LIGO member Teviet Creighton talks about options and oppor­tu­nities for inter­stellar travel. Alexis Daniels | Courtesy

There is a lot of curiosity about inter­stellar travel and planet col­o­nization, but according to member of the Laser Inter­fer­ometer Grav­i­ta­tional-Wave Obser­vatory (LIGO) col­lab­o­ration Teviet Creighton, humans are better off in large-scale space colonies.

Creighton, director of the facility Space­craft Tracking and Astro­nomical Research into Giga­hertz Astro­physical Tran­sient Emission (STARGATE), is part of a team from the Uni­versity of Texas Rio Grande Valley and is working on the Low Fre­quency All Sky Monitor radio tele­scope on the Hillsdale campus. On Oct. 22, he came to Hillsdale’s campus to discuss the plau­si­bility of inter­stellar travel based on an article he pub­lished soon after the release of the movie “Inter­stellar.”

“With STARGATE, we were getting into the field of com­mercial space tech­nology, and they were asking whether this was a plau­sible sce­nario,” Creighton said. “The premise of this is inter­stellar travel.”

Inter­stellar travel is glam­orized in enter­tainment, said Creighton, and movies portray it with strange worlds, daring crews and space­ships, and surreal encounters with new civ­i­liza­tions. However, there is one simple question that stands in the way of its plau­si­bility: how would we actually explore the universe?

“As they put it in the movie ‘Inter­stellar,’ to get some­where, you have to leave some­thing behind,” said Creighton. “How do you get a spaceship to move forward? You throw stuff out the back, and by throwing stuff out the back, you move the ship forward.”

The thing that Creighton said you must throw out is fuel to add impulse, but it becomes a dimin­ishing return because you need to have fuel to take fuel. One idea is to use more effi­cient fuel, but even this is a remote pos­si­bility. For even an optimal ther­monu­clear rocket, one would need 9 x 10^3 kilo­grams of fuel per kilogram of payload to arrive to the nearest star outside of the solar system in a decade. One could expect to spend a lifetime on board.

There is also the idea of faster-than-light travel such as worm­holes; however, though this is the­o­ret­i­cally allowed, “the­o­ret­i­cally and prac­ti­cally are very dif­ferent things,” said Creighton. Any form of faster-than-light travel requires some sort of exotic matter like con­tra­matter, which has neg­ative energy density.

“Maybe it would require a ship that was the size of a solar system or a galaxy,” Creighton said. “And we don’t know because we don’t know what the prop­erties of this con­tra­matter actually are. It’s kind of making a nar­rative assumption for dra­matic pur­poses to think that such a thing would happen to exist and happen to have the prop­erties we need to fulfill our space explo­ration fantasies.”

One of the fas­ci­na­tions with inter­stellar travel lies in the pos­si­bility of col­o­nizing new planets. According to Creighton, there are many dif­ferent types of stars and “ter­res­trials” beyond our solar system, among them ice giants, sulfur ter­res­trials, and tholin ter­res­trials such as Saturn’s moon Titan. Water ter­res­trials are very sought after in inter­stellar travel.

“We are water chau­vinists,” Creighton said. “We like water; it seems to be special to us.”

But even with the pos­si­bility of water ter­res­trials, there is a remote pos­si­bility that humans could inhabit any other planet because the chances of finding one with enough water and a breathable atmos­phere are slim. Earth’s atmos­phere is a product of its ecosystem, and to replicate that on any other planet, Creighton said there are two options: engineer the atmos­phere and bios­phere of a barren planet from scratch or already have life on the planet.

“If it happens to be an inhabited world with its own life forms and its own ecosystems, then you have Option B,” Creighton said. “You first erad­icate what’s there because it’s not the atmos­phere that you want, and then see A.”

If man does move off the earth, he said, it would be much more effi­cient to move to space habitats instead. We are more likely to utilize space for mer­can­tilist pur­poses, to have another way to gen­erate wealth. As for the earth’s envi­ronment, Creighton posits that any envi­ron­mental problems can be addressed by exploiting resources in the solar system nearby; there is no need to go to distant stars to get it.

Stu­dents found Creighton’s points on inter­stellar space travel informative.

“I thought it was really sat­is­fying to see someone actually do the math and present it intel­li­gibly to non-sci­en­tists,” senior Tim Polelle said. “I thought his sug­gestion about the prac­ti­cality of arti­ficial space habitats was insightful.”

They also found his com­ments on the plau­si­bility of space travel to be straight­forward and honest.

“I appre­ciated the acknowl­edgment that fixing Earth is easier than moving the stars,” sophomore Sara Gasey said. “I feel that some­times we view the potential of space as an excuse not to deal with the problems of Earth.”