Spaceships Are Not Operationally Immortal But They Don’t Stop Until They Crash

The Voyager 1 spacecraft is expected to continue its mission until about 2025. Its radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) will no longer supply enough power to operate its scientific instruments. NASA is limiting the Voyagers’ processes to keep them operating until 2030. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977. They are identical probes that traveled across interstellar space to the edge of the solar system. They have been sending data back to Earth every day for nearly 45 years. Of all the missions humanity has ever launched into space, only five probes will leave the Solar System: Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and New Horizons.

All of these probes were sent out for different reasons but they just keep going because frictionless momentum in interstellar space. We did not plan to send out technological rocks but that is what they have or will become. Spaceships are not operationally immortal but they are physically very long lasting in space.

The United Nations estimates that there are at least three million shipwrecks on the ocean floor. These shipwrecks date back to when humans began traveling on the ocean and lakes. They include World War II destroyers, colonial Spanish galleons, and small abandoned dinghies. However, the wrecks and junk of space that gets up to speeds over solar escape velocities will just keep moving until they crash into something. Space wreck do not sink into an ocean, they just keep coasting in the same direction.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that there are 99,800 merchant ships worldwide. This number does not include warships, fishing vessels, or private pleasure craft. The actual number of vessels around the globe is much higher.

The world fleet consists of:
4.64% container ships
12.02% oil and chemical tankers
15,106 general cargo ships
12,258 bulk cargo carriers
7,350 crude oil tankers
7,027 ro-ro passenger ships
5,664 chemical tankers
2,031 liquefied natural gas tankers

There are about ten thousand large yachts and about 30 million mostly small recreational boats.

There are about twenty times more ocean shipwrecks than there are operational ocean going ships.

What will be the operational life cycle be of alien space craft, space stations, space junk and probes?

Only systems with molecular nanotechnology that are designed with self-repair and self-replication could potentially operate indefinitely. However, even those system might be rendered inert and inoperable if they passed to close to a sun going Nova, a large solar flare or a gamma ray burst.

Humanity has over 2 billion tons of garage every year and tens of billions of tons of emissions. We have just started into space and we have a lot of space debris. Humanity has tens of billions of tons of air and water pollution and emissions. A large space faring technological civilization would also have lots of garbage. They might also send out billions or trillions of probes. They could send them out like dandelion seeds. Did they design the probes to last forever? Maybe they were designed to do a flyby of nearby stars or planets. All probes that completed flyby missions become inert junk at some point and probably within ten to forty years of the flyby.

We are detecting interstellar meteors similar to CNEOS is at least ∼ 0.1 every year. This implies a local density estimate of i ∼ one million per cubic AU or 10^22 per cubic parsec. They estimate 7.59 × 10^34 IM1-like objects bound by the thin disk of the Milky Way. However, if objects with the properties of IM1 were targeted towards habitable zones containing planets, they estimate 7.59 × 10^18 such objects. IM2 had a similar inferred number density to IM1 and a velocity of 40 km s-1 relative to the Local Standard of Rest. They estimate 2.78 × 10^34 IM2-like objects, and the estimate would be decreased to 2.78 × 10^18 if such objects were targeted towards habitable zones.

The questions are:
What percentage of interstellar meteors are natural?
How many have technological origins?
How many are active and operational probes?
How many are inactive but were operational technology?
How many have biological life onboard?

The abundance of ISOs depends on their size and can be calibrated through future surveys such as the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) on the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. Data from the James Webb Space Telescope may identify the nature and 3D trajectory of more ’Oumuamua-like or other interstellar objects crossing through or trapped within the solar system.

Arxiv – The Inferred Abundance of Interstellar Objects of Technological Origin

The local detection rate of interstellar objects can allow for estimations of the total number of similar objects bound by the Milky Way thin disk. If interstellar objects of artificial origin are discovered, the estimated total number of objects can be lower by a factor of about 10^16 if they target the habitable zone around the Sun. We propose a model for calculating the quantity of natural or artificial interstellar objects of interest based on the object’s velocity and observed density. We then apply the model to the case of chemically propelled rockets from extraterrestrial civilizations. Finally, we apply the model to three previously discovered interstellar objects — the object ‘Oumuamua of unknown origin and the first interstellar meteors CNEOS 2014-01-08 and CNEOS 2017-03-09.

2 thoughts on “Spaceships Are Not Operationally Immortal But They Don’t Stop Until They Crash”

  1. Ah … a few questions that I can answer!

    [1] What percentage of interstellar meteors are natural?
    [2a] How many have technological origins?
    [2b₁] How many are active and operational probes?
    [2b₂] How many are inactive but were operational technology?
    [3] How many have biological life onboard?

    [1] is easy: ALMOST ALL of them.

    [2a] is the inverse of 1 … ALMOST NONE of them

    [2b₁] if part of [2a] is … a small percentage. How-to-keep-powered is the issue, over hundreds of thousands of transit years. Nuclear, obviously. But even then, bombardment with interstellar nuclear radiation limits how long precise technological ‘things and stuff’ can keep working at a small scale. Large scale, Oumuamua scale, onboard remanufacturing and recycling could keep it working for the time-lines involved.

    [2b₂] … is the inverse of 2b₁, so, “most of them”

    [3] is even easier than the ‘2’ questions. ALMOST NONE. Small fractions of a percent.

    The answer to [3] is quite readily rationalized by way of statistics. Yes, anthropomorphizing somewhat, no exocivilization would send off trillions of biologically ‘brained’ probes in absolutely random directions hoping to ‘hit a sweet system’ someplace, maybe. 99.99999% would hit nothing at all. Even in millions of years. They might — like Oumuamua — intercept a star system close enough to perhaps image its planets, but at a ‘technological speed’ incapable of being braked to slow down and loiter for better investigation. Fly over aliens? Yep. So… not only would the random spread of aimless probes be pointless, but even if rather lucky to find a star system to intercept that actually has nice smelling planets, just lumbering through and heading off again to who-knows-where seems highly unlikely as a technological civilization’s attempt at interstellar investigation.

    Nope. Rather this: If I were the Alien Space Lord (with no particular time-line limitations of my own), I’d have my science infrastructure optically figuring out the most precise positional information possible of the nearest (say ‘within a 100,000 years transit) star systems to enough precision that orbital kinetics could be worked out as to where those systems would drift and curve off to 100,000 years hence. Then, and ONLY then, send off a flotilla of probes — all automated and alien-less — then wait to see what the results would be. Maybe what, a million stars or more could be targeted. Lots of information back, especially about much more precise targeting information, since the measurement baselines would be so much longer. Aim well … AND LOITER when the target systems are achieved. Loiter indefinitely.

    Indefinitely? Yes: because if it takes 100,000 years to GET there, then there’s not a reason I can think of for jetting through the system, off to no-place in particular. Might as well spend a few tens of thousands of years orbiting someplace safe and inconspicuous, to image and send out little probes to measure all the planets and possibly interesting asteroids. Who knows? Maybe one of ’em would have veritable oceans full of space alien compatible caviar. Or cities full of donut shops. You know, delicious alien comestibles.

    ⋅-⋅-⋅ Just saying, ⋅-⋅-⋅
    ⋅-=≡ GoatGuy ✓ ≡=-⋅

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