Through hardship to the stars

January 4, 2012

"Humanity's adventurous, stubborn, mad and glorious aspiration to reach the stars" is the subject of Physics World's lead feature in January.

Sidney Perkowitz, Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus at Emory University, Atlanta, US, reports from the 100 Year Starship Study (100YSS) conference and discusses the challenges that presents.

With current propulsion technology only able to move spacecraft at 0.005% of the , a one-way trip to the nearest our Sun, Alpha Centauri, would take 80,000 years to travel the four light-years to our nearest stellar neighbours.

Delegates at 100YSS – from ex-astronauts to engineers, artists, students and science-fiction writers – looked at the range of issues facing scientists who would like to make the "mad and glorious " a reality.

Starting with the development of a rocket engine that can reach high velocity, humans are not short of initiative, but, as Perkowitz describes, even with engines based on photon-powered sails or nuclear fusion, we are still a long way from reaching the speed of light.

Some theoretical models present tantalizing options, such as Miguel Alcibierre's idea to contract space–time in front of a spaceship and expand space–time behind it to create a bubble that would propel the at any speed without violating special relativity.

Picking on this example, Perkowitz explains that the maths is impeccable but that the model requires negative mass, which, to the best of our knowledge, doesn't exist.

Accepting that interstellar travel will, at very best, take decades, some are now considering using suspended animation, or even carrying the DNA and other resources necessary to recreate humans on an unmanned ship.

As Perkowitz writes, "With the exploration of the solar system by the US space agency NASA and others well under way, and with the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets orbiting distant stars, it may be time to contemplate the next great jump outwards."

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3.5 / 5 (4) Jan 04, 2012
One option that is alway overlooked is the sending of non biological people to the stars. Within 100 years the probability is high that we will have the technology to upload a human mind into an artificial substrate. With a life span equal to the life of the hardware, no need for food or oxygen, just power, and the ability to sleep for melenia with no ill side effects, it is the natural choice. Who knows, we may not even have biologic humans left to send in a few hundred years. Biologic bodies will be too prone to failure to consider for even every day life. Immortality anyone...
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 04, 2012
I don't see the point of attempting to get anywhere outside our solar system using "Conventional propultion" since it will never bring us close to the speed of light.

The real key is figuring out how to bend space (warp drive more or less) and move in that manner. I'm not saying we will figure it out any time soon but we should aim a bit higher than rockets.
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 05, 2012
At what velocity would the VASIMR engine be able to propel a space ship to if it was powered by a nuclear reactor? Not forgetting that it could be on constantly, building up speed.

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