Alone! I’m alone! I’m a lonely insignificant speck on a has-been planet orbited by a cold, indifferent sun!” – Homer Simpson.
Looking up into the sky at night, it can sometimes be difficult to comprehend how lonely and empty space really is. On a clear night the darkness will be punctured by millions of tiny pinpricks of light, signifying planets and stars that seem just a stone’s throw from each other, and the universe seems relatively lacking in this eponymous ‘space’. The reality is somewhat different. As Bill Bryson puts it in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, if you were to draw a scale diagram with ‘the Earth reduced to the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometres distant.’ The separation between Earth and our next closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is 40 trillion kilometres. Space is uncompromisingly vast and almost unimaginably void.
Earlier this year, astronomers at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii made a discovery to further reinforce this point. They uncovered a planet, with the rather functional name of PSO J318.5-22, located a ‘mere’ 80 light years from Earth (a light year being the distance that a beam of light would travel through space in a year – just under 9.5 trillion kilometres). The discovery of a planet outside the solar system, otherwise known as an exoplanet, is not in itself remarkable as almost a thousand of these have previously been discovered. What makes PSO J318.5-22 special is that despite its unromantic name, it has a much more mysterious nature.
The planet is the first rogue planet ever to be directly imaged. Most planets orbit a central star in a fixed celestial dance, the steps of which were mapped out by Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton in the 17th century. Rogue planets have no such constraints; they are the outcasts of the universe and are free to wander, orbiting the galaxy directly. A list of names by which they are also known conveys the poetic, loner nature of this kind of stellar body – nomad planet, free-floating planet, orphan planet – and an artist’s impression of the planet shows an eerie purple ball suspended against a myriad of distant stars.
The word science comes from the Latin scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’ and space exploration is perhaps one of the best examples of pure science that exists. Studying a planet that is light years away is very unlikely to bring any practical benefits to lives here on our own planet, but is instead the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Examining the universe is also a way of trying to give humanity a place in the wider scheme of things; a role whose significance has diminished as the centuries have passed, falling from being the centre of everything under the Ptolemaic geocentric model, to being just one of many planets under the Copernican heliocentric model, to being just one planet in one solar system in one of the billions of galaxies that makes up the universe by today’s thinking.
“Imagining ‘the Earth reduced to the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be two and a half kilometres distant’ – Bill Bryson ”
Along with the philosophical and existential questions thrown up, space exploration, like many other kinds of exploration, seems to bring out people’s most enterprising and daring nature. The dangers were apparent from very early on – Galileo died under house arrest for advocating the Copernican model of the universe. Later space pioneers such as Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space; Alexey Leonov, the first man to perform a space walk; and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first humans on the Moon, risked their lives to push the frontiers of human experience and literally open up new worlds to research and discovery. Often it involves overcoming normal sensibilities about the realities of travelling beyond one’s own planet. In the words of astronaut John Young, “anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fuelled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.”
This is the kind of spirit that the Mars One Foundation hopes to channel. The project kicked up a media storm when in April of this year it began looking for applicants to become the first human settlers on Mars. When the first application window closed on 9th September, over 200,000 people from 140 countries had applied. According to the mission statement posted on its website, “the Mars One Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2023.” Given that this is another chance for humans to cross previously unimagined boundaries, the number of applicants does not seem extraordinarily high. However, the Mars One Foundation has made it clear from the start that this will be a one-way trip, meaning that 200,000 people are prepared to turn their back on their families, countries and entire way of life to be a part of this project.
The Guardian published a selection of interviews with applicants who laid out their reasons for applying. Erica Meszaros reiterated the pioneering drive behind her own application, saying “I want to see the sun rise over a completely new horizon, in a completely new sky. I think that’s worth any price. To me, the desire to explore a new world, a planet completely different from the one that every person who has ever lived has ever known, is intrinsic and essential to the human spirit.” Josh Richards highlighted the overall potential benefits, saying “I see it as the opportunity it is – an amazing chance to serve all of humanity by taking part in a project that will inspire generations to come. This isn’t about what we might leave behind: it’s about the potential for breathtaking scientific discoveries and to recognise our species’ incredible potential if we simply work together.”
Understandably, high levels of scepticism surround the Mars One mission, despite the Foundation’s claims that “the science and technology required to place humans on Mars exists today”. The ability of technology to hold up under the harsh Martian conditions, the existence of adequate levels of funding and, most importantly, the ability of humans to deal with the isolation and fundamentally different lifestyle have all been called into question. It is a project unrivalled in terms of ambition, unmatched even by the original Apollo missions.
Whether or not humans make it to Mars by 2023, it is certain that we will continue to make new discoveries. Despite an interest in the heavens that stretches back to the dawn of humanity, it seems that the cosmos still has ways to surprise us. When describing PSO J318.5-22, Michael Liu from the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawai’i stated that “we have never before seen an object free-floating in space that looks like this. It has all the characteristics of young planets found around other stars, but it is drifting out there all alone”. And although on lonely nights it can sometimes feel as if we are doing the same, it is well worth remembering that we are an essential part of a fascinating, beautiful and mostly unexplored universe.