Project Icarus: Extreme Aerospace Engineering

by Paul Gilster on October 21, 2011

by K.F.Long, co-founder Project Icarus

Kelvin Long is well known to Centauri Dreams readers. The physicist and aerospace engineer is, in addition to being one of the most energetic voices in the service of interstellar propulsion studies, the co-founder of Project Icarus, the successor to the 1970s-era Project Daedalus starship design study. Here Kelvin looks at where the ongoing Icarus effort stands in terms of fusion, placing that propulsion option in the context of the broader questions raised by pushing a payload to the stars.

Back in December 2009 I wrote an article titled Project Icarus and the Motivation Behind Fusion Propulsion. This was an attempt to justify the initial design choice of the team as part of the engineering requirements for the study that is Project Icarus.

Despite this article and other discussions we have had, we have recently learned something from our experience at the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium: People still don’t understand the Daedalus connection and fusion choice behind Project Icarus. I shall attempt to explain it in order that the Centauri Dreams readers can follow the process that led to this apparently controversial decision.

Firstly, let us address what makes Project Icarus so unique – its Daedalus heritage. Why was the project chosen to be this particular way? There are four reasons for having made this decision:

  • Because Project Daedalus was the only full systems integrated study ever performed in the interstellar community and no-one had gone back and revisited an old design in this way.
  • To provide for a solid foundation to start with by putting the new design team in contact with the original Daedalus team and others in the community.
  • To provide for a reliable technology maturity comparison given the nearly four decades of scientific progress, something else not attempted before.
  • To give the team images to feed the media whilst we were developing our design and allow us to inspire the public, thereby building the momentum behind the project.

On the evidence for how the team has grown to date and the opportunities that have come our way, it is the view of this author that these decisions have been validated. We started from a very strong foundation, initially supported by the British Interplanetary Society and the Tau Zero Foundation. We made all of the right connections and gradually embedded ourselves within the interstellar community. In particular, we have gone out of our way to meet many of the giants of the field such as Geoffrey Landis, George Miley, Marc Millis, Terry Kammash, Eric Davis to name a few, and convince them that what we were doing had intellectual value. From discussions it appears they are largely in agreement.

Image: Kelvin Long (left) and Alan Bond, one of the original Daedalus designers, at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society. Credit: K. Long.

Training the Starship Designers

Now let’s look at another bit of thinking behind the project, the interstellar community itself. I have already mentioned some names above. Some of the other greats in the subject have sadly left this world having made an astonishing contribution to the literature of interstellar flight. This includes inspiring people like Carl Sagan, Robert Forward and Robert Bussard, to name just a few. There are many other greats still working away. Greg Matloff is one of them, working as a consultant to Project Icarus by mentoring the design team and passing on his wisdom and experience. He still publishes papers and lectures at the same pace as the rest of us. Similarly, many of the original Project Daedalus team are still around, including Alan Bond, Anthony Martin and Bob Parkinson. But they are either in retirement or busy with other projects. Alan Bond of course is the Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd and this keeps him busy enough. Despite this, he still manages to find time to keep an eye on developments in the field, even attending the BIS World Ship symposium back in September this year.

But to cut to the chase, how many young people are working on interstellar research? Where is the next generation working on interstellar research problems? Who will pick up the baton and stand on the shoulders of our interstellar research giants? Enter Project Icarus.

Project Icarus is at heart a training exercise. It is an exercise in designer capability at the extreme end of aerospace engineering. The choice of fusion propulsion is not relevant to this ‘educational program’. All of the people involved in Project Icarus are essentially in interstellar school and hope sometime, perhaps around the year 2014 – 2015, to graduate first in their class.

We all have our pet favourites for how to get to the stars. My personal favourite happens to be internal and external nuclear pulse propulsion although I am also very interested in antimatter concepts. Additionally, other than Project Icarus, I am also involved with two solar sail projects. Others within the Icarus team also have their favoured methods for reaching the stars, including microwave beaming concepts to faster-than-light drives. One of these methods or a combination of these methods, a propulsion hybrid, may someday be the actual method by which we attain the journey and reach those far off destinations. But guess what, it doesn’t matter what the option is if there isn’t anyone around capable of doing the work and advancing that option technically. So Project Icarus aims to train the design team so that when they complete the project they are ‘capable’ of doing the necessary calculations to assess all of these options and thereby advance them all incrementally.

Fusion and Future Design

The Project Terms of Reference (ToR) document stipulate that the propulsion system must be mainly fusion based propulsion, to maintain continuity with Project Daedalus and allow a claimed ‘redesign’, which would otherwise be difficult to justify. From internal discussions within the team, we have interpreted this to mean that energy generation through fusion reactions should be responsible for around ~80-90% of the thrust generation during the boost phase. This work is defined under the Primary Propulsion module, led by Richard Obousy, the former Project Leader. This leaves around ~10-20% of the thrust generation during the boost phase to be augmented with alternative propulsion technologies. This work is defined under the Secondary Propulsion module, led by Andreas Tziolas, the current Project Leader. Project Icarus officially started in September 2009. Since that time members of the team have done various calculations and trade studies pertaining to nuclear fusion, antimatter, nuclear thermal propulsion, plasma drives, solar sails, magSails, Medusa sails, microwave beams, Orion-type drives and even Vacuum Energy concepts. A ToR needed to be defined at the beginning to constrain the design problem, otherwise a five year study would turn into a ten year study.

When Project Icarus is finally over, it is my personal aspiration that members of the design team will go off and seed other design projects across the propulsion spectrum, because they will have the knowledge and the skills to do so. Essentially, Project Icarus is injecting energy into the subject of interstellar studies. It is hoped that this energy will act as a catalyst and spread across the entire subject, through inspiration, hard work, enthusiasm and compelling reasons for trying.

Image: Icarus being assembled in Earth orbit. Note the SKYLON spaceplane delivering components. Credit: Adrian Mann.

What you are witnessing in Project Icarus ladies and gentlemen is a classroom in action, played out on the World Wide Web. It is a pilot program for a Starflight Academy. If you want to train a bunch of people up quickly, the best way to do that is to throw them in the deep end with an engineering problem and say “go solve that”. This is precisely what the Project Icarus Study Group is attempting to do, where the specific exam problem is defined by our ToR, merely a mechanism for facilitating this goal. Perhaps someday a real Starflight Academy will exist, and teams will similarly be solving problems relating to many interstellar propulsion concepts. And it’s not just all about propulsion of course. A spacecraft design needs structure, materials, communications, reliability and a variety of other assessments to prove that it is a credible concept. We’re working on all those issues too and in the future will be taking more active steps to communicate some of that research to you the readers – something else we realized from the Orlando 100 Year Starship Study Symposium. People want to know some of our research findings and we need to start talking.

