Image: High-intensity lasers produce particle/antiparticle pairs from the vacuum,
in a concept introduced by Richard Obousy. Credit: Adrian Mann.


A Framework for Interstellar Flight

by PAUL GILSTER on MARCH 5, 2013

Those of us who are fascinated with interstellar travel would love to see a probe to another star launched within our lifetime. But maybe we’re in the position of would be flyers in the 17th Century. They could see birds wheeling above them and speculate on how humans might create artificial wings, but powered flight was still centuries ahead. Let’s hope that’s not the case with interstellar flight, but in the absence of any way of knowing, let’s continue to attack the foundational problems one by one in hopes of building up the needed technologies.

Marc Millis, who ran NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project at the end of the 20th Century, always points out in his talks that picking this or that propulsion technology as the ‘only’ way to get to the stars is grossly premature. In a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Antony Funnell, Millis joined physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford, Icarus Interstellar president Richard Obousy and astronomer and astrobiologist Ian Crawford in a discussion of the matter. Asked where we stood with nuclear fusion, Millis said this:

At this point it is really too soon to pick any favourites because…well, let me put it to you this way; in three different studies, one done by looking at the amount of energy available, one done by financing and one done by technology, all of them came in that there is still going to be about two centuries before we could do a serious interstellar flight. So even if you pulled off the technology for a fusion rocket, to develop the infrastructure to mine enough helium-3 to fuel it, it’s still going to take a very long time. In other words, you could make the technology but to have the amount of energy to put into it takes even longer than developing the technology.

We had much the same discussion at the 100 Year Starship symposium last year in Houston, where a backer of the project from the business world asked why an interstellar mission would be so expensive. The answer simply comes down to the amount of money it takes to create the energy needed to push a payload to the kind of speeds we’re talking about. Given all that, we continue to study everything from beam-driven sails to antimatter-induced fusion and the whole boatload of possibilities in between, hoping to find more efficient ways to drive the starship.

Read more: A Framework for Interstellar Flight — Centauri Dreams.

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