Space is big

“Really big,” quoth Douglas Adams. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” 1 Well, read between the lines of this, and you really get a sense of just how big the galaxy is, and just how fast one has to go to make interstellar travel practical.

The trek from Earth to Pluto (assuming optimal alignment) is a jaunty 310 light minutes, so travelling at what The Register calls “warp 10,” i.e. 10C, cuts the trip down to about half an hour plus transaction costs. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.243 light years away, and thus just over five months’ travel at 10C. The nearest interesting star, Epsilon Eridani—interesting insofar as it hosts the nearest-discovered extrasolar planet, and, in due course, the location of the Babylon 5 station—is 10.5 light years away, and thus just over a year’s travel at 10C. Kzinhome, orbiting 16 Ursae Majoris, is 31.1 light years away, and thus some three years’ travel at 10C.

This gives you a sense of the distances and velocities involved in routine interstellar travel. The Register is calling 10C “warp ten,” but it’s well-established in the Star Trek canon that warp speed increments along a non-linear scale; ten times the speed of light is not warp ten, but a fast warp two. Just as well, too, because as we have seen, 10C just isn’t that fast in interstellar terms. Yet even the staggering velocities stated in Trek don’t approach the stupefying velocities implied therein. It’s only once you start to get into truly stupendous speeds that the galaxy starts to close in, and even then, the galaxy is still a very big place. In the last Trek movie, our intrepid heroes travel to Vulcan in a few minutes of screen time—at most, a few hours of plot time. Vulcan, however, being canonically-established at sixteen light years (5840 light days) from Earth, is just over a year and a half away at 10C. At Warp 4.4, i.e. 100C, it is nearly two months’ travel. Even at warp nine, i.e. 834C—that’s 834 times the speed of light, or 8,644,077,305 times faster than the cruising velocity of a Boeing 747—that’s still a week’s travel. Sorry, Captain, we just cannae push her any harder.

Notes:

  1. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Scripts 204 (2005).