An interesting point arrives when articles suggest that something is “only” 16 light years away.
Our comprehension of the universe, and therefore our place in it has reached dizzying new heights of anticipation. The universe is starting to appear navigable, achievable, dare one say, conquerable. We are excitable things at the best of times, but the excitement around discovering not only a planet that is “close”, but habitable, that feels within our grasp, is too much to bear. When do we go?!
The technology that bears witness to the beautifully simple information telling us the genetic make-up of Gliese 832 C has been engineered and honed by human hands over the last 350 years. Spectroscopy tells us the elements present within a distant celestial body, discerned by what sections of the light spectrum are absent when they reach the spectrometer’s eye. From a distance Earth would present Oxygen, Nitrogen and some other elements, telling us, as aliens, that Earth could be habitable, very possibly with an abundance of water. Closer still and all the blinking lights would argue that this is an intelligent species, thoroughly bludgeoning its home planet insatiably for every conceivable material to make all of the “necessities” sitting around us.
Gliese 832 C is 16 LIGHT YEARS AWAY, the universe is 92 billion light years across, perhaps, it is likely, more. Gliese 832 C is “only” 160 trillion kilometers away, at the speed that Voyager is heading away from us it would only take it 293,949ish years to get there, and then 16 years to let us know it has.
The point is about how we are starting to pursue the stars, our Solar System feels like a little neighbourhood full of instantly recognizable, and therefore assailable, characters. We will colonise it, we will know the temperatures and gravitational effects of all 4 corners, the night and day on all landscapes, the notion of being millions of miles from home (until somewhere else becomes home). When technology catches up to curiousity, exploration occurs, we are currently fuelling the curiousity bug by feasting our eyes with ideas of what could be out there, defined by the huge philosophical questions of our time. Pioneers, both robotic and human, are setting sail on gargantuan journeys of discovery, journeys that we are certainly not made for, but that should not stop us, and it hasn’t in the past. For several reasons we need to travel beyond our pale blue dot, not least because we can, we are outgrowing our home planet, in terms of energy, food, raw materials and simply just space. To protect the diversity on Earth we need to look to barren, but useful, landscapes to cater for lifestyles that give everyone a chance.
A light year as a relative measurement is shrinking in terms of how far it feels, 16 of them is a barely a hop, like Monty Python trying to jump the English Channel. Shrinking Space is a creeping phenomenon, one that will capture the imaginations of future generations until the reality is of a human presence across the Solar System…and then where next?