A Question on the Economics of Space Energy

I’ve been convinced, reluctantly, for some time by an argument regarding inter-stellar travel. The possible means we might have for traveling between the stars within reasonable time frames imply a command of massive energies. Wormholes, warp-drives, and hyperspace all imply direct manipulation of space-time in a way that we can observe does not currently occur routinely. Necessarily, such technology (if it were possible) would require scientific know-how we do not have but also massive energy.

The sad conclusion of this argument is that interstellar travel can never be the basis of a galactic civilisation of the kind we see in our space operas. Having gained the necessary pre-requisites of large-scale energy manipulation, humanity would have no need for interstellar trade or indeed much need for interstellar exploration for reasons other than pure curiosity. Put another way: faster-than-light travel implies a post-scarcity civilisation and almost god-like technology.

I’m a tiny bit more sceptical of that chain of thought now though.

I think it is partly shaped by our current perspective on energy. It is easy to see energy as the core limitation of our economy. You need the energy to do anything. To enact any kind of change, to hold off entropy, to shape things requires energy. Simply to stay alive and warm and fed requires energy. Our view of energy in modern society is one that sees energy as a limited resource that is inherently expensive. However, that is misleading.

In space and in the universe in general, massive sources of energy are plentiful. Simply looking up on a cloudless night will show you a practically uncountable number of active fusion reactions boiling off photons into space. Energy itself is plentiful, what is rare or difficult to acquire is energy that is usefully constrained at a scale that is useful for human purposes.

The canon was invented before the steam train. The fusion bomb was perfected before the fusion reactor. Deploying huge amounts of energy is not necessarily technically difficult, what is difficult is deploying huge amounts of energy without wrecking stuff. Of course, that doesn’t mean making wormholes in space to travel to distant planets is feasible but it does make me think it might not require a level of finesse over physics that could be applied to more subtle things.

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7 comments

  1. greghullender

    I suspect humanity will have to change into something different from what we are now before we explore the stars. E.g. if some combination of generic engineering and AI software enables people to belong to mass minds (at least temporarily) and those immortal entities are the ones who make the big decisions and are the only ones who use really dangerous technologies. But I don’t see any merely human civilization finding a compelling reason to go beyond our solar system.

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  3. Johan P

    “Of course, that doesn’t mean making wormholes in space to travel to distant planets is feasible but it does make me think it might not require a level of finesse over physics that could be applied to more subtle things.”

    The problem I see with that argument is that in order to do interplanetary travel, we must travel to planets. Even if there is a way to travel multiple lightyears by using huge amounts of energy in a not-quite-controlled way, it seems that hitting a planet, decelerating once you’re there, and reaching the planet’s surface while still alive, would require a great deal of control.

    These would all be useless:
    – a wormhole from the Earth to a place lightyears from the nearest star system.
    – a way to accelerate a spaceship to super-lightspeed that doesn’t reliably hit the target planet.
    – a way to accelerate a spaceship to super-lightspeed, but not decelerate once it reaches the target planet.
    – a way to reach super-lightspeed that involves an explosive acceleration that humans doesn’t survive.
    etc.

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  4. KMP

    I still have “The Starflight Handbook” lying around somewhere, it goes through all the possibilities starting with chemical rockets through ramjets and lightsails and so on. It’s not that it’s physically impossible, it’s that the barrier to entry in terms of time and/or energy is fairly high and we’re still a comparatively low-tech and low-energy civilization (relative to the tech and energy capabilities one would expect of a spacefaring civilization). The USA in the 1850s was orders of magnitude away from having the energy capabilities to reach orbit, for example.

    Charles Pellegrino made some fairly bold claims about his Valkyrie matter/antimatter drive, but the descriptions he gives in Flying To Valhalla and The Killing Star don’t make much sense to me. One of these days I mean to see if I can find whatever he originally published on the topic. Of course there is the problem of antimatter drives being fairly visible at long distances, with potential consequences as described in TKS.

    The most practical method I see, short of Burkhard Heim’s hyperspace turning out to be real or an Alcubierre warp drive being optimized down to practical levels, would be a combination of nuclear pulse propulsion and generation ships – the original crew might still be alive on arrival if the target is fairly close by, but they’re not going home again, and they’ll want young adults available to help do the work. Organizing a society that will be stable and remain focused on the same goal over that timescale takes social engineering of a type that only religions have successfully implemented so far.

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  5. Jenora Feuer

    The way around that I see in some stories (and explicitly in at least one RPG I had) is that yes, there isn’t really any point in trading in raw resources on an interstellar scale if you can already do replicators or the like.

    Which means that I’ve seen interstellar trade empires that operate primarily on an economy based on art and culture. Cargo ships exist pretty much only so some rich individual can get the original of some famous piece of art. Even if you can make infinite copies, somebody has to come up with the original ideas in the first place.

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