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When we travel on earth, we usually judge distance in terms of how long it takes us to get to a certain place. The same is true in space. Let's consider an imaginary cosmic trip to the sun - and beyond ! To begin, we climb into a space vehicle capable of flying at the speed of a modern commercial jet plane. After take-off we find ourselves winging along through space at the speed of 650 miles per hour - almost the speed of sound. In 15 days we reach the cold barren, pock-marked wastes of the MOON. After a quick check of our navigational instruments our course is reset for our next destination - the SUN. How long would it take us to get there ? FOURTEEN YEARS !
Obviously, that's much too long, so we increase the speed to Mach 3, or three times that of sound- 2250 miles an hour. Now our trip to the sun takes a "mere" FIVE YEARS. Opon reaching the sun, we turn our spacecraft toward the outer reaches of our solar system. But we'd better forget about going. At our present speed of Mach 3, we'll never make it. It would take us over 100 YEARS just to reach the planet SATURN. So quickly additional power units are activated in our imaginary space vehicle. Soon our speed has increased to 20,000 miles an hour - five times that of recent NASA spacecraft. Another five long years are consumed as we plod on towards Saturn. Gradually the painful fact begins to dawn on us that by the time we reach Saturn we will have been travelling in space for over 10 YEARS and will still not be out of our own solar system.
Drastic measures are necessary if we're going to complete our journey into outer space at the speed of light. Of course, it's totally imaginary !) The speed of light is approximately 186,000 miles per second. That means in a year light travels approximately six million, million miles ! Had we begun at this speed, our trip through the solar system would have required only a few hours.
But the sun and planets are virtual "neighbors" and we want to travel beyond them to some of the "nearer" stars. So we program our mertial navigation computer to take us to Alpha Centauri - the nearest star to our own solar system. As the outermost planet, Pluto slowly recedes from view, we settle into our normal spacecraft routine - eagerly anticipating our arrival at Alpha Centauri. We eat supper at the regular time and engage in a few rubbers of bridge with the rest of the crew. Later on at out regular bedtime we lapse into a peaceful sleep, weary with the events of the day.
The next morning the first thing we do is to check with the navigator on how much longer it will take to reach Alpha Centauri. Our face drops when we hear his reply - FOUR ½ YEARS ! Incredulous, we ask him to recheck his figures. Surely, travelling at a breathtaking 186,000 miles per second, our trip to the nearest star should take much less time. But the navigator confirms his original calculations.
Visibly shaken, we begin to reconsider the possibility of reaching some of the more prominent stars in our immediate neighborhood. What about SIRIUS the brightest star visible to us ? - We'll get there in 8½ YEARS," the navigator replies. Almost desperate, we quickly thumb through our space almanac looking for other nearby candidates. Our finger lands on RIGEL, a prominent star in the constellation Orion. The inertial navigational range finder comes back with a set of disturbing figures. "Time to Rigel - 900 YEARS." We can't even get one tenth of the way there- even if we live to a ripe old age of 90. The realization seizes us that we may have to abandon our mission completely.
The discouraging picture brightens considerably, however, after consultation with our flight engineer. He informs us that a recently installed "warp-drive" energy converter will enable us to rocket through space faster than the speed of light ! (Again - strictly fiction because Einstein's theory of relativity shows that this is impossible. The purpose of this imaginary journey is simply to illustrate the immensity of space. It obviously would not represent realistic conditions especially traveling at velocities approaching the speed of light. At these speeds realistic mass, time, and velocity relationships become rather involved and are governed by Einstein's theory of relativity.) With the new power unit our speed soars to warp -100, or 100 times the speed of light. We reach RIGEL in less than 5½ YEARS.
Continuing with our planned itinerary, the next leg of the journey will be an exploratory trip to our home galaxy - the MILKY WAY. We point our spaceship toward its central hub where the consentration of stars is so thick that from our vantage point they appear as a single glowing mass. But once more our navigator comes up with a set of disturbing figures. Traveling at "only" warp 100, 100 times the speed of light, it will take an exasperating 300 YEARS to reach the center of our galaxy.
Undaunted, we shove our electronic throttle forward until our spacecraft is now moving at a dizzying warp - 10,000 (10,000 times the speed of light ). With satisfaction we note that the galactic center now lies only three "short years away. Approaching the center of the Milky Way, our attention is quickly riveted to the brilliant blaze of lights radiating from formations of densely packed ball-shaped bunches of stars known as globular clusters. Careful observation of these clusters reveals that their individual stars are gyrating back and forth" like gnats in a swarm." We desire to alter course slightly in order to more closely observe these fascinating groups of stars, but we quickly abandon the idea when our resident astronomer warns us that once inside their formation we would in all likelihood be instantly blinded by their light.
Our progress through the Milky Way continues. At the colossal speed of warp 10,000 ( 1,860 million miles per second ), it still takes us another 5 YEARS to arrive at the outer edge of our galaxy. And as we burst out of its confines, our journey through known space has barely gotten off the ground. Outside the Milky Way we're confroned by billions of other galaxies similar to our own. We recall that current estimates hold that the universe may be teeming with upwards of one thousand million of these star-laden conglomerates. Our resident astronomer points out that we can better understand the "galactic population density" by imagining a piece of the sky the size of the bowl of the constellation - the " Big Dipper." Seen from the earth 50,000 individual galaxies he continues, have been discovered in just such an area of the sky.
A feeling of frustration creeps over us. At this rate we will never complete our cosmic journey. But our flight engineer again comes to our rescue and informs us that our energy converter will allow us to make one more velocity increase to warp - one million ! ( One million times the speed of light ) With renewed confidence we set course for one of our nearest galactic neighbours - the ANDROMEDA. As our spaceship plunges on into the remoteness of the cosmos, the Milky Way rapidly recedes into the background. We are now able for the first time to grasp something of its overall dimensions and appearance. Shaped like a giant illuminated pinwheel revolving in the backness of space, its diameter is a staggering 587 million million miles. No wonder it took so long to cross its boundaries !
At this point we remember that our solar system is located about three fourths of the way out on one of its revolving spiral arms. But we must search in vain for our sun and its nine planets among this vast host of stars, for as our astronomer informs us, the sun is merely a rank and file yellow dwarf star much too dim to be seen from outside the Milky Way. Our train of thought is interrupted as the navigator reports that the spaceship is approaching the outskirts of Andromeda. Regretfully we realize that this neighboring galaxy will have to be the limit of our cosmic journey. Beyond Andromeda, deep in outer space, lies the mysterious quasars, pulsars and radio galaxies. But we have long since abandoned hope of reaching them. Their distance are well up into the hundreds and thousands of millions of light-years. Such an undertaking would be prohibitive even for our imaginary superpowered spaceship.
Somewhat dejected by the disappointing prospect of having to return home, we begin preparations for our return to the EARTH with our hopes of conquering space now considerably dimmed. Twenty-five years have elapsed since we blasted off from the surface of the earth and even though we rocketed through space up to a million times the speed of light, we never made it out of our immediate galactic neighbourhood. In the words of one author, we now realize that an ant determind to crawl across the United States has more chance of accomplishing its task than man trying to cross the universe !
Our spaceship at last returns to EARTH only to find that everyone you knew have ALL DIED a long time ago, in fact 2.500 years ago, but you have aged only an extra 25 years you have been traveling in space ! ( Einstein's theory of relativity ) that at the speed of light we go back in time, more so when you are traveling at an imaginary million times the speed of light !