When astronomers find habitable planets orbiting distant stars it’s going to stimulate a big upsurge in activity. First, to ensure it’s not just a case of wishful thinking, other astronomers are going to descend on the claims like a pack of wolves. Just as wolves help to maintain the health of the ecosystem by winnowing out the unfit, so scientists promote good science by subjecting it to harsh, relentless scrutiny. They will sift through the published findings searching for anything overlooked, unsupported or simply untrue. They will look for other ways to explain the data, especially anything more plausible than the original conjecture. At the same time, other astronomers will point their instruments at the planet in question and give it more attention than a star on a red carpet.
Once the planet passes these tests and qualifies as being capable of supporting life, then everyone will concentrate on trying to determine whether it actually does. Finding the first extrasolar planet was big. The first habitable one will be bigger. The first inhabited one would be one of the most important events in human history.
That will be only the beginning, though. After all, how long could we go on knowing that there’s another inhabited star system out there without going for a look? Telescopes are good and useful things, but we would want to take a close look. First we would send robotic spacecraft, just as we have already to Mars and other places in the Solar System. But, while robots are good proxies, we would eventually want to see it with our own eyes. Just as we are anticipating sending humans to Mars, so we will begin to contemplate going to other stars.
So, what are the means to get there? First, it won’t be chemical rockets such as we use for most space travel now. They are too inefficient and would require carrying far too much fuel to be practicable. Second, it won’t be “warp drive” or any other way of traveling faster than light. At least for the foreseeable future, such technologies, if even possible, are beyond us.
In this series we will look at various proposals for interstellar travel. Some proposals using technology that is currently available, some that can reasonably be expected to be invented some day, and some that’s not likely to ever come to be.