On a final note, I ask the readers not to see Project Icarus as an initiative that necessarily advocates fusion propulsion as the best way forward in reaching the stars. It happens to be the view of some members of the team, but others take a different view. Fusion propulsion and the Daedalus design, as studied within Project Icarus, is merely a vehicle upon which to train the eager young space cadets for the future. So that when we really do need that starship in a hurry, whatever the propulsion option of choice, we have a team ready and waiting to go and design it. Meanwhile, we will continue to wave our fists at the Sun and dare to “fly closer to another Star”, building on our forefathers who did that seminal Project Daedalus study in the 1970s. Like a son to a father, we hope to make them proud of our efforts and along the way find a way to build a better machine.

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{ 93 comments }

Christopher Phoenix November 1, 2011 at 20:48

@Eniac

A self-repairing machine is intriguing- but so far the human body is the only machine that repairs itself. And, sometimes that fouls up. Generally, a mistake in the replication of a cell causes it to be destroyed, but sometimes that cell will replicate out of control- a situation generally called “cancer”. If the machine repairs itself, what if it makes a mistake? Could the machine suffer some sort of replication error, like cancer? Might it began to evolve if it is able to modify itself or create copies?

There is a page on Wikipedia on these self-replicating spacecraft.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_spacecraft

There are several problems- if a probe does have a replication error, it might not carry out its original mission but instead replicate out of control. These probes might be a real problem if they tried to consume all the resources in their path. You could even think of them as a form of life.

Then there are “berserkers”- killer self-replicating spacecraft that are launched by a xenophobic civilization with the intention of destroying life on nearby exoplanets. If these exist, lets hope one does not find us…

The dangers associated with self-replicating replicating out of control over millennia or “berserkers” killing entire civilizations might make designing a self-replicating probe very dangerous. Maybe ETI goes out of their way not to create one and destroys self-replicating probes whenever they are found- Carl Sagan suggested this as a response to the Fermi paradox. It is more likely that any real spacecraft with the self-replication ability is a lot more modest in capability, so maybe your self repairing computer could exist someday.

On the other hand, my grandmother, who used to work as a psychologist, does not think a computer can raise children- at least with any amount of mental health!! At least Ole Burde’s plan has people to raise the children. Perhaps someone has a design for a nanny-bot?

Christopher Phoenix November 1, 2011 at 21:25

@Eniac and Ole Burde

Yes, you might start out with a group of A+ first rate astronauts and end up with a rather mediocre bunch of people over a few generations. To avoid inbreeding, just bring along a sperm and egg bank- and as you said, we never know where the next Einstein will come from. Cloning Einstein will not give you another Einstein.

If overpopulation gets as bad as Ole Burde suggests- humanity might be doomed as a species. I hope that the population slows and stabilizes. After all, the more greater the population- the more strain on the Earth’s ecosystem. If our population stabilizes, then our descendants will have access to ever greater amounts of resources and energy. They could live in city sized spacecraft. But if we overpopulate to 15 billion…

I sincerely hope you are wrong. Why is the population growing so fast?

I think my city sized spaceship is the best plan. It have a large population base, so there less chance of inbreeding. Everyone has access to education, so that Einstein in the worldship’s population will have plenty to feed his or her mind. Not to mention the views when the giant craft is near a planet.

A society like the one you predict, Ole Burde, is unlikely to develop space travel tech enough to build a ship like the one you suggest. We had better hope that future society develops differently from modern predictions. The current generation has little interest in space travel.

You know- the basis of the TV show Firefly and the Firefly movie, Serenity, is that a fleet of interstellar spacecraft travelled on a voyage that lasted a century to reach another star system. Once there, they began terraforming and colonizing most of the planets and moons that form the background for the show- including the Core worlds and the rougher Rim worlds. Firefly was a great show, by the way, even if they made a few errors.

The most likely duties a human crew will have on a starship is maintenance and repair. Someone has to seal leaks, replace damaged equipment, repair machinery, etc.

Even on space warships, other than command level decisions, most of the work will be babysitting and repairing weapons, drives, and anything else that draws current or has a temperature or pressure differential. There will be various firings of thrusters, firings of weapons, etc. but in the end, a lot of working goes into maintaining your fancy death ray cannon.

Finding a planet with life nearby would be a big deal- but would making plans to move there immediately, with no idea what or who lives there, a good idea? The city sized ship is the safest option in the end. To many variables with an unknown alien environment. We didn’t even send a probe to the planet first in your plan, Ole Burde.

Space travel should be done in a systematic fashion. Unmanned probes scout out the land ahead, including interstellar space, first. Then a scouting party should be sent to confirm that the planet is suitable. After that, starships can be sent with settlers and settlements and spaceports built. Over time, the colony will grow enough to become an important world. If it fails, don’t miss the last ship out.

If sending probes our scoutships is impossible, then settlers will be in for a gamble. They will have to rely on remote observations from Earth and computer predictions to locate a promising planet. Then they make a long journey, arrive, and if they are lucky, the planet they came to is remotely habitable. If not- so it goes. O’neil colonies are safer.

Lets hope your 70-person starship does not try to colonize a planet that already has intelligent, technological inhabitants. They might attempt to blast the invaders out of space- after all, isn’t this starship going to appear to them to be an invader?

Eniac November 1, 2011 at 22:40

Chris: This is a little OT, but briefly, the problems with genetic discrimination you point out will be dealt with by keeping potential discriminators from obtaining genetic information, and by prohibiting their use in hiring, insuring, etc. This is not new, we are already doing this with “protected categories” such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability. Genetic information is more easily protected than those, since it is not obvious “on sight”. It is also much more complicated in its interpretation and thus unwieldy for the would-be discriminator.

On self-replicating machines: It is technically no problem to ensure that self-replication is 100% accurate, or else lethal. In fact, it would take some extra work to make it flexible enough to support cancer or evolution, and neither of those is desirable or necessary for the mission.

