New Paper Says Aliens Might Slingshot Themselves Off Super-Earths
Ok, so last month, scientists posited the idea that maybe we haven’t met any aliens yet, because they live on a “Super-Earth” sized planet, and gravity there is so strong that it’s prevented them from having a successful space program. But now, a new paper has provided a solution to that problem: a slingshot.
Astrophysicist Michael Hippke, made the astute observation that it would be pretty difficult to launch a rocket from a Super-Earth sized planet, due to its high surface gravity and the extreme amount of power needed to achieve escape velocity.
This came in light of the recent discovery that Super-Earths, or rocky planets around 10 times the size of Earth, are the most common planets in solar systems we’ve observed so far. In fact, scientists believe they’ve just recently discovered one in our own solar system.
These planets would also have thicker atmospheres, shielding the surface from dangerous cosmic radiation and solar activity, creating even more favorable conditions for life to flourish. In short, there’s a really good chance life exists on those planets, and we’ve pinpointed about 1,000 of them.
That’s why scientists want to study them, but if there’s an indirect observation that could rule them out, why waste time? That was the point of Hippke’s observation and it provided a relatively new answer to the Fermi Paradox; if the universe is so vast, why haven’t we made contact with or observed extraterrestrial life?
But now in a riposte to Hippke, a new paper has argued that one way of overcoming such intense gravity would be a slingshot assist to traditional rocket propulsion, otherwise referred to as a tether-assisted space launch system. With a Super-Earth planet, it would require more than double the escape velocity and about 104 times the amount of fuel required to leave Earth. But not if you only need to get half way there…
This hypothetical tether would be attached to what’s described as a “skyhook” rotating with the planet’s orbital velocity. At some point the tether attached to the hook would pause momentarily at a lower altitude, allowing a launched rocket to dock with it, before being flung into orbit. This would save a significant amount of fuel and allow the rocket to use the planet’s gravity as an assist.
This idea seems to piggyback off the concept of a space elevator, although the paper acknowledges that a Super-Earth’s gravity would pull too hard on a space elevators cables to make the idea feasible. The material needed to build a tether that strong has yet to become a reality here on Earth, but scientists working with carbon nanotubes think they may have something soon.
If these hypothetical arguments just sound like sci-fi conjecture, it’s because they are, at least for now. But they could form the basis for future innovations in rocket propulsion, interplanetary space flight, and hopefully, discovering alien life.
Alex R. Howe, the author of this recent paper seems to hint that the concept of a tether-assist could be implemented with modern technology and would be especially useful for interplanetary travel, where fuel weight is such a tricky variable. Will Elon Musk take note?
When Will We Advance to a Type 1 Civilization on the Kardashev Scale?
What is the Kardashev Civilization Scale?
The Kardashev Civilization scale is a hypothetical scale by which civilizations advance technologically, measured by the methods and quantities of energy they are able to harvest. Currently, we fall somewhere between a Type 0 and Type 1 Civilization on the scale.
What is a Type 0 Civilization?
A Type 0 civilization is one that has yet to harness all of the energy output of its planet. This type of civilization is still in the process of utilizing unsustainable energy sources like fossil fuels.
What is a Type 1 Civilization?
A Type 1 Civilization on the Kardashev scale can harness and store all of the energy from its home planet. We haven’t quite achieved this level yet, but it is believed we will probably reach it soon. Many consider humans to be somewhere around .07 or .08 on the scale.
Nikolai Kardashev’s Theory
We like to believe our society is technologically advanced, we’ve mastered our environment and we’re progressing forward exponentially. And while Moore’s Law is holding up with the rate at which computing power has advanced, we barely rank on the Kardashev scale.
And yes, this scale is hypothetical, but it is plausible if we are to consider how we might inevitably ascend to the next level. That’s why Nikolai Kardashev devised his eponymous scale, ranking civilizations primarily on the ways in which they harness energy. And from there it goes on to assume a number of other intriguing possibilities.
Kardashev is a Russian astrophysicist, who developed this thought experiment in 1964. And though we haven’t quite reached the first level on his scale, we are a relatively new civilization by his standards. The amount of time required to reach his successive stages often requires millions and sometimes even billions of years. If a civilization can survive long enough to ascend one level without self-destructing, its chances dramatically improve in continuing to further levels.