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Interstellar travel is possible, but not as quickly as most like to imagine. There are no wormholes to be found within any range humans could reach in a lifetime, even travelling at the speed of light. And advanced propulsion is still generations off. So, how will we get to the stars? Patience. Intergenerational ships, where communities live and die and reproduce on the ship, are the next big ideas among serious proponents of interstellar travel.
On Earth you will notice that objects which wish to go quickly must streamline in order to slide through the Earth's atmosphere. However, in space, shape does not matter. The most common design for an interstellar ship is a cigar-shaped body with clumsy-looking solar panels jutting from the surface to catch solar radiation.
Scientists have known for quite awhile about a method of propulsion that requires no fuel at all. The solar sail is a giant solar panel consisting of heat-resistant carbon, which would be unfurled in space to a width of nearly half a kilometer. The constant pressure of sunlight (composed of photons) will accelerate a ship to speeds five times more than is currently possible with fuel-propelled systems. At that speed, a probe launched in 2010 would overtake the Voyager 1 spacecraft (the most distant spacecraft from Earth) in 2018.
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|