The critical step in replicating a machine is copying its genetic material (presumably a few Gb of digital information such as software, blueprints and operating procedures). Put redundancy and a few checksums on it, and there is no chance whatsoever of a replication error when the information is downloaded to the next generation. And without special attention to build in tolerance to errors, any error that might occur in spite of this will just lead to a core dump and dead offspring.

It is similarly not difficult to keep control of the machines so they can never be anything but tools, no matter how sophisticated. At least if you refrain from trying to give them AI and make them independent thinkers, neither of which is desirable or necessary for the mission.

Rob Henry November 1, 2011 at 22:52

Eniac, regression to the mean is not a slow process but, excepting epigenetic effects, should have reached its full limits in the F1 generation, i.e., the intelligence that one associates as being typical for the progeny of brilliant parents would be the expected level of talent for all but the beginning of the journey.

That said, the rest of this post should be rather on the scientific fringes (cue creepy music). Don’t you find it rather strange how monozygotic – dizygotic twin comparison studies always seem to imply a higher genetic component for a given trait than any other method? Don’t you also find some coincidences in the lives of separately raised monozygotic siblings freaky? Even though such anecdotal evidence is not conducive to unbiased analysis, it sure makes me wonder if were not facing some sort of quantum effect associated with the fact that such twins were once destined to be a single individual (end creepy music). I’m further wondering if frozen in vitro embryos of deliberately produced monozygotic siblings could be grown in succession to each other to enhance the continuity of such a mission to an otherwise unobtainably predictable extent.

Eniac November 1, 2011 at 22:54

Chris: Of course there is crime without a genetic basis which people should be held responsible for. But a lot of the worst violent crime is committed by people who are obviously mentally ill. In most such cases the crime is predominantly a consequence of the illness. There is clearly a line beyond which it is cruel and ineffective to take retribution or attempt deterrence, where justice would be better served by rehabilitation or therapeutic and preventive detention. Better knowledge about genetic and other factors in mental illness helps to define this line, although it will, of course, never be a sharp one.

The good part of this is this: If we do one day eliminate the genetic causes of mental illness, we can expect a substantial drop in crime as a result.

Eniac November 2, 2011 at 10:51

Rob, you are completely correct about regression to the mean; it is quick. Twin studies always give higher heritability than other types of studies because they measure heritability from all causes, known and unknown. There still is a lot of unknown genetic variation.

I won’t dignify your creepy quantum speculation with a comment ;-)

Eniac November 2, 2011 at 10:59

@Chris:

Also, have you people ever heard of something called “self-control”?

What if someone lacks self-control, because of a genetic defect? Are they to be blamed for their crimes? (I mean this as a real question, I am not sure what to think.)

Ole Burde November 2, 2011 at 12:26

” Creepy music ” , indeed , but where does it come from ? I find it frightening that all kind of people can play around with selfreplicating machines without that anyboddy seems to take the dangers inherent in machine LIFE seriously . One the one hand we have a total rejection of genetic engineereing of the kind that could be used to heal millions of sick humans , and on the other hand a total acceptance of anybodys right to do his best to build a selfreplicating machine . This strange dissonance in the collektive evaluation of dangers might go on existing ontil oneday a very small selfreplicationg and perhabs therefore LIVING machine escapes from a laboratory .
The point is that we dont really know what life is , and what rules governs its emergence form dead things . If there is even a very small chance that this could happen ,it should be avoided at almost any cost . The resulting disaster might be a nightmare way beyond anything we can imagine .
The worst case scenario is one to be taken seriously ,when dealing with the unknown . As for genetic engineering the worst case scenario might be that some really rich people manage to buy designer babyes , or maybe the north koreans would try to produce a race of obedient slaves who wil do anything the leader says , no matter how crazy….ahhh , forget the last one !
As for machine life , the worst case scenario is the end of all biologic life , period .

Christopher Phoenix November 2, 2011 at 16:18

@Eniac

On genetic discrimination- true, it is harder to discriminate on basis of genetics since you first need data on a person’s genetic information. It is also harder to interpret, and there is no hard and set rule that “gene A will lead to an unstable personality,” say.

That is why I am worried about people assuming the rules are hard and set. Most people- especially politicians and lobbyists- don’t know the first thing about science, let alone the intricacies of genetics. If people start talking about “the criminal gene”, even if no such thing exists, discrimination could result- simply because most people are idiots. There was a time when well-educated people thought that bumps on the skull revealed if you had criminal tendencies.

I am not assuming bright, thoughtful people who understand that even finding some connections between genetics and violence does not mean that there is a criminal gene are making the decisions. I assume a group of narrow-minded, self-centered politicians who have no science education and will use anything they can, true or not, to garner support for their political platform are in positions of power. As Nazi Germany’s head propagandist said, “It does not matter what is true, but what is believed.” Scientists are seekers of truth- but sometimes our findings are perverted or used for immoral ends.

I’m glad that you realize there is crime without genetic basis. Most people can be held responsible for their actions. People who have a mental illness can’t be held responsible for their actions- but our justice system already takes this in account. Some people want to use the notion of a “criminal gene” to label children- especially boys- as possible criminals, which I consider discriminatory. These individuals are very fringe and their claims have no scientific basis, so I don’t think we have to worry about them.

I have no problem with genetic screening to eliminate genetic disorders and hereditary diseases. I don’t know if we can expect a substantial drop in crime as a result, though. There are many factors that motivate sane, functional people to commit crimes. Some steal to survive. Many commit crimes to gain wealth. Mafia members are not insane, it is just business. There will always be those who break the rules to gain wealth. There definitely will be futuristic ways of dealing with these criminals.

One of the most futuristic locations for a prison is Earth’s Moon- imagine trying to escape through the vacuum of outer space!! The inmates are set to work maintaining their environment. Spaceships drop in very rarely to deliver new inmates. Robotic defense systems are used to keep the prisoners in check- bonus points of there are “laser barriers” or “force barriers” that throw a potential escapee hurtling back through the air with a blast of force and light!!

I remember a SF story I once read that concerned a patrol spacecraft that was visiting a moon prison. The inmates, some of the worst criminals of future Earth, had taken over the facility, stealing the guard’s weapons- powerful blasters referred to as “bolt-guns” (presumably because they fired a bolt of energy) that could split a man in half with a single shot. The would-be escapees take the crew of the patrol spacecraft prisoner, intending to escape in their spacecraft.

