How’s your bank account doing these days? If you’re feeling a bit panicked — or, you know, hyperventilating constantly — with second term’s tuition deadline just a few months away, you were probably thrilled about recent news from a galaxy far, far away.
Nope, we’re not talking about Star Wars. On October 16, 2017, astronomers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announced that they had detected the collision of two neutron stars 130 million light-years away in the galaxy NGC 4993.
More importantly, upon further analysis of the data, astronomers determined that the merger of these two neutron stars smashed particles together fast enough to create nearly 300 septillion kilograms of gold.
If someone were able to bring it all back to Earth, this amount of gold would be worth about 100 octillion dollars today. That’s $100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
Feeling desperate enough to try gold digging in galaxy NGC 4993?
We understand the temptation. NGC 4993 — with that much gold and a roll-off-the-tongue name, who wouldn’t want to make the trip? But please, don’t.
Although this detection of gravitational waves paves the way for a new age of gravitational-wave astronomy and new ways to find answers to our biggest cosmological questions, you’ll probably die trying to get to NGC 4993 on a student budget.
Let’s talk about what it would take to make the 130 million light year journey. Getting down to the nitty gritty of interstellar travel, we have a few options.
The most viable option for intergalactic gold retrieval would be the use of a solar sail. A solar sail works by absorbing the energy from photons emitted by sun or some other powerful radiation source. These sails can hypothetically harness the energy from solar winds to travel up to about ten per cent the speed of light or just over one million kilometres per hour.
In May 2010, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched IKAROS, an interplanetary spaceship that has been bouncing around the solar system powered only by the power of the sun. In December 2010, IKAROS passed by Venus after only six and a half months of space travel.
In order make it all the way to NGC 4993, you would need a solar sail approximately 10 million times larger than IKAROS, which could cost upwards of 800 billion dollars to produce. In order to get this sail moving at high enough speeds, you could boost your solar sail with a giant laser powered by massive nuclear fusion generators.
Building these nuclear reactors would only cost about two trillion dollars — pretty cheap compared to your investment return on the retrieved gold. The last limiting factor that stands in the way of payday is time. At ten per cent the speed of light it would take about 2.6 billion years to make the trip.
If you somehow launch the most successful Kickstarter campaign in history and also manage to extend your lifetime to half the age of planet Earth, then congratulations, you can make it to NGC 4993 and can claim 300 septillion kilograms of gold for yourself.
Now it’s up to you to figure out how to bring it all back.
Gabriel Robinson-Leith is a first year engineering student with a passion for travel and the outdoors.