Quick Take: Mission to Mars? Aim Higher

Trekkies are drooling. Battlestar Galactica fans are blogging. But back in the real world, time's a-wasting. Fools, the news just broke -- we've found the first habitable planet outside our own solar system.

In a late-breaking flash thus far seen only by us night owls, the Associated Press reported last night that the European Southern Observatory's telescope in La Silla, Chile, has identified a planet circling the red dwarf star Gliese 581 as capable of supporting life. Ever the romantics, scientists have named the planet "581 c" -- or affectionately, just "c" -- and by all indications, it's a lovely place for a vacation. Though scientists have not actually seen the planet, they surmise it's five times more massive than the Earth, and that it circles its tiny red star once every 13 days. It whizzes by so closely that, if you were there and looked up in the sky, the "sun" would appear 20 times as large as our own moon.

Exotic vacation locale
What's more, because the planet is unlikely to be rotating, half the globe would offer superb sunbathing opportunities year-round -- and day-round. All the sunbathers would be beautiful, because with a gravitational field 1.6 times as powerful as the Earth's, dieting would be de rigeur for anyone not wanting to feel overweight. But what's sunbathing without beaches? They'd be plentiful, as the scientists hypothesize the planet is chock-full of liquid water. The temperature should be between 32 degrees and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (0 to 40 Celsius). And best of all, the planet "should have an atmosphere!" Could you ask for anything more?

How about a cheap flight?
Well yes, actually, there is one more thing you could use to make your vacation perfect: a means of getting there. For that, we'll need to ask companies like Europe's own EADS, and America's Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) and Lockheed (NYSE: LMT  ) , to pick up the pace. In fact, there's probably going to be work to go around for the newer players in this field, including SpaceHab (Nasdaq: SPAB  ) and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) tycoon Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. And naturally, we'll be asking Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to live up to its name.

The task of actually visiting "c", you see, is quite problematic. Gliese 581 may be one of the 100 closest stars to our own -- but at a distance of 120 trillion miles, that's still a bit of a hike. At the pace set by our own Pathfinder spacecraft on its recent trip to Mars -- 212 days to travel 309 million miles -- it would take us 225,564 years to travel between Earth and "c." One way. Even speed-of-light travel would still take 20.4 years.

No, to make this voyage doable, folks, we're going to need Warp 3 engines at the very least, if we're to make the trip in anything less than one year. So to the world's space companies, I say: It's time to get cracking.

Further cosmic adventures discussed in:

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In at least one sense of the term, Fool contributor Rich Smith is a space cadet. He does not own shares of any company named above.


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