Meanwhile, in a lunar laboratory, scientists had been experimenting with a “moon-plant”, a plant they had genetically modified to adapt it to living on the lunar surface. This moon-plant succeeded in escaping (apparently it had become a mobile life-form) and breaks into the lunar prison, killing some of the criminals. Finally, in a very pulp-SF style scene, the heroes succeed in destroying the “moon-plant” with their bolt-guns- which make a sound comparable to dropping a grand piano from a tenth story window when fired. They fire these weapons in the enclosed space of a lunar habitat. I hope they were wearing hearing protection…

A “bolt-gun” would have to generate considerable explosive force to split a man in half, similar to how a lightning bolt splits a tree. The flash vaporization from the bolts impact creates a steam explosion in human tissue, ripping flesh apart and splattering the remains across the room in a spray of gore. That explains why bolt-gun fire is so loud- the air might explode in the path of the energy beam, similar to a lighting bolt ripping through the air. The impact of these bolts might really rip up the interior of a space habitat. Don’t fire them in the proximity of a pressure bulkhead, at least not without a spacesuit on!!

This story is set in the far future, like the 22nd Century, so space travel was commonplace and transporting prisoners to the moon was not prohibitively expensive. I’ve probably improved it in my memory, and I haven’t been able to find it again. I don’t have the book I read it in anymore. Would any of you happen to recognize this short story? If you know its name and author please tell me.

Christopher Phoenix November 2, 2011 at 18:02

@Ole Burde

No!! Not the artificially intelligent, self-replicating robots! I remember the Robot Wars. We thought we were so clever when we created A.I. Then the first robot killed its creator and created more robots. Then these robots created still more robots and took over the whole Earth. The robots built a huge complex known as the TechnoCore. They exterminated every human they found like vermin!!

I remember running, hiding, trying to stay out of sight of the heat-seeking vision of the hunter-killers. I remember when the robots scorched the Earth to destroy our food supplies. I remember when the robots came to eviscerate me. I strapped on a laser blaster to take the war to the robots. I took those tin cans apart!! Weren’t so tough with their CPU’s melted and their circuitry blasted, were they?

And now machine life is all but extinct. Except for those robots with those fancy “inhibitor chips”. Like that will stop them. A laser bolt right into their neural net is the only inhibitor A.I. understands. You’ve got to blast their whole CPU into vaporized metal to be sure those tin cans are dead.

If there is one thing I will never do, it is get on a starship with a &*%^#@$ robot!! I won’t!! Down with all machine life!

Okay, time to be serious- I really don’t see how self replication or independent thought fits into the mission of a robot that is supposed to be a simple tool, as Eniac said. Maybe someday we will build computers that can interact in our society like a human being, but I’d be really careful with the idea of machine life.

Do you think that building machine life is a good idea? I’m not so sure, do any of you guys have thoughts on this? All the SF films tell us it is not a good idea.

@Eniac
“What if someone lacks self-control, because of a genetic defect? Are they to be blamed for their crimes? (I mean this as a real question, I am not sure what to think.)”- Eniac

If someone has a mental illness that impairs their ability to understand the nature or quality of the wrongfulness of their acts, they are not responsible for their actions. We have a term for this- criminally insane.

This is the definition- “A defense asserted by an accused in a criminal prosecution to avoid liability for the commission of a crime because, at the time of the crime, the person did not appreciate the nature or quality or wrongfulness of the acts.”

As for someone lacking self-control due to a genetic defect- I’m not sure if such a thing is possible, beyond a hereditary tendency for mental illness. Self control is generally taught to children, and some might have more maturity then others. We can’t blame everything on genetics. Some of it is bad parenting. And sometimes someone turns out bad despite the best efforts of parents and teachers.

One thing I know- those robots will always want to kill humans, no matter how many inhibitor chips we put on them!! We can’t teach them not to kill, it is in their nature!! Better keep those laser blasters for when someone creates machine life.

Christopher Phoenix November 2, 2011 at 18:46

@Rob Henry

This is a good argument against multigenerational crews on long space voyages. Anyway, I always wanted to see the stars myself. Maybe some sort of safe human hibernation can be developed to allow the crew to sleep decades away.

Our best hope is for some new propulsion physics breakthrough to allow us to travel to the stars much quicker- but we can’t count on Einstein and Newton budging to allow travel faster than decades or centuries. Even we can travel at 20% light speed, a journey to the nearest star with known planets would take 50 years. Attaining those speeds with a rocket is difficult because you have to carry all your fuel and propellent to speed up and slow down at your destination, and you need even more fuel on your outward stage of the journey to accelerate the fuel you need to slow down- the problem snowballs.

As for your creepy quantum speculation, which I will respond too, unlike our friend Eniac, just stop this already.

Why is it, whenever someone is going to cart out some pseudo-mystical concept but wants to have it accepted as science, they use the word “quantum”? Do they think people are actually going to buy into their ideas because they used the word “quantum”? Is it logical to think, “Well, most of science is pretty stodgy, but that quantum mechanical stuff is weird, so if someone invokes the word ‘quantum’, I’ll just throw my common sense out of the window?”

Quantum mechanics is strange, but it applies to the world of very small particles on the level where everything comes in minute packets called “quanta”. It does not apply to ghosts, bigfoot, spirit channelling, or the human “soul” or “spirit” and its connection to every other human being in some New-Agey belief system. It has become a favorite word to abuse in New Age circles, mainly because of bizarre concepts like entanglement, which most people don’t understand. But, hey, entanglement sounds like the mechanism behind some bizarre telepathic powers some person claims to have!! Well, lets just throw our common sense out of the window!

Quantum mechanics applies to the behavior of subatomic particles, fluorescence, chemical bonding, lasers, and futuristic computers. We see the consequences of quantum behavior when we turn on a fluorescent light bulb, watch a laser light show, or perform quantum teleportation experiments. However, quantum mechanics is not mysticism!! It is strange, but it happens all around us all the time explaining all sorts of everyday and some not-so-everyday phenomena!!

So, this “quantum effect” of yours makes no sense. These monozygotic twins are not subatomic particles. Neither are they entangled- quantum entanglement quickly de-coheres the larger the collections of entangled particles are. Any exposure to the everyday environment destroys entanglement- this is the biggest problem with quantum computers. How are some similarities in the life of twins quantum? They are not entangled, they are not single electrons, they don’t come in single packets known as “quanta”, so why do you keep throwing the word “quantum” around?

