Hundred Year Starship: An Apollo-like Push to the Stars?

“We choose to go to the moon,” President Kennedy famously said in 1962. Today, in 2010, NASA Ames Director Simon “Pete” Worden says let’s go to the stars.

But, to get there, let’s go to the moons of Mars first, said Worden as he announced a DARPA-funded NASA Ames program to kick start a “hundred year starship” program with $1 million seed money and $100K from NASA.  The announcement didn’t come from the White House, however.  Worden revealed the new program at San Francisco Bay Area’s Long Conversation, an “epic relay” of one-to-one conversations in conjunction with a performance of the Zen-like Longplayer, a 1,000 year long musical composition that has been playing since 1999.

While the initial investment is not likely to result in a new Apollo-like program to send a human to Alpha Centari in ten (or even a hundred) years, it just might attract the attention of billionaire private investors such as Larry Page of Google to really kick start it. KurzweilAI quotes Worden, “I think we’ll be on the moons of Mars by 2030 or so. Larry [Page] asked me a couple weeks ago how much it would cost to send people one way to Mars and I told him $10 billion, and his response was, ‘Can you get it down to 1 or 2 billion?’ So now we’re starting to get a little argument over the price.”

Today’ propulsion systems don’t quite provide the fictional Starship Enterprise’s Warp drive capabilities – creating a subspace bubble to envelop the starship, distorting the local spacetime continuum, and moving the starship at velocities (warp factors) that exceed the speed of light.  H+ talked with former NASA propulsion physicist Marc Millis earlier in the year to ask about the feasibility of such technologies. He says our current knowledge of gravity and faster-than-light physics is highly speculative and fraught with paradox.  He also says, however, that the propulsion options are numerous to get to Mars given today’s technology, “…depending upon how much you want to take with you… there’s either nuclear-thermal propulsion or variations where the nuclear reactor is part of the actual rocket engine.”

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Parker.) Nuclear propulsion, in fact, may be used in conjunction with solar and electric propulsion to build a hundred year starship.  But if power can be beamed to the ship using microwave thermal propulsion, then “… you don’t have to carry all the fuel; and then you use that [microwave] energy… to heat a propellant,” says Worden. H+ has been in contact with several companies involved in developing electric power beaming by the use of either microwaves or lasers.   Dmitriy Tseliakhovich, founder of Escape Dynamics LLC, wants to go a step further. Collaborating with the research groups of Professor Harry Atwater at Caltech and Dr. Kevin Parkin from the Carnegie Mellon University located at NASA Ames Research Center, Singularity University, Autodesk, Microwave Sciences and other companies, Tseliakhovich wants to develop a prototype microwave thermal thruster using beamed propulsion.  With an infusion of capital based on the prototype, they hope to drop the cost of space access by more than “an order of magnitude” and “finally open space for medium- and small-size businesses.”

If Stephen Hawking is right, then we humans must colonize space in order to survive:

It will likely take the will and vision of a John Kennedy to fully initiate the 21st Century equivalent of a “flags and footprints” Apollo program to the stars – not very likely given today’s political climate.  But it may be possible that a NASA-led but venture-funded ship similar to Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo could be our ticket to a new home in the sun.


2 Responses

  1. Roy says:

    New Horizons is powered by a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator. Most sfrcecaapt are indeed powered by solar panels linked to a bank of batteries, but that would not be feasible for New Horizons. The sunlight in the outer Solar System is too feeble for solar cells to be effective. Although they are powered by the decay of Plutonium-238, they are not nuclear reactors. They are pellets of plutonium dioxide encapsulated in a heavily armored container to prevent the plutonium from escaping in the event of a launch vehicle failure that results in a crash or explosion. Plutonium 238 has a half-life of 87 years and because it emits mostly alpha particles, it it not very dangerous unless it was inhaled or ingested from a radiological point of view. Indeed, only lightweight radiation shielding is required for an RTG. Plutonium is however also a very poisonous heavy metal, which is why NASA builds as strong a container for the RTG’s as possible to reduce the risk of Plutonium escaping. That is one reason it is put in RTG’s in the form of an oxide and that is vitrified to further contain the Plutonium. Inside them are devices called thermocouples. As the Plutonium-238 decays alpha particles and heat are released. The heat is converted by the thermocouples to generate electrical power, which operates all of New Horizon’s systems. The advantage of this system over a nuclear reactor is there’s no way for it to melt down or go runaway. They cannot explode, nor can they cause a massive radiation release because the amount of fuel they carry is very small. Plutonium-238 cannot be used to build nuclear weapons either. They are compact, radiation proof and will generate power for decades no matter how the sfrcecaapt is oriented with respect to the Sun. As they Voyagers have shown, they will operate even in interstellar space. They gradually produce less and less electricity over time, and eventually New Horizons will not have enough power to run it’s instruments and it’s other systems. At that point it’s mission will end and New Horizons will become mankind’s fifth piece of interstellar space junk as well as time capsule.

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