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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Science Versus Space Exploration

There was a story in the paper today about how a local company moved a giant freaking magnet from Long Island, New York, to Chicago and all the contortions they had to go through to make the move. My first question was why the heck didn't they build the darn thing in Chicago in the first place and save everyone involved a lot of grief. Well, they probably had good reasons for that, and since a local company got the contract for moving it I suppose I shouldn't complain too loudly. But then I start thinking about how much money we are pouring into all these crazy high energy physics experiments, all designed to try and figure out how the universe works, and we are just sitting here on our little ball of rock. We should be out there exploring the galaxy, especially since I have figured out how to do it for not much more than annual GDP of lower Elbonia. (See list at end of this post.)
    The big trick is that if you could build a space craft that could accelerate continuously at one gravity you could be anywhere in the galaxy in a couple of years. One year of accelerating at one gee would bring you pert near the speed of light, and while your velocity measured relative to Earth might not increase much after that, you and and everyone else aboard the ship would start to experience extreme time dilation, i.e. time would slow down for you, so you would need to keep a sharp eye on your clock in order to determine when to start slowing down so you don't miss your destination. One minute at the speed of light with a time dilation factor of 10 will take you 600 billion feet, or a little more than one AU (astronomical unit, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, about 93 million miles or eight light minutes).*
    So how do you build a spaceship that can accelerate continuously at one gee? The trick is you need a very high exhaust velocity, and for that nothing beats a linear accelerator, the big old monsters physicists are using to explore subatomic particles. Feed it a steady diet of iron particles for magnetic reaction mass and power it with a nuclear power plant from a submarine and off you go.

*Rough calculations:
  • Light travels 186,000 miles per second. Let us round that up to 200,000 miles per second to make things easy on ourselves.
  • Multiple by 60 seconds per minute and we get 12 million miles per minute.
  • Multiple by 10 for our arbitrary time dilation factor and we get 120 million miles, which is a little more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
How to get started in space exploration, in five easy lessons:


Ole Phat Stu said...

Actually, Charles they were SAVING money. That is a USED magnet ring. Rather than buy a new one, the reused the old one by shipping it to the new site.

Questions like "Why didn't they just do the experiment at the old site" are beyond my ken though :-)

Stu said...

PS: Some time dilation calculations in an old blog of mine at


Charles Pergiel said...

I eventually found the bit about it being recycled from an old project, but I just wanted to make a fuss. It's better than spending money on war, but dang, we should have a regular shuttle to a moon base by now, not to mention an industrial complex out by L4.

Anonymous said...

I want my flying car.

Charles Pergiel said...

You and me both.