Can we ever travel to another galaxy?

The galaxies beyond our Milky Way have long captured the imaginations of humans. For generations, we could only gaze up at the night sky and wonder what marvels might exist in those tiny specks of light. But with the advent of powerful telescopes and spacecraft that can journey far out into space, some of the mysteries of our galactic neighbors are now being revealed. This leads to that most profound question: will humans ever be able to travel to another galaxy?

How far away are other galaxies?

To understand the immense challenges of intergalactic travel, it helps to comprehend just how vast the distances are between galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter. This means that traveling from one end of the Milky Way to the other at the speed of light would take 100,000 years. And the Milky Way is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe.

The Andromeda Galaxy, the closest major galaxy to the Milky Way, is 2.5 million light years away. That means even traveling at the speed of light, it would take 2.5 million years to reach there. The distances only get more mind-boggling from there. As a comparison, the diameter of our entire Milky Way galaxy is only about 100,000 light years across.

So in summary, the distances between galaxies are truly enormous on a cosmic scale. This poses a major obstacle for any potential intergalactic voyage. Even traveling at light speed, which is theoretically impossible based on our current understanding of physics, it would still take millions or even billions of years to journey between galaxies. For human travelers, that just won’t be feasible.

Faster-than-light travel

If we can’t travel at light speed, is there another way to traverse the massive gulfs between galaxies in less time? This brings us to the prospect of faster-than-light (FTL) space travel.

Going beyond the speed of light is considered impossible based on Einstein’s theory of special relativity. No object with mass can accelerate to light speed because its mass would become infinite at that velocity.

However, some solutions have been proposed that may allow FTL travel by manipulating space-time itself:

  • Wormholes – These are theoretical “shortcuts” through the curvature of space-time, connecting distant points via portals.
  • Alcubierre drive – Proposed FTL system that contracts space in front of a ship while expanding it behind.
  • Other space-time distortion ideas – Such as the Casimir effect which can create ripples and distortions in space-time.

While tantalizing, none of these FTL concepts have ever been proven possible. There are also concerns that some may violate causality or require enormous amounts of exotic matter to work. For now, FTL travel remains strictly hypothetical. More research is needed to determine if spacetime can be manipulated in these ways to enable faster-than-light journeys.

Until some kind of FTL breakthrough is made, intergalactic travel will likely remain out of reach. Even reaching the nearest star 4 light years away is an enormous challenge with current technology. Reaching another galaxy millions of light years distant remains firmly in the realm of science fiction for the foreseeable future.

Generation ships

If we can’t travel faster than light, are there other options for reaching another galaxy? One possibility is the idea of a “generation ship.”

A generation ship would be a massive spacecraft built to carry humans on an intergalactic journey spanning thousands of years. It would be entirely self-sustaining, with artificial gravity, hydroponic farms, recycling systems, and everything needed to support human life indefinitely. Since even intergalactic travel at sub-light speed would take many generations, the original crew would live out their lives on the ship, have children, and pass down the mission from one generation to the next until arrival at the destination.

While generation ships are theoretically possible, actually constructing and launching one involves monumental challenges:

  • Building such a massive and complex craft would likely require input from every nation and economy on Earth.
  • We would need advanced propulsion like nuclear fusion just to accelerate to a fraction of light speed.
  • Providing adequate living space and sustainability for thousands of people over multiple generations.
  • Maintaining social order, population control, and mission focus for hundreds of years isolated in space.

Given these hurdles, generation ships remain unrealistic with current technology and resources. However, they provide one of the few possibilities for intergalactic travel that does not involve warping space-time and faster-than-light travel. If humanity someday truly commits to a multi-generational journey between galaxies, generation ships remain our best bet with known physics.

Intergalactic telescopes

If we can’t travel to another galaxy physically, even with a generation ship, could we at least study them using some kind of telescope that can see across such immense distances?

Looking millions or billions of light years away gives us a glimpse into the distant past, seeing galaxies as they were long ago in the ancient universe. Current telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope already provides ultra-clear images of very distant galaxies. Future next-generation telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope will push intergalactic viewing even farther.

Yet seeing detailed, close-up views of another full galaxy remains challenging. Even massive galaxies are relatively tiny and faint from millions of light years away. Building a telescope powerful enough to see exoplanets in another galaxy would require an absolutely gigantic lens diameter and ultra-precise optics on a scale far exceeding current engineering limits.

A more realistic possibility is a fleet of tiny intergalactic nanoprobes. Rather than view another galaxy using one local instrument, we could spread vast numbers of miniaturized drones across the void to send data back. This approach presents its own immense difficulties, including the development of such highly advanced autonomous probes and the immense time delays for signals sent over intergalactic distances.

