What If We Could Control How Earth Moves?
It might not feel like it, but as you watch this video… you’re also hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour. And this planet, Earth, is just one of millions, perhaps trillions, of worlds in the universe, all cruising around the cosmos at incredible speeds. If it were possible to take a godlike position and watch the entire spectacle from afar, it would no doubt look like chaos. But, actually, there’s method to the madness of the universe. So, what would happen if we could get a grip on it?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if we could control how Earth moves?
To get things started, let’s look at the real-world numbers because, really, they’re incredible enough to begin with. How fast does Earth move through space? It’s a question with a few possible answers. First, there’s Earth’s rotation speed to consider, which is about 1,000 miles per hour at the equator… to ensure one full rotation every day. Because Earth is widest at the equator, we know that here is where it spins at its fastest. But it’s not as though we ever physically feel the rotation at any location on the world map, because the speed is constant.
Of course, that relatively simple rotation isn’t the only movement that Earth makes. It’s also forever orbiting our star, the sun, and taking one year to complete a full lap of it. To do this, Earth moves through space at around 67,000 miles per hour. That’s about 18.6 miles per second. And, over the course of a year, it travels some 584 million miles along its orbital route. To think of it another way, the average person can expect to travel more than 40 billion miles around the sun during their lifetime.
But, still there’s more, because while all of that’s happening, the solar system is also speeding around the gravitational centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, at an even faster rate. Earth, the sun, and everything else in the solar system bolts around the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s heart at more than 500,000 miles per hour. That’s around 143 miles per second. What’s even more mindboggling, though, is that even at that speed, it still takes our solar system some 230 million years to complete one full lap of the galaxy - a period of time otherwise known as a galactic or cosmic year.
Finally, while the Milky Way isn’t exactly in orbit itself, it does still move through space. We know that the universe is expanding, and our galaxy - like all galaxies - is affected by that. We also know that galaxies can collide and merge when they cross paths, which is something that is scheduled to happen to the Milky Way when it meets nearby Andromeda (to form Milkdromeda) in about 4.5 billion years from now. Taking all of this into account then, we can see how significant it could be to have even a modicum of control over how our planet moves. And there are plenty of possibilities as to what we might do with that power.
First off, in the grand scheme of space, Earth wouldn’t need to move far to take itself out of orbit. So, in a hypothetical world where humans were, in effect, driving their planet, this would be the first big decision to make: when to leave the safety and comfort of orbiting around the sun? Because, once our planet has broken free of its gravitational binds, then it could quickly become a rogue planet. An isolated world following an unpredictable path through space, untethered to any star or structure of any kind. That sounds quite exciting, but actually it could be terrible news for anything that wants to carry on living.
During every second, minute, day and year, life on Earth relies on the steady dependability of getting energy from the sun. Our planet rotates so that all sides receive that energy, and the seasons that result from the rhythms of how Earth moves right now are vital for our continued existence. If we somehow had control of how Earth moves, then, and we moved it even a tiny bit differently to how it does naturally, then we’d better have a serious plan to offset those energy needs. Say we were to stop the Earth spinning. Even if our planet remained in orbit around the sun, we will have doomed one half of it to endless cold and darkness. Say we moved it closer to Venus. It wouldn’t take long for Earth to leave the solar system’s habitable zone, and start to suffer under blistering heat. Move it closer to Mars, and temperatures would dramatically drop, leading to more major upheaval. Move it out of the solar system entirely, beyond the Oort Cloud and into interstellar space, and there’s really no predicting Earth’s ultimate fate - but it’s a sure bet humans wouldn’t survive it unless, again, we had some other, as yet unimagined means of energy.
When we talk of controlling how a planet moves, we’re automatically imagining a supremely advanced civilization, though. Perhaps Type Three on the Kardashev Scale, or higher. So maybe, by this hypothetical stage, generating the energy needed actually isn’t a problem at all. What could still be a problem though are the logistics of it all. Because how would society organise who gets to move Earth, where to, and for what reason? Any one person or group with their hands on the wheel, as it were, would have extreme power. Earth would now function like a cruise liner on the ocean, and the entire global population would be passengers… watching the skies as we do the seas, and wondering what’s on the horizon. One moment you’re passing a black hole, the next you’re skirting a quasar, and so the journey continues. Earth’s “pilot” would essentially be Earth’s ruler, then. Perhaps voted in democratically as part of some sort of international election, or else born into this most privileged position passed down to them by bloodline.
Clearly, the idea of controlling how a planet moves is a hypothetical one, only. But perhaps it does throw up some real-life considerations for the future of our species. For one, there’s a greater push than ever to establish humankind somewhere else in space that isn’t Earth. We may not be expecting to fly whole planets to pastures new, but we are hoping to send whole communities. And that brings with it similar issues. How will the chain of command work on an off-Earth location, for example? How could society function anywhere else in space other than our planet’s current position? What would we need to do if we ever found ourselves without the sun?
But, of course, we know that one day we will be without the sun. It’s predicted that in about five billion years’ time - perhaps just after that Milkdromeda merger mentioned earlier - the sun will enter into its red giant phase. At this point it’ll expand to such a degree that, according to some estimates, it could physically fry Earth into a crisp. But even before that, it’s thought that the sun’s expansion will drastically alter conditions on this planet, perhaps rendering it uninhabitable in as little as one billion years’ time.
If we imagine that humans are still around this far into the future, well, there’s no easy solution here. One answer would be for our entire species to migrate off of Earth. If we haven’t mastered faster-than-light travel by then - which could yet be physically impossible - then generation ships are likely the way we’ll go. And, although the populations on these ships will never exceed the population of an entire planet, we can see how those same questions of organisation, leadership and life-or-death decision-making still arise. In a world where moving worlds is a reality, though, humans needn’t disband into separate ships, because we could just move the planet itself out of harm’s way to begin with. Perhaps, in this version of the future, we’ll have mathematicians, statisticians and cosmic cartographers, all crunching the numbers to recalculate where the next habitable zone in the solar system will be - before feeding that information to Earth’s pilots and plotting course for safety.
For now, we can feel safe in the knowledge that Earth’s movements aren’t about to change anytime soon. Our dependable planet will continue rotating, continue cutting its way around the sun, and the solar system will continue its path around the centre of the Milky Way. In an alternate reality where planets double up as vehicles, however, all of that balance is lost, and true chaos takes over. Even before we start deciding who gets to choose where we go. And that’s what would happen if we could control how Earth moves.