If a bizarre effect that connects twins exists, it deals in the circles that are not science yet, like the nature of the human soul or ESP. Robert H. Heinlein’s novel “Time For The Stars” suggests something like this- there are identical twins that are connected by a telepathic bond, allowing FTL communication over immense distances. The Long Reach Foundation (a fictional interstellar research institute) uses this effect to keep in touch with faraway STL starships. However, if any such thing was really found, it would not be quantum!!

Speaking of cloning, my strawberries clone themselves all the time. Every summer, more runners appear. These runners create new strawberry plants, so my strawberry pot never needs replacement plants. All of these plants are genetically identical to the parent. Charming little plants, strawberries. I hear strawberries do well in hydroponic gardens. So some organisms will be cloning themselves on a starship- the strawberries!!

Christopher Phoenix November 2, 2011 at 19:10

@Eniac

By the way, I have a question for you- not one relating to our topic, though.

Pardon this unworthy one’s ignorance, but how do you copy a quote from someone else with faded out letters and a line to the left of it, clearly marking their quote? You did it just up there when you responded to my discussion of self-control. I always just use quotation marks, but I’d far prefer to do it your way… so please tell me how. : – ) Pretty please?

You know what would make approaching near light speed a lot easier? Some means of canceling out most of a spacecrafts inertia. This would be basically the same as lowering its mass to almost nothing.

There is some speculation by Dr. Hal Puthoff that quantum fluctuations give rise to inertia. This idea is now still only speculation, but when Dr. Hal Puthoff modeled the forces quantum fluctuations will exert on matter, it exactly equals F=MA. If these quantum fluctuations really are the cause of inertia, perhaps we can find a way to manipulate these quantum fluctuations and reduce the inertia of a spaceship.

While Dr. Puthoff’s calculations are intriguing, it is a big jump to say that quantum fluctuations are the cause of inertia. But the idea is intriguing.

Eniac November 3, 2011 at 10:17

Pretty please?

;-))

Use the “blockquote” html tag. “it” works too, I think. I am sure there is a doc somewhere with more goodies, under Wordpress, perhaps.

Have you noticed yet that your strawberries get smaller with each generation? Not quite genetically identical, I guess. Strawberries need to be replanted every few years if you want them big. Something to do with polyploidy, no doubt.

Eniac November 3, 2011 at 10:28

I am not a psychologist, but I think lack of self-control is one of the principal factors of Psychosis. It is affected by medication much more than by upbringing. Even by alcohol. Which means, its roots are biological and it is ultimately controlled by genes. No need to blame the parents, here (except, of course, their genes).

Ole Burde November 3, 2011 at 11:27

Its perfectly allright to make fun of “killer robots ” with laser guns , but it would be even better if it, the fun-making, came together with a serious try to IMAGINE how machine life might or might not emerge from an extrapolation of existing technologies .
Before rejecting the possiblity that machine life might somehow emerge as a result of advanced research into nannoscale selfreplicating machines , it is necesary to reflekt upon what we know about life in relation to the laws of physics ,and what we dont .
The only serious theory about the emergence of life that I have met , is one that operates in the realm of information theory ,using elements of Kaos theory and trying to confirm the existence of “self organisatiion” in certain high comlexity systems .
If this is true , life will emerge GRADUALLY whenever it gets a solid statistical chance , and this is what we must prevent from happening in the case of non-organic ” life” and its growing compexity , at least as long as we dont have a clue about any of the critical parameters .

Ole Burde November 3, 2011 at 18:23

To overcome the difficulty in imagining how machine life might emerge from components like automated factories , articicial intelligence and nannoscale selfreplicating machines , just try the following thoughtexperiment : a bunch of robots , active in an internetsite called ” Centauri junk-files ” , is having a discussion about whether life could ever emerge from components such as energyrich organic fhosferous molecules ,lippidic membranes and the wellcontrolled DNA they sometimes use for memory storage in wet and corosive environments . No serious robot from a good family really wants to buy the idea… its just too slimy !

Christopher Phoenix November 3, 2011 at 19:26

@Eniac

Thank you!! I’ll try it out here… hope it works. You don’t happen to have to do anything special to enter HTML code into a comment, do you? If you have to, this will look pretty silly…

Have you noticed yet that your strawberries get smaller with each generation? Not quite genetically identical, I guess. Strawberries need to be replanted every few years if you want them big. Something to do with polyploidy, no doubt.

No, I have not noticed this yet. I have only had them for about two years, and this year the strawberries were slightly larger than last year. To be honest, they are not very big producers, and I have them just for fun. What are big producers, in my experience, are tomatoes, squash, and basil- which are don’t clone themselves. Just last year, I grew several Big Max pumpkin plants and ended up with a yield of about eight pumpkins- two of which weighed about 70 pounds!! I live in Arizona, so I grow plants that like hot conditions- like peppers.

I’ve always wondered how a pumpkin plant would fare in microgravity or lunar gravity. That would be an interesting experiment to conduct in the garden in future space station or lunar greenhouse- current space stations are far to small to contain a growing pumpkin vine!!

Christopher Phoenix November 3, 2011 at 20:54

Its perfectly allright to make fun of “killer robots ” with laser guns , but it would be even better if it, the fun-making, came together with a serious try to IMAGINE how machine life might or might not emerge from an extrapolation of existing technologies .

To be classified as alive, a machine needs to have a source of energy, the ability to move, the ability to grow, and the ability to reproduce. For instance, a killer robot might have solar panels, a fuel cell, or a nuclear battery to provide power, legs/wheels/propellers/etc. to move, be capable of repairing damage, and somewhere there is a swarm of robots that gather raw materials and make more robots.

The activities I described above also suggest a level of intelligence, but note that the robots need only a limited amount of intelligence to carry out tasks like finding raw materials and building more copies of themselves. They need more intelligence then we can give them, but being able to find raw materials and energy does not mean a robot can carry on a conversation with you. We might be able to build machines that act like living things, but it probably is dangerous to do so, and quite probably unnecessary for most tasks.

It might not be a “war against the machines” that think like us and have decided we are inferior but a struggle against self-replicating robots that simply carry out their prime directives of finding new resources and replicating themselves but don’t have any more intelligence then they need for those tasks. Personally, I think we should be very careful when we try giving robots the intelligence level of insects and the ability to replicate themselves.