In summary, some limited viewing of other galaxies is possible with current technology, but detailed study and exploration remains firmly out of reach. Advanced telescopes give us our best chance to conduct intergalactic astronomy without actually traveling there.

Challenges of intergalactic travel

Reaching another galaxy requires overcoming a number of steep challenges, both technological and logistical:

Energy requirements

Accelerating a spacecraft to even a modest fraction of light speed, like 10% or 20%, requires enormous amounts of energy. Theoretical calculations show that fuel requirements rise exponentially the closer you get to light speed. To accelerate a small 1 ton spacecraft to just 90% of light speed would require at least 1 billion times its mass equivalent in fuel. For larger crewed vessels, the mass of fuel quickly becomes implausible. Finding energy sources capable of accelerating spacecraft to relativistic speeds remains one of the biggest hurdles for intergalactic travel.

Lifespan of travelers

Unless new propulsion physics enables faster-than-light travel, the voyage between galaxies will take millions of years at sub-light speed. Even several human generations aboard a “generation ship” won’t be nearly enough. And humans don’t currently have the longevity to survive such durations themselves. Suspended animation, radical life extension, mind uploading, or transferring human consciousness into artificial bodies or androids, are potential ways to enable human travelers to endure such lengthy voyages. But the required technology still remains firmly visionary.

Hazards of space

Traveling across the voids between galaxies entails significant hazards:

  • Collisions with micrometeorites and space debris
  • Deadly radiation from gamma rays, solar flares, and cosmic rays
  • Technical failures from the vessel’s systems deteriorating over time

These dangers will worsen the farther a spacecraft travels from Earth. Possible solutions include deflector shields, layered hull armor, radiation shielding, and on-board manufacturing to self-repair and replenish supplies. But the risks can never be completely mitigated on a voyage lasting millions of years.

Social and psychological challenges

People living aboard a spaceship for multiple generations will face severe social and psychological pressures. They will be isolated for their entire lives, develop into a unique culture, and eventually may even speciate into a new human sub-species adapted to shipboard life. Maintaining stable social order, preventing discord, enforcing laws, and retaining mission focus pose difficult sociological challenges lasting centuries. The long intergalactic night could take a significant psychological toll.

Costs of construction

Building a vessel capable of such an epic intergalactic voyage would demand a monumental economic investment from humanity. The International Space Station cost over $100 billion to construct by just a few countries. A generation ship or intergalactic ark would presumably cost many trillions of dollars and require unprecedented cooperation. Even with advanced automation and asteroid mining, gathering the resources for intergalactic spacecraft would tax humanity’s output for generations. The huge opportunity costs would also factor in any decision to proceed.

Overcoming all these obstacles to achieve routine intergalactic travel will likely require revolutionary physics breakthroughs and technologies still beyond our present comprehension. The distances and time scales are simply too vast given today’s knowledge and capabilities.

Are there alternatives to human intergalactic travel?

If physical travel proves too difficult, could we explore intergalactic space through non-human methods? Some options include:

Robotic probes

Self-replicating Von Neumann probes or Bracewell probes could theoretically explore the galaxy without human crews. Advanced AI would allow autonomous probes to conduct scientific analysis, transmit data, and even manufacture more probes to spread exponentially. Tiny nano-probes traversing the void at close to light speed could map other galaxies. The main drawbacks are the huge upfront development costs and the extremely slow data return over intergalactic distances.

Virtual reality experiences

Without leaving Earth, virtual and augmented reality could offer compelling simulated experiences of being in another galaxy. While not actual space travel, virtual reality could satisfy our yearning for the experience and adventure. Combining VR with vast astronomical datasets gathered by telescopes could generate realistic representations of galaxies accurate down to each star. Given enough advancement in computing power and neural interfaces, VR could even make us feel present in another galaxy.

Uploading minds

Minds uploaded to digital substrate could perhaps transmit copies across intergalactic distances at the speed of light. This form of travel raises huge philosophical issues about identity, consciousness, and what defines the self. If we could somehow beam an uploaded mind to another galaxy and download it into some kind of artificial body, is that still true intergalactic travel for a human? The feasibility depends on solving challenges around successfully uploading minds.


Reaching another galaxy with human travelers aboard remains improbable even on the longest timescales unless new physics are discovered. The tyranny of the enormous distances involved likely sets an impassable barrier given current scientific knowledge. However, studying other galaxies via powerful telescopes remains viable. And spreading robotic probes across the cosmos could fulfil our desire for intergalactic exploration. Ultimately, fulfilling the dream of humans journeying to another island of stars may depend on technologies still embryonic today – suspended animation, radical longevity, mind uploading, nanotechnology, and perhaps still more exotic ideas from future visionaries. Our desire to reach out to the stars burns as strong as ever, but the gulf that separates the galaxies presents a humbling reminder of our limitations.

Leave a Comment