October 19, 2011

To The Stars, In 100 Years

Down in Orlando this week, hundreds of scientists and engineers attended a symposium on how to get from the earth to the stars.  As reported in this week's TIMES, the meetup was entitled "The 100-Year Starship Study" and was to look at long-term solutions to traveling super-long distances in space. It was organized not by NASA but by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who famously did the ground work in the 1960s that eventually brought us the Internet.

Now they are looking at long-terms plans for man to get from here to Alpha Centuri, the nearest star system.  The problem; well, it's a bigger hike than you might imagine.  Take this analogy, presented by starship designer Richard Obousy:
If Earth were in Orlando and the closest star system, Alpha Centauri, were in Los Angeles, then NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft, the most distant manmade objects, have traveled just one mile.
Wow. From that factoid you might think there's no chance.  But these diligent folks are working on a number of interesting ideas involving nuclear powered engines (like the Icarus project, pictured above which is the size of an aircraft carrier) and a starship that has no engine at all.  That ship would travel using the gravity of asteroids, planets and stars along the way, not unlike the Voyager crafts.  But the timeline they're working on here, of course, is a long one...100 years long. So though I'll likely never see it in my lifetime it's fascinating stuff to ponder anyway.