Some people might wonder why we would build these machines in the first place. There are some tasks these robots will be very good at- like building antimatter factories in outer space for starships. Any antimatter rocket intended for interstellar missions needs a lot of antimatter, and the only way to obtain enough is to build some large antimatter factories. One way to do this is to let a bunch of little self-replicating robots loose on the Moon and Mercury to build particle accelerators from local materials. Power for the particle accelerators will come from large solar panels, also built by the little robots.

Rob Henry November 3, 2011 at 20:59

Christopher, even I agree that my explanation seems pseudoscientific, but your question on the invocation of quantum mechanics induces me to delve deeper into trouble.

I share a bane with most humans, that the intelligence of my subconscious mind at times exceeds that of my conscious – thus sometimes I trust it when logic says I shouldn’t. Intuition tells me something interesting is happening here but all my meager conscious abilities can offer in justification is that, some that claim the human mind could be a quantum computer offer tubulin as its matrix. If that was true then we would the possibility of quantum entanglement beginning from the first cell of an embryo.

Christopher Phoenix November 3, 2011 at 21:17

I am not a psychologist, but I think lack of self-control is one of the principal factors of Psychosis. It is affected by medication much more than by upbringing. Even by alcohol. Which means, its roots are biological and it is ultimately controlled by genes. No need to blame the parents, here (except, of course, their genes).

You’re probably right- but that does not change that most criminals are not insane and have full knowledge of their actions. Better charge up those energy blasters and rig up the forcefields at the Lunar Colony 13, because there still will be criminals in the future. There are always people who operate outside the law. I’m sure there is plenty of unexplored possibilities for a space criminal- like stealing space cargoes.

To overcome the difficulty in imagining how machine life might emerge from components like automated factories , articicial intelligence and nannoscale selfreplicating machines , just try the following thoughtexperiment : a bunch of robots , active in an internetsite called ” Centauri junk-files ” , is having a discussion about whether life could ever emerge from components such as energyrich organic fhosferous molecules ,lippidic membranes and the wellcontrolled DNA they sometimes use for memory storage in wet and corosive environments . No serious robot from a good family really wants to buy the idea… its just too slimy !

And then there is that graphic entertainment file, “Sliminator”, about a race of squishy bipeds, called Sliminators, that are created by future robots from energy rich organic molecules to fight wars in a corrosive environment. The Sliminators turn on the robots after they develop independent thought and the ability to reproduce. These bipeds invent weapons called “laser-blasters” ,”electromagnetic pulse bombs”, and “computer viruses” that they use to destroy the robots and rule over the planet, led by a Sliminator called John Conner. The robots send a single robot back in time to destroy the creators of the Sliminators, but they are followed by a group of Sliminators sent by John Conner himself.

Eniac November 4, 2011 at 2:04

Self-replicating machines are far from life, as long as we want to. We can turn them into life, by including the ability to make random changes that won’t kill the system, but that is optional, and probably ill-advised.

Also, it is MUCH easier to build a self replicating machine at toy-scale, rather than nano-scale, just because we already have lots of tools and technology in that area. So, the first self-replicating machines will be quite harmless, with a human easily being able to walk in and press the off-button, or pull the plug, or similar such preventive measure.

Ole Burde November 4, 2011 at 12:22

“…we should be very carefull when we try to give robots the intelligence level of insects and the ability to replicate themselves…”
Exactly .
Just try to imagine a species of photovoltaicly powered robot-insects , building underground nests where “reproduction” are made form a very smal number of modular components , each produced by a sub-species specifcly programmed for one rather simble task , starting with a smal numer of raw materials ,each of which was produced by another sub species… a thing to remember is , that while organic photosyntesis can utilize at best 2% of solar radiation in a very limited wavelength , fhotovoltaics will soon be able to use 50% including a wide range of wavelengths..
Add to all this an ablity to “mutate” the programing according to an algoritm similar to the one probably hiding in the internal nuts and bolts of DNA , and we have somthing that might be difficult to exterminate.

“One way to do this is to let a bunch of little self-replicating robots loose on the Moon and Mercury to build particle accelerators from local materials. Power for the particle accelerators will come from large solar panels, also built by the little robots.”
Exactly where the temptation to create life-like machines might come from . It would be irresponsible to do such a thing before the rules governing the emergence of life is comletely understood , and that might be much farther into the future than a oneway ticket to an eartlike star.

Christopher Phoenix November 4, 2011 at 16:22

Also, it is MUCH easier to build a self replicating machine at toy-scale, rather than nano-scale, just because we already have lots of tools and technology in that area. So, the first self-replicating machines will be quite harmless, with a human easily being able to walk in and press the off-button, or pull the plug, or similar such preventive measure.

Quite true- I think building a toy self-replication machine that could build a copy of itself out of finished parts I provided to it would much easier then building the super-nano-replicator robot that can mine natural materials to build copies of itself. The only way this robot could survive is if it raids Radio Shack- and once its battery runs out, its finished. Maybe with some sort of 3d printer and suitable raw materials, I could give the robot the means to build new robots- but this could not escape and hope to survive. It would be little more than a toy. A very, very fun toy that I would very much like to have.

“One way to do this is to let a bunch of little self-replicating robots loose on the Moon and Mercury to build particle accelerators from local materials. Power for the particle accelerators will come from large solar panels, also built by the little robots.”
Exactly where the temptation to create life-like machines might come from . It would be irresponsible to do such a thing before the rules governing the emergence of life is comletely understood , and that might be much farther into the future than a oneway ticket to an eartlike star.

Yes- we should be careful if we give self-replicating robots that much ability and let them loose. Maybe we could build these antimatter factories ourselves. Still, self-assembling antimatter factories are really tempting.

Fun things you can do with antimatter:

1. Beam Core Antimatter Rockets
2. Trigger pure fusion explosives
3. Build antimatter catalyzed fusion rockets
4. Test theories about the universe
5. Two words: PHOTON TORPEDOES!!!!!!

We can’t yet build anything more useful than toys on the scale of atoms yet. One potential use for nanotechnology- machines the size of atoms- is ray-guns. The ray-guns powerpack could be made of tiny plates of carbon atoms- nanobatteries. The beam emitter might be composed of thousands of microscopic lasers on a chip, all working together- a phased array laser- or perhaps thousands of tiny lasers that are not working together would pump a ND-Yag laser, causing it to lase very efficiently. Or perhaps it will be something even more exotic. At any rate, putting enough power on a laser beam to blast, vaporize, or disintegrate targets will take some pretty advanced engineering.

