Freeman Dyson pushed gravitational
maneuvers to an extreme. Will future
civilizations be able to manipulate
neutron stars?
Credit: New York Times

The Interstellar Gravitational Assist


While Rod Hyde, Lowell Wood and John Nuckolls were working on laser-induced fusion to drive a starship back in 1972, the range of options for advanced propulsion continued to grow. One we haven’t talked about much in these pages is the use of gravitational slingshots in exotic settings. We’re used to the concept within the Solar System because spacecraft like Voyager and Galileo have used a ‘slingshot’ around a planet to alter course and accelerate. But interstellar visionaries like Freeman Dyson have looked further out to imagine other uses for such techniques.

In a 1963 paper, Dyson speculated on how an advanced civilization might use a binary star system made up of two white dwarfs. Send a spacecraft into the system for a close pass around one of the stars and, depending on the mass and orbital velocity of the stars, it is thrown out of the binary system at velocities as high as 3000 kilometers per second. But Dyson took the idea even further. His paper, which appeared as a chapter in a book called Interstellar Communication (New York: Benjamin Press, 1963), described not just white dwarfs but the creation of a binary neutron star system as an engineered launch platform.

Read more: The Interstellar Gravitational Assist — Centauri Dreams.

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