U.S. military to help launch interstellar space travel

Forget sending people to Mars, one U.S. government agency wants to prepare for a trip to distant stars.
Written by Tuan Nguyen, Contributor

Forget sending people to Mars, one U.S. government agency wants to get the ball rolling on interstellar space travel.

Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is looking to award a $500,000 grant to an ambitious organization to figure out just what it would take to transport humans to stars orbiting beyond our galaxy, according to a report in the New York Times.

The grant, scheduled to be released on November 11th, is the result of the 100-Year Starship Study, the agency's year-long collaboration with NASA wherein collaborators explored various approaches to developing a "viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines" required to "make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible," according to the website. A three-day public symposium will be held on Sept. 30 in Orlando, Fla. to discuss ways to persuade more people and institutions to start asking "why not?"

If the idea sounds far out, in a technical sense, it is. Voyager 1, the fastest spacecraft mankind has ever built, has a gravity-assisted top speed of 38,000 miles and, even at that rate, would take more than 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, the closest neighboring star system. But a number of prominent scientists would like it to be known that the conceivable technology does exist to cut travel time to such a destination from thousands of years to a much more manageable 50 years. Some of these include:

  • Propelling a ship using the pressure waves created by a series of atomic bomb explosions located on the back end. Originally conceived in the late 1950s by a group of scientists that included Freeman Dyson, the method would speed up the journey, though it would still take hundreds of years to reach Alpha Centauri.
  • Using tiny thermonuclear explosions to generate thrust, a more modest method that requires the use of laser blasts to compress pellets of deuterium and helium-3. The brains behind this proposal are a group called the British Interplanetary Society, which presented the plan in the 1970s as part of their own interstellar spaceship study, Project Daedalus. They conjecture that it would create enough propulsion for a 500-ton scientific probe to reach Barnard’s Star, 5.9 light-years away, in about 50 years time. Along the way, the spacecraft would hit speeds as fast as 12 percent of the speed of light.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's keep in mind that for now the plausibility of journeying to other star systems is still the stuff of science fiction, where warp speed technologies can easily help travelers get around those pesky physics problems. A real-life spaceship capable of interstellar space travel may take centuries to build and can easily cost trillions of dollars to develop. The trip would also most likely be a one-way ticket.

David Neyland, Darpa’s director of tactical technology, also won't hesitate to point out that the grant is merely intended to serve as financial assistance for the development of a business plan -- not spaceship -- that may enable mankind to travel to the stars.

“We don’t intend to carry it forward,” Mr. Neyland told the New York Times. “Darpa hands the keys over to this entity, and we wish them well.”

(via New York Times)

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