Stephen Hawking sets deadline for last chance to colonise a planet

18 Nov 2016

Prof Stephen Hawking. Image: Martin Hoscik/Shutterstock

Renowned astrophysicist Prof Stephen Hawking is putting a bit of pressure on space exploration companies to get us to colonise another planet, by offering a deadline of 1,000 years from now.

When he isn’t contributing to some of our most advanced theories on the workings of the cosmos, Stephen Hawking likes to theorise about the future of humanity and its place among the stars.

As part of the Breakthrough Initiatives group, he is one of a number of leading scientific minds who are working to launch a series of projects to help us explore space further than ever before, such as the Breakthrough Starshot programme.

Clock is ticking

Now, according to The Washington Post, Hawking has said our chances of actually sending humans to colonise another planet is dwindling with each passing year.

If we are to survive as a species in the long term, he said, we must colonise a planet within 1,000 years.

In discussing why this date is important, Hawking said to the audience that while Earth as a habitable planet will end in the future, its demise might be hastened by the decision made by humankind.

Over the course of the next 100 years, the fate of humanity will be sealed by the attitudes we take to saving our own planet, in terms of reversing human-made climate change and over-harvesting of Earth’s natural resources.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Image via ESO/G. Coleman

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Image: ESO/G Coleman

“Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years,” Hawking said.

“By that time, we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.”

Possible destinations

In recent months, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has revealed its intentions to send humans to Mars within the next decade, as part of the beginnings of a new colonisation effort.

However, a planet with no detectable life (so far) or a breathable atmosphere might make long-term colonisation a real challenge.

If the human race does have 1,000 years to prepare for deep space colonisation, two possible destinations have been found that could one day act as safe harbours for our species.

The first ‘Earth 2.0’ planet was revealed back in August of this year, Proxima b, located within our neighbouring Alpha Centauri star system approximately four light years away.

Another possible destination is a ‘super-Earth’ located 33 light years away, five times the size of our planet, which could possibly sustain life as a rocky planet.

Prof Stephen Hawking. Image: Martin Hoscik/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic