Star Wars? Not at NASA

by Paul Gilster on August 19, 2010

I had started today’s entry — on dark energy — only to be sidetracked by a short piece in Space.com that almost had me spewing my morning coffee all over my keyboard. Here’s a quote from the story, which focuses on a Star Wars convention in Florida held last weekend:

“‘Star Wars’ filmmakers and fans asked NASA representatives to develop a hyperdrive that can transport astronauts through space at light speed. And to make it snappy.”

In response, the story quotes NASA’s Joseph Tellado, a logistics manager for the International Space Station, who says this:

“We need better propulsion systems. Right now I’d say that would be the one invention that would really help us out a lot. It’d be great if our astronauts could go at hyperspeed…. I believe ‘Star Wars’ and NASA have a lot in common. We’re looking to the future. NASA is like the first stepping stone to ultimately get to that ‘Star Wars’ level.”

And the story adds this:

The inspiration works both ways, with NASA and “Star Wars” inspiring each other to stretch out and envision the future and then fill in details of what that future might look like.

NASA in the Hunt for Breakthroughs?

Astounding. Here’s why I burned my tongue on a cup of Sumatra Mandheling this morning: Despite what convention-goers may now believe, NASA has no involvement whatsoever in the kind of technologies these people are talking about. True, the agency once funded the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, run out of Glenn Research Center by Marc Millis. BPP’s charter was to investigate the kind of technologies that might one day lead to deep space and interstellar flight, among them so-called ‘warp drive’ and other possibilities. But the agency stopped funding BPP in 2002.

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, not as ‘breakthrough’ oriented as BPP but a potent force for showcasing new ideas, was cut off from its funding in 2007. In short, the idea that NASA is conducting serious research on any aspect of advanced propulsion — I am talking here about the kind of concepts this convention glories in — is completely false. That work is now off the table. Marc Millis himself has left NASA and works on breakthrough concepts through the Tau Zero Foundation he founded, for which I toil on a daily basis in writing these posts. TZF has no NASA connection whatsoever and proceeds through private funding. The relevant links on the home page here give you the background on TZF.

So while I agree with NASA’s Joseph Tellado that hyperspeed is a desirable outcome, it should be added that it’s not one that NASA is engaged in studying. This is not to say that potential near-term technologies like solar sails may not be revived within the agency — the NASA solar sail is up to a Technological Readiness Level of 6 and a demonstrator sail like NanoSail-D should be launched within a year. But if you’re talking futuristic concepts like warp drive and the study of potential breakthroughs, NASA is no longer the place to be.

Pushing into Dark Territory

With that off my chest, let’s proceed to dark energy, which I want to discuss because utterly unexpected scientific results may offer us useful clues to future technologies. We’re only beginning to learn about dark energy, but the notion that the universe should be expanding at an accelerating rate has flowed out of supernova observations that have been supported by later studies like the Supernova Legacy Survey. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the Higher-Z team concludes that dark energy has been a factor for at least nine billion years.

All of which is strange and wondrous, as it implies that a hugely important component of our universe only became known within the last twelve years, when the first supernova work was reported. If there is a factor that causes space to expand — one that seems to make up about 72 percent of the mass-energy of the universe — it must exert a strong negative pressure to account for its effects. The fact that it is so hard to detect and is not thought to interact with the fundamental forces other than gravity means that studying it in the laboratory is, to say the least, problematic.

And as far as harnessing its powers for future propulsion systems, the idea is far-fetched in the extreme — at our current technology level. We can’t, however, rule it out for the far future. And that’s the thing about the future. It plays out according to the inputs we give it, meaning that if in some future century our science progresses to the point that what we now know as dark energy becomes something we can engineer, it will be because a long line of scientists, starting now, have put in the groundwork to get us to that destination.

That’s why I keep an eye on dark energy studies in these pages, suggesting only that the more unexplained things we gradually master in the universe, the more likely we are to make genuine breakthroughs. The Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project used to make this sort of thing its bread and butter, but private organizations like the Tau Zero Foundation now have to continue that work without help from government agencies.

The Geometry of Spacetime

And there is some interesting news about dark energy as we continue to pursue this odd effect. One reason that dark energy work is so absorbing is that it tackles the very geometry of the universe. Findings from a team including Yale University physicist Priyamvada Natarajan, reported in the August 20 issue of Science, are based on gravitational lensing of 34 extremely distant galaxies situated behind the massive galactic cluster Abell 1689. Astronomers can study how the images are distorted by intervening mass. Says Natarajan:

“The content, geometry and fate of the universe are linked, so if you can constrain two of those things, you learn something about the third.”

Image: The massive gravitational force of the dark matter (shown in blue) in giant galaxy cluster Abell 1689 bends the light from distant background galaxies, giving astronomers clues to the nature of dark energy. Credit: NASA, ESA, Eric Jullo/JPL, Priyamvada Natarajan/Yale University, Jean-Paul Kneib/Universite de Provence.

