space travel

Alpha Centauri or bust.  

Darpa, the government agency that helped invent the Internet,  now wants to do the same for travel to the stars.


In what is perhaps the ultimate startup opportunity, Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, plans to award some lucky, ambitious and star-struck organization roughly $500,000 in seed money to begin studying what it would take — organizationally, technically, sociologically and ethically — to send humans to another star, a challenge of such magnitude that the study alone could take a hundred years.

The awarding of that grant, on Nov. 11 — 11/11/11 — is planned as the culmination of a yearlong Darpa-NASA effort called the 100-Year Starship Study, which started quietly last winter and will include a three-day public symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 30 on the whys and wherefores of interstellar travel. The agenda ranges far beyond rocket technology to include such topics as legal, social and economic considerations of interstellar migration, philosophical and religious concerns, where to go and — perhaps most important — how to inspire the public to support this very expensive vision.

The Darpa plan has generated buzz as well as befuddlement in the labs, pubs, diners and Web sites that ring NASA centers both physically and virtually, where the dream of space travel has never died and where a few stubborn bands of scientists and engineers, fueled by science fiction dreams and prophecies, are designing spacecraft that could cross interstellar space, incubating a technology and preserving it for the day when it will be used.

“If you want to have a hobby, why can’t it be designing an interstellar spacecraft?” said Andreas Tziolas, who teaches at the University of Alaska and directs Project Icarus, a worldwide volunteer effort to design a spacecraft that could carry a scientific probe to a nearby star — perhaps Alpha Centauri, 4.4 light-years from here — in a trip that would take less than 100 years.

“This is what we do,” said Louis Friedman, former executive director of the Planetary Society, in Pasadena, Calif., which bills itself as the world’s largest public space organization.

Many scientists wonder if life, especially intelligent life, exists beyond Earth. Some day, the interstellar dreamers vow, the life out there will be us.

People like Dr. Tziolas say the technology already exists or will soon exist to send instruments and perhaps even people to nearby stars, although a human flight could cost hundred of trillions of dollars. The half-million dollars Darpa will award is not enough to build a starship or even to buy a modest office in which to imagine one — but it is enough to start serious fund-raising and, perhaps to invite ridicule from critics of government spending.

An actual human launching is at least a couple of centuries away and, barring the invention of Star Trek-like warp drives, could take additional centuries to complete. Whoever goes on such a journey will not be coming back.

But there are plenty of reasons that humans will eventually summon the political will to make the trip, scientists say, if not for human restlessness that has taken us out of the caves and across the oceans, then to escape being wiped out when the killer asteroid appears or the Sun boils the oceans, which it will do in a couple of billion years.

Another lure could be the discovery of a habitable planet elsewhere, something that could happen in the next few years through the efforts of NASA’s Kepler satellite and related astronomical efforts, according to Jill Tarter, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who has devoted her life to the search for extraterrestrials. “This will get real when we have an Earth analogue as a destination,” she said.

David Neyland, Darpa’s director of tactical technology, is at pains to point out that the goal of his project is not an interstellar spacecraft, only a business plan for designing one. The search, he explained, is for an organization, presumably private, that can develop the interstellar vision without government help, carrying the load for the next 100 years, developing valuable technological offshoots the way investing in computer protocols enabled the Internet. (The time frame was inspired by Jules Verne, whose novel “From the Earth to the Moon” was published in 1865, 104 years before it came true.)

After this November, whoever it is will be on their own. “We don’t intend to carry it forward,” Mr. Neyland added. “Darpa hands the keys over to this entity, and we wish them well.”

Interstellar travel is a tall order. It would take Voyager 1, humanity’s fastest artifact, now traveling 38,000 miles an hour relative to the Sun, more than 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, if it were headed in that direction.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a group of physicists led by Theodore Taylor of General Atomics and Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study proposed propelling a ship by the pressure waves from atomic bombs dropped one after another out of the back, every three seconds. Such a spacecraft, they calculated, could reach Jupiter in a year but would take hundreds of years to reach Alpha Centauri.

The British Interplanetary Society used a more benign form for this propulsion idea in its interstellar spaceship study, Project Daedalus, in the 1970s. Their spacecraft would be powered by tiny thermonuclear explosions caused by compressing pellets of deuterium and helium-3 with laser blasts. It would carry a 500-ton scientific probe to Barnard’s Star, 5.9 light-years away, in about 50 years, reaching a top speed of 12 percent of the speed of light along the way.

Dr. Tziolas said, “That was the very first study that proved it’s possible with knowledge we have now to travel to another star.”

In recent years, other virtual collaborations have joined the party. The Tau Zero Foundation, based in Cleveland, was founded by Marc G. Millis, who directed propulsion research at the NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, to encourage work on “practical interstellar flight.” Last year Mr. Millis calculated that it would be at least 200 years before society had the energy resources to send 500 people out of the solar system.

A variety of propulsion schemes have their fans and might prevail the long span between now and launch day — a problem that Mr. Millis terms “incessant obsolescence.” Among them are gigantic sails pushed by sunlight or by powerful microwave beams and ion drives in which beams of high energy particles do the propelling.

Scientific probes could go sooner and cheaper. Professor Dyson recently pointed out that soon all the genetic information needed to reconstruct Earth’s biosphere could be packed into something the size of an egg. Dispersed through space to different planets, such eggs could create homes-away-from-home waiting for us. “The new technology will be biological,” he said. “It will make everything else obsolete.”

In January, Mr. Neyland and Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory in Mountain View, quietly invited about 30 scientists, entrepreneurs and science fiction writers to a two-day brainstorming session in northern California. Mr. Neyland described the first meeting as an attempt to get past “the giggle factor” associated with the subject. Participants included scientists like J. Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute, who was one of the first to sequence the human genome, and writers like Joe Haldeman, author of the award-winning novel, “The Forever War.” One participant said, “There were a few people on the other side of reality.”

Then again, nobody is smart enough now to know what could come of the starship effort, Mr. Neyland pointed out. It would be naïve to think we even know the right questions to ask.

“If you had asked Einstein and Marconi in 1910 to define a worldwide communication system for the common man,” Mr. Neyland asked, “would he have come up with the iPhone?”

A call for ideas for the Orlando meeting drew hundreds of responses, which are being sorted to decide who will get to speak. Dr. Tarter, the astronomer at SETI, will coordinate talks on where to go. She has received 50 or 60 proposals, which she called a “mixed bag,” some of which read like U.F.O. reports. “Maybe,” she said, “you have to be a little bit crazy to think about this seriously.” She added, “We’ve all read enough science fiction to be fundamentally optimistic about the possible outcome.”

Kelvin Long, a physics graduate student at Warwick University and member of Project Icarus, said he had already thought about the floor plans, an organization chart and even a Japanese garden in the backyard for a pyramidal Interstellar Institute, where the research for an interstellar trip could eventually be centered.

“A lot of us are quite young. We grew up hearing about the Apollo program,” he said. “We want to be part of a significant journey. We personally think we may be doing something important, driving humanity out to the stars.” He quoted Arthur C. Clarke, the late writer of science fact and fiction who invented the idea of communications satellites and helped found the British Interplanetary Society: “If you believe something is possible, you can make it happen.”

Photo credit:

Via New York Times