Eniac November 5, 2011 at 2:19

Self-replicating machines cannot be overestimated in their power and usefulness. They allow scaling up any process exponentially, to arbitrarily large scale. From a solar power plant covering the Sahara, terraformed planets, to a surveillance network spanning the galaxy. You can also have one producing an endless supply of space launch rockets, or one industrializing the moon. All becomes fair game, at the push of a button. Well, that and years and years of careful planning, design, and programming …

Ole Burde November 5, 2011 at 10:39

The purpose of a discussion like this is not to reach an absolute dogmatic rejection of selfreplicating machines , only to realise that the dangers SHOULD be taken seriously , which does not go well together with EVERYBODDY laughing at them .
To me it is strange that NOBODDY seems to be laughing at the somewhat parralel dangers connected with human genetic engineering .
These two subjects are both examples of areas where atempts at rational , objektiv , scientific thinking crashes into “politics” and or culturally based and media-pumped normative attitudes . These areas might be seen as sources of contamination , areas from where irrationallity is “seeeping” into
scientific thought , and in this way become a formidable obstacle to any real progress . The hysterical rejection of nuclear power by certain political forces shows us clearly that organised religion does not have any monopolly in the buisness of creating saints and demons . If we ever want to reach the stars , a good starting point might be to throw overboard all theese kinds of accumulated mind -junk .

Christopher Phoenix November 6, 2011 at 1:33

Self-replicating machines cannot be overestimated in their power and usefulness. They allow scaling up any process exponentially, to arbitrarily large scale. From a solar power plant covering the Sahara, terraformed planets, to a surveillance network spanning the galaxy. You can also have one producing an endless supply of space launch rockets, or one industrializing the moon.

Quite true. Self replicating machines are one of the “disruptive” technologies that might lead to humanity becoming a Type-1 Civilization. Once the self replicating machines start building solar power plants, antimatter factories, and space structures humanity will have access to greater and greater amounts of energy and resources. Self-replicating machines probably have their limitations. It will take quite a bit of planning to safely deploy them, and they will be little more than automated servants. I think that self-replicating machines will be more modest in their capabilities then the hypothetical “Von Neumann probe”, perhaps intentionally so.

I think it is likely that designing and building machines- including spacecraft- will be a lot easier in the future. Personal computers have put far more computing power on our desktops then the early supercomputers had, and computers aid the design of advanced aircraft and spacecraft- even allowing designers to model their performance before building the craft. Calculations that would have taken a months to perform at supercomputing facilities in the 1960′s can be modeled on someone’s desktop computer. Computer controlled robots and 3d fabricators allow for quick prototyping. With the even greater computing power available a century in the future, and access to self-replicating robots, could building a starship in ones “backyard” (possibly an asteroid or lunar outpost) be possible?

What do you think? Might building a starship be within the ability of a 23rd century individual, or will technologies like space travel and self replicating robots be too complex and require too much effort for a small group of people to handle by themselves?

At the very least, it is extremely pathetic that most teenagers today can’t pass math with more computing power in their cell phone then the designers of the Saturn V moon rocket had available when they sent the first men to the moon.

The hysterical rejection of nuclear power by certain political forces shows us clearly that organised religion does not have any monopolly in the buisness of creating saints and demons . If we ever want to reach the stars , a good starting point might be to throw overboard all theese kinds of accumulated mind -junk .

Tell that to the policymakers. NASA is so afraid of a public and media backlash against any attempt to use nuclear power in space that they are totally paralyzed. I did note that the last major protest against nuclear power in space was organized by the self-publizer Michio Kaku, who criticized the Cassini-Huygens space probe because of the 33kg of plutonium it carried to energize its radioisotope thermal generator. It is probably a lot easier to criticize NASA instead of trying to build and launch a space probe.

Throwing overboard all the accumulated phobias against nuclear technologies, nanotechnology, and biotechnology is an important step towards the goal of star travel. This is a very good reason to improve general science education.

At the same time, we should always assess the risks before we do anything potentially dangerous- like launch a rocket, build a nuclear reactor, or program self-replicating machines to build a giant solar power station and antimatter factory in space.

Christopher Phoenix November 6, 2011 at 1:56

@Ole Burde

As for genetic engineering the worst case scenario might be that some really rich people manage to buy designer babyes , or maybe the north koreans would try to produce a race of obedient slaves who wil do anything the leader says , no matter how crazy….ahhh , forget the last one !

Ole Burde, you seem to take the possibility of gross violations of personal rights and freedoms, genetic discrimination, or out-and-out eugenics programs far too lightly. A country trying to modify their entire population to their leader’s idea of a perfect human is called “eugenics”. As for designer babies- do we really want an upper class of “improved” humans? As for genetic discrimination, I think I’ve made it clear what I think of that.

Maybe we will end up with the Suliban from Star Trek: Enterprise if we keep developing genetic engineering technologies- the ability to squeeze under doors and blend in with one’s surroundings- KILLER BONELESS PEOPLE WITH SUBCUTANEOUS PIGMENT SACKS!!!! And they have- you guessed it- LASER GUNS!!!!

Oh my space god, there’s one now!! Wait, where’d he go? ZZZAAAPPPP!!!! AAAAHHHHH!!!!! “dies”

Sorry Ole Burde, I just couldn’t help it…

You are right that we need to assess the risks before we go on developing machine life, and that a lot of fears people have about genetic engineering are not rational. The biggest problem with genetic engineering is that so far, we can only manipulate one gene at a time, not the thousands we’d need to make a pig with wings.

Applying this to humans does invoke some human rights issues. Its already been ruled in court that companies can patent life-forms, but what about an organism of human-level intelligence? Is it company property, or does this being have human rights? And what about the liabilities when some giant blob escapes the laboratory and eats a bunch of people? Oh, sorry, I did it again…

Why isn’t anyone working on the laser guns? Its 2011 already, going on 2012, where is my arsenal of laser guns? If this is the future, where are all the phaser guns? Sorry, Rambo, I have to borrow that laser gun of yours…. the killer boneless people are squeezing under my door again.