As I said, we’re in early days when it comes to the study of dark energy, and if there are actually ways to harness it, such developments may well be centuries away. But it’s useful to know that Natarajan and team have been able to narrow the range of current estimates about dark energy’s effect on the universe — denoted by the value w — by some thirty percent. They did this by combining the gravitational lensing studies with new data from supernovae, X-ray galaxy clusters and related data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).

We learn from all this that the dark energy work thus far confirms previous findings that we do indeed live in a flat universe, one in which the expansion will continue to accelerate and the universe will expand forever. Assuming, that is, that dark energy’s effects remain constant over cosmological time scales. We have much to do to understand how dark energy works, but with NASA out of the hunt when it comes to examining it and other components of far future propulsion engineering, we shouldn’t expect that hyperdrive any time soon.

The paper is Natarajan et al., “Cosmological Constraints from Strong Gravitational Lensing in Clusters of Galaxies,” Science Vol. 329, No. 5994 (20 August 2010), pp. 924-927 (abstract).

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James M Essig August 19, 2010 at 17:21

Hi Folks;

Tau Zero and Centauri Dreams are a candle in the darkness that must remain lit. Project Icarus is rising to the occasion by working to come up with a star ship design.

Us early stage spaceheads will go down in history as leading the initial efforts to get to the stars.

Nonetheless, as far as NASA is concerned, there is hope for the cause simply because they seem to be recognizing the need for and use of solar sails and beam sails such as the NASA solar sail that is up to a Technological Readiness Level of 6 and the demonstrator sail like NanoSail-D which should be launched within a year.

When I think of beam sails as of late, I think of the logo at the National Ignition Facility or one of its sister organizations and that is quite plain and simply “The Power Of Light”. Harnessing this power will be a great calling for our species, as light, quite plain in simply, is an ambient cosmic energy source in the form of star light, Quasar light, and CMBR light.

It seems that photons will alway exist since they do not normally self decay, unless they are absorbed or otherwise transmuted.

JD August 19, 2010 at 17:31

This was not a surprise. Over the last two decades NASA has mutated from a space agency into a generic bureaucracy. I’m not even sure if it’s salvageable anymore, perhaps the best thing would be to put it out of it’s misery. There is I believe a basic core somewhere in this mess composed of people who would be overjoyed to follow NASA’s original mandate. With all the added dross and divergence of funding down non space related paths I’m assuming that core is also feeling it’s mortality.

Sadly, despite the grandiose rockets presented on paper, private enterprise is not even close to the point of assuming the burden. Added further to this is the function of trailblazer which NASA should be and no corporation would ever allow itself to be. Bluntly I’m now of the opinion that if ever a group human beings venture beyond the earth moon coupling there will not be an American among them.

philw1776 August 19, 2010 at 17:59

I understand the frustration about breakthrough propulsion or even about funding aggressive ion engine or VASIMIR efforts. Instead, today we have a NASA whose top priorities feature outreach to Muslim countries and education on their contributions to civilization, if Boldin is to be believed. Sad.

Tom Mazanec August 19, 2010 at 19:54

“Assuming, that is, that dark energy’s effects remain constant over cosmological time scales.”
That is a big caveat. One example of something which could change this scenario would be a Big Rip, where a feedback in the acceleration rises to infinity in a finite time. Do thses new results increase or decrease the apparent likelyhood of a Big Rip?

David August 19, 2010 at 21:15

On DE I think it just gives more support for the DE being more like a Cosmological Constant. NASA funded this latest study. That would explain the hype its getting. I think some others came out almost unnoticed with similar results.
On Icarus : It is foolish not to print lots of peices of green paper and get a fusion interstellar spaccraft and a new era of growth and properity

David Ford August 20, 2010 at 0:56

The new work as I understand it indicates that the dark energy is equivilant to einsteins “cosmological constant.” If this is true the energy density at any given point in space is the same everywhere and the entropy is 100%. You could not use it to do any work. Maybe you could change the density by relatively stretching or compressing space relative to another frame of referance. If you were flying into the C.C. at high tau would it change its value,(blue shift), relative to the,(red shift), in the opposite direction. Oh God what am I talking about. thanks for the time.

Michael Spencer August 20, 2010 at 7:26

“with NASA out of the hunt…”

A bitter pill indeed, Paul. I share your obvious dismay.

Scott G. August 20, 2010 at 9:50

NASA does indeed need to get back in the business of pushing boundaries. That, in my opinion, should be the primary role of a publicly-funded US space agency. Most private industry simply won’t have the capital to spend on pure propulsion research (because like all research, there’s a chance it may not lead anywhere). Once a technology is fully-developed, then it should be handed over to private investors, but the government should always be involved in establishing the real cutting-edge technologies.

