Alpha Centauri, Here We Come

But it might take a while.

You can’t criticize NASA for failing to plan ahead. It is now in the earliest stages of planning an expedition to our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. The hoped-for launch date is 2069, 51 years from now, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon.
The moon is about 225,000 miles away. Alpha Centauri is  4.3 light years away. That’s almost 115,000,000 times as far. The fastest a man-made object has ever moved is about 50,000 miles per hour. At that speed, a space probe would need about 58,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri. Obviously, a radically new propulsion system will be needed, and NASA is hoping to develop one that will push the space probe up to 10 percent of the speed of light. Even then it will take 43 years to get there.
In other words, if it launches in 2069, it will roll into the Alpha Centauri system in 2112. We will learn that it got there in 2116, as it will take 4.3 years for the radio signal to get back to earth. Such a propulsion system would radically reduce the time needed to visit solar system objects. It could get a probe to Pluto in a few days instead of the nine and a half years needed for the New Horizons probe to reach Pluto in 2015.
Alpha Centauri, one of the brightest stars in the night sky, is in the southern hemisphere, and you need to be at least in southern Florida to see it. It’s a double star, one with about 1.1 solar masses and the other about .9 solar mass. They are separated by an average distance about equal to the distance between the sun and Saturn, but the orbit is quite elliptical, and an orbit is completed only once in 79 years. They appear as one star to the naked eye, but ordinary binoculars will separate them.
We understand the stars very well already, thanks to earth-bound observations. Or, at least, we think we do. So the value of the expedition would be in exploring the system’s planets and moons assuming it has some. We’re pretty sure already that the smaller star has a planet.
But, at heart, NASA is planning to go to Alpha Centauri for the same reason people climb Mt. Everest: because it’s there and we can. I can’t wait. After all, I’ll only be 125 when it launches and 172 when we get confirmation of success.
18
Shares
Google+ Print

Alpha Centauri, Here We Come

Must-Reads from Magazine

Identity Politics in the Hereafter

Grievance even in grieving.

As if the peddlers of identity politics hadn’t done enough to poison Western culture in the here and now, they have now set their sights on the afterlife.

6
Shares
Google+ Print

Pompeo and Circumstance

Podcast: North Korea talks and Trump's legal troubles.

On our latest COMMENTARY podcast we wonder at the fact that Democrats are going to vote en masse against Mike Pompeo as secretary of state for no real reason other than that they don’t like Trump—and how this marks the fulfillment of a degradation in the advise-and-consent process that’s been accelerating for the past couple of decades. Also, we talk about Stormy Daniels, alas. Give a listen.

1
Shares
Google+ Print

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistical Deficits

The other last refuge.

Someone in the 19th century (Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, but that’s dubious) said that there are three forms of lying: lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you would like a beautiful example of the last category of mendacity, check out David Leonhardt’s April 15th column in the New York Times,  entitled (try not to laugh) “The Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility.”

14
Shares
Google+ Print

Eating Their Own

A frontal assault on soft targets.

The ubiquitous coffeehouse chain Starbucks is at the center of a scandal—the familiar kind fueled by new media’s obsessive litigation of grievances that have a perceived societal dimension. This one occurred in Philadelphia where two young black men were humiliated and led out of the café in handcuffs by police. They were accused of trespassing and declined to leave when asked, saying that they were merely waiting for a friend. The story of the incident went viral, and it became a scandal—justifiably so. The decision to prosecute this episode of harmless loitering is suspicious, and the insult these men suffered deserves redress. Asking whether racial bias was a factor here is a perfectly valid question, and that deserved to be investigated. But that’s not what has happened.

39
Shares
Google+ Print

A Liberal Democracy—Or a Militant One?

The totalitarians’ arguments always end up in the same place

The great shortcoming of democracy is and always has been the demos. John Adams, like many of the Founding Fathers, abhorred the very idea of democracy, precisely because it provided the means to amplify and weaponize the demos and its vices: “It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy,” he wrote in a famous passage. “It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.” Conservatives of the more pointy-headed variety enjoy taking any occasion to tut-tut loose talk of “democracy,” insisting on “republic.” They may be pedantic on the point, but there is a point: What’s most valuable about the American constitutional order isn’t universal suffrage (a relatively recent innovation for us Americans, though it’s worth appreciating that some Swiss women were not enfranchised until 1990) or regular elections—what’s most valuable is in fact all that great anti-Democratic stuff cooked up by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason and sundry Anti-Federalists: a tripartite government with a further subdivided legislative branch in which unelected senators (oh, happy days!) had the power to frustrate the passions of the more democratic House; a Bill of Rights depriving the demos of the right to vote at all on certain fundamental questions such as freedom of speech and of religion; a Supreme Court empowered to use the law as a cudgel to beat back democratic assaults on liberty and citizenship; the hated filibuster; the holy veto; advice and consent.

124
Shares
Google+ Print