset looks like on the icy rock. Alan Stern, the principle investigator of New Horizons, commented on the photo, saying “this image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself”.
The image also gave a lot of information about glacier formation, revealing that the process in Pluto was remarkably similar to that observed in Greenland and Antarctica. Although missions like New Horizons are a triumph for science and the human race, there will always be something missing until the first human sets foot on these distant worlds.
When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, he proved that we have the capability to travel beyond the bounds of Earth. Almost fifty years later, the human race has yet to push further into the cosmos. The problem is that manned missions so far from Earth require an incredible amount of financial investment into the development of new technologies. There is hope however, as NASA has set its sights on a manned mission to Mars. The goal is to land humans on an asteroid by 2025 and eventually on the Martian surface, sometime in the 2030s.
Though the idea of colonising our galaxy might seem a little farfetched, such an endeavour would be possibly be given a blank cheque. However, the dream of interstellar travel does not fall into this category. The closest exoplanet to us is Alpha Centauri Bb, at 4.37 light years away. To put the scale of this distance into perspective, it would take roughly 4.7 million years travelling at 100km/h to reach it. In order to make such a trip feasible, we would need to develop a technology that allows transportation to our destination faster than light, which for the moment, is beyond us.
The fascination with the cosmos is deeply founded in all of us and one day we will realise our dreams of interstellar travel. In the meantime, however, we must continue to innovate and push the boundaries of exploration within our solar system. As Steven Hawking once said, “look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”