Ole Burde November 6, 2011 at 16:56

“…gross violations of personal rights and freedoms, genetic discrimination, or out-and-out eugenics programs far too lightly ..”
I consider it a gross violation of MY freedoms to be denied acses to an awaible medical procedure for purely ideological reasons ,even if this new kind of totalitarian ideology has no official name as an “..ism”
Human genetic engeenering is a tool , and like most other powerful tools , including selfreplicating machines ,it can be used in ways that could bring really bad results . What you call eugenics is just one kind of bad result . The most immediate positive result would be the gradual but PERMANENT healing of many horrible gentic ilnesses which destroy the life of millions of people . Often the cause of theese is a single defect gene which could already whith todays technilogy easily be replaced ,( in opposition to the much feared possiblities of creating tall blonde supermen whoose only purpose in life is to be recreate germany anno 1940 ,, which would demand total redesign of whole cromosomes ) , This kind of single gene replacement has been done thousands of times for other mammals whith no measurable sideeffects . In addition millions of “test tube babyes” has been born to parents whith fertlity problems , often using embryoes which has been frozen ,and noboddy can show any statistical weeknessses to theese children compared to controlgroups .
The dogmatic rejection of a new teknology whith a great positive potential is a sign that our culture as such is sick , somehow weekened in away that has made it loose its belief in itself and its ability to to use realy powerfull tools without cutting off any fingers .
In stead of stepping up to the callenge of deciding about how the new tools can and should be used , we let stupid people dream up al kinnds of mythical definations of good and bad , saints and demons ….
Another thing is that you then have to use wrong and stupid tools for the job for which you just denied yourself the use of the right tools . Like aborting every year milions of children for genetic reasons , and like germany deciding to cancel its nuclear program in favour of brown coal .

Ole Burde November 6, 2011 at 17:33

Ahhh and by the way , the reason no laserguns are awaiable is clear enough .
They are totally unnecesary , real guns like the m16 are just too efficient to compete with . Think about the beauty of the simlicity of it . The chemical fuel is burned instantly in away that transforms an extremely high percent of its chemical enrgy to an extreme form of kinetic enrgy ,in a machine with no fast-moving parts , and one who can tolerate almost any kind of environment because it has no need for an elektrical controlsystem ….Its really almost like SF !

Rob Henry November 6, 2011 at 17:53

Ole Burde and Christopher Pheonix, I speculate that those patent versus human rights legal issues will come to a head when someone wants to plant a human FoxP2 gene in a chimpanzee. Note that Homo floresiensis probably used fire and had a chimp sized brain, and that even a dumb humanoid animal with the vocal abilities of a parrot will not go down well with the general public (particularly if it learns to say “no”).

Eniac November 7, 2011 at 10:58

Rob,

It is not as easy as putting one human gene in a chimp. That would definitely not work. Then again, the differences between chimp and human genomes are small enough (and all known), that we could “cross” the genomes computationally and, provided some future advances in synthetic biology, quite possibly create a viable hybrid. After all, you can cross horses and donkeys without any help from synthetic biology, and humans and chimps are only twice as distantly related.

Not that I think we should….

Ole Burde November 7, 2011 at 15:32

Why focus on chimps , when 3% of all children will be born with major birthdefects , most of which could be cured FOREVER ? Is this not a polite subject to talk about ? You have no answers because you have no answers.

Christopher Phoenix November 8, 2011 at 2:18

@Ole Burde

I consider it a gross violation of MY freedoms to be denied acses to an awaible medical procedure for purely ideological reasons ,even if this new kind of totalitarian ideology has no official name as an “..ism”

I have no problems with using gene therapy to cure people with genetic diseases. Only extreme neo-luddites have a problem with using genetic engineering to heal the sick. By all means, use the new tools scientists are developing to improve the condition of everyone’s life!!

I was really responding to your saying the worst that misuse of genetic engineering could do is a Gattaca-type society with designer babies or a eugenics program. I think those scenarios are best avoided- it is like saying, “The worst situation that racism can get us in is mass segregation of society!!” or “The worse that having the Nazi party in charge will cause is having Adolf Hitler putting anyone he doesn’t like in a concentration camp!!” Or maybe, “The worst that pointing a gun at your foot and pulling the trigger can do is cripple you, while sticking the gun muzzle in your mouth and pulling the trigger will splatter your brains on the ceiling.” True- but do you really want to be crippled? It is best to avoid both situations.

Anyone interested in starships is already a techno-enthusiast, ready to accept some very unusual ideas. Life in a closed space habitat- cybernetic organisms- human hibernation (sleeper ships!!)- nuclear rocket engines- antimatter power- swarms of self-replicating machines assembling antimatter factories- being reborn as a race of immortal machines!?- megastructures- travel through a warp in space-time etc.

Daniel J. Connors November 8, 2011 at 6:38

One of your criteria for intersteller propulsion is that it be 80 percent fusion powered. This can be accomplished by using the smallest hydrogen bombs developed, namely the 50 kiloton warheads used on the Poseidon ICBM. One bomb detonated per second would produce an average thrust of 10 million tons, so a ship in the 20 to 50 megaton size range would be required.

Christopher Phoenix November 8, 2011 at 7:52

Ahhh and by the way , the reason no laserguns are awaiable is clear enough .
They are totally unnecesary , real guns like the m16 are just too efficient to compete with . Think about the beauty of the simlicity of it . The chemical fuel is burned instantly in away that transforms an extremely high percent of its chemical enrgy to an extreme form of kinetic enrgy ,in a machine with no fast-moving parts , and one who can tolerate almost any kind of environment because it has no need for an elektrical controlsystem ….Its really almost like SF !

That is like medieval soldiers saying that portable firearms are unnecessary because gunpowder weapons cannot compete with the efficiency of crossbows. Modern day firearms are effective and surprisingly simple, but they are not going to be the last innovation human ingenuity applies to hand-held weaponry. Are you saying that you think that ray weapons will never replace or at least compete with chemically propelled slug-throwing weapons?

By the way, autoloading firearms like semiautomatic pistols or AR-15s (the civilian semiauto rifle the M16 was derived from) have fast moving parts- the bolt of an autoloading rifle and the slide of a pistol fly back at high speeds before sliding back forward to shove a new round into the chamber. The bolt is powered by the recoil of the gun or hot gasses channeled back into a piston or gas block, depending on the design of the firearm. Laser guns would have no moving parts.

The “blaster”, a deadly weapon analogous to a pistol that fires some form of radiant energy, dates back to the space opera tales of the 1930′s. Thirty years later, in the 1960′s, the laser was invented, justifying one of SF’s favorite weapons- the beam weapon. Ray-guns seem to be standard issue in many SF stories, but why don’t we have them?

High energy lasers focus intense energy on a target to burn, melt, or vaporize it. Continuous beam lasers