Via MetaFilter: A NASA article about faster than light traveling, space colonization and science fiction. The article is an excellent overview of current propulsion techniques and what we’d need to travel to the nearest habitable planet.
If you’re into SF, Star-Trek and that and you are slightly unfamiliar with the paradoxes that traveling at the speed of light brings, you’re in for a disappointment. We don’t know enough about physics and we need (at least) make breakthroughs really soon now.
Charles Stross (author of Glasshouse and Halting State) has more sobering thoughts, highlighting the issues with sending a manned mission to (for example) Proxima Centauri: he notes that getting a vehicle at 10% of the speed of light requires the equivalent energy output of 400 megatons of nuclear missiles. Naturally, since we don’t want to overshoot Proxima Centauri, we need that same amount of energy to decelerate:
For a less explosive reference point, our entire planetary economy runs on roughly 4 terawatts of electricity (4 x 1012 watts). So it would take our total planetary electricity production for a period of half a million seconds — roughly 5 days — to supply the necessary va-va-voom.
Bruce Sterling wrote in 2004 (on colonizing Mars) that it’s a lot cheaper to colonize the Gobi desert than Mars. The two places are literally much alike: ‘they’re both ugly, inhospitable and there’s no way to make it pay':
On the other hand, there might really be some way to make living in the Gobi Desert pay. And if that were the case, and you really had communities making a nice cheerful go of daily life on arid, freezing, barren rock and sand, then a cultural transfer to Mars might make a certain sense.
More on this I will discuss in 2416, but I’m in a rush now: I have to travel to the future and tell the descendants of my twin-brother that they’re about to discover a wormhole to Proxima Centauri.