Greg August 20, 2010 at 13:59

Your right Paul, about NASA not being even in the race for interstellar travel. This is what we get for a government run agency that seems to be at the whims of whoever is president.
It’s actually pretty sad, BPP wasn’t a very highly funded program much like NIAC wasn’t. BPP did not have the years NIAC had to contribute back, but I am sure that it could have if left alone.

Chris T August 20, 2010 at 16:36

“‘Star Wars’ filmmakers and fans asked NASA representatives to develop a hyperdrive that can transport astronauts through space at light speed. And to make it snappy.”

There’s a minor problem called ‘physics’. Seriously though, what leads people to evaluate the progress of science and technology by comparing it to their favorite Sci Fi? Too many people seem to believe we’ve stagnated technologically because they don’t have a jet pack or a flying car.

Matt Robare August 22, 2010 at 1:14

NASA’s problem is that it falls into a paradox far more complex than any others.

Basically, for most government agencies, the people working at them have an incentive to do as little as possible about the problems they’ve been tasked with because if they actually solved the problem they’d lose their jobs and the agency’s funding would be cut. The classic example is the War on Drugs–drug prohibition, like alcohol prohibition, has resulted in high prices and the lure of those profits to the criminals who are now (by default) the only people willing to traffic in drugs results in violence.

With NASA, however, the agency is expected to succeed and has done so in the past–Apollo, the space shuttle, the Hubble, etc–so that the administrators can proudly tell Congress “We’ve accomplished a lot of our goals!”

Congress of course replies by saying: “Great! Than you won’t need the same budget next year because there aren’t Apollo or shuttle missions to fund. Guess we can halve it and tell the voters we’re saving their money.”

Pointless Geometry August 22, 2010 at 1:47

“Too many people seem to believe we’ve stagnated technologically because they don’t have a jet pack or a flying car.”

Count me as one of those people – which is the reason I visit this blog.

bigdan201 August 22, 2010 at 4:47

Dark matter and dark energy, whatever they are, will be very important for the understanding of our universe. The fact that these mostly unknown factors make up a large portion of the universe really opens up alot of questions about the grand processes of the universe, what is scientifically possible, and so on. We have much to learn about, but that only makes things more exciting.

It is unfortunate that NASA has scaled back so much and become more bureaucratic. If we had kept up the drive towards space, I guarantee we’d be much further along by now. I’m not taking anything away from our great achievements either, such as the solar system probes, solar sail technology, and the rovers on mars. But there are billions of dollars which would be better spent on space efforts than where they’re being spent now. It is cool that the private sector has been getting involved though. The future is in space, and any major country that doesn’t stay in the running is going to lose out.. perhaps in a big way.

I do give you credit for posting so consistently here btw.. its one of the reasons I come by.

Doug August 23, 2010 at 1:24

I think in order for us as a species to become motivated to achieve anything related to exploration we need to have a quantitative reason. Columbus sailed to America in search of trade routes and gold. The same goes for expansion out west. Almost all advancements in space were a result of superpower competition and fear one dominating the other in this new frontier. Now there is no motivation. We have no major resources to found in our solar system. All of our worlds are mostly lifeless rocks with no little green men. Ultimately the next motivation will be related to finding another Earth. If we are subject to a global catastrophe, or we find an inviting nearby extrasolar world (Centauri A system would be nice) with a precious resource we might see these exotic drives come to fruition. But until then we will be the generation of “its not likely so we won’t even try” instead of my grandparents generation of “lets figure it out, nothing is impossible”. We have too little knowledge of the universe to write anything off, and a lot of our discoveries happen by accident with no knowledge of the underlying physics .

bigdan201 August 24, 2010 at 11:12

Actually Doug, industry and commerce will be the next big step towards space colonization. There definitely are resources in space, such as helium-3 on the moon and in gas giants, as well as metals from the asteroids.

I’m optimistic about the possibilities of space colonization to the point that I’m concerned – that if the US doesn’t stay in the running, we will fall behind another nation who gets there first.

Of course, finding an exo-earth or an exoplanet extremely rich in resources would also be a great motivation to go further in space. Ultimately, we will colonize the solar system and then other worlds.. but that is the most distant goal. In the near term, finding an exo-earth would ignite enormous interest in these issues, and would be great for getting NASA back on track among other things.

Eniac August 25, 2010 at 0:10

bigdan: There are no resources in the solar system worth the cost of getting them, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. He3? Not much use apart for cryo research, and can be produced cheaper on Earth. For fusion? Nobody knows when that will become practical, if ever. Metal? Can be dug up on Earth much easier. Solar power? Cheaper on Earth as well.

Some of these answers may change one day, but we need a reason to develop space now, not at some future time. Exploration is a big one, and has been done for decades. However, it won’t pay the bills and it won’t get people into space.

Tourism might serve, after the model of Las Vegas, which was built in a barren location just for people to visit and was, AFAIK, a commercial success. All in all, I think that the current crop of space entrepreneurs (Branson, Bigelow, etc.) may be on the right track.

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