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Monday, 22 April 2013

Goldilocks planets abound, but what about that ride?

This is a painting by an artist of Kepler-62e, a goldilocks planet NASA has located 1200 light-years distant from us. I love these stories of earth-like spheres the boffins behind the consoles punch out from time to time in the global media. There's even a video. And it's timely in Australia to talk about light years because we're debating a fiber-optic broadband system the current government is building; the Opposition says it's too expensive and proposes a slower alternative. But imagine if we digitised a space crew. It would still take over a thousand years for the data packets to reach Kepler-62e. Busy as we remain linked tightly to the pressing matters that course through our democracies like filaments of light, we glance briefly at these numbers and shrug.

But there are dreamers out there. Two big stories of outer space - the Alien franchise that began in 1979 and 2009's Avatar - let us dream of an uncalculable wealth of mineral resources. In the film Alien, the bulk carrier Nostromo is cruising back to earth from a mine located in the far reaches of some galaxy when people start to die on the ship. It's so easy to imagine. People have been scouring the earth of our rocky planet for millennia in search of the riches buried within it. But how to get there?

Is there some rule of physics that can be used to shorten the time it takes to travel to such a distant place? Instead of spending 1200 years as a series of bits and bytes, can we somehow bend space so that it takes, say, only 100 years living within the confines of some outlandish craft to reach Kepler-62e? But even then you can imagine the cultural shift that would occur, once the crew arrived at its destination, set up camp, and began to forge a new life on Pandora. Leaving aside the possible existence there of other, sophisticated lifeforms such as ourselves, it would take hundreds of years before the venturers returned to this planet; what would they find?

What might have happened to Earth? To the idea of the nation state? To democratic rule? Even literary fiction writers such as Michel Houellebecq tangle with the options that arise in the imagination, the mind struggling with the limitations of time, and creating a vision designed to negate time. Meanwhile, news stories of goldilocks planets plummet through the miasma of messages, of information, inside the rapidly-expanding public sphere, and potentially find a resting place within the mind of a person who is yet to reach full potential. Some future day he or she verges on the cusp of a technological breakthrough. The fiction precedes the fact just as it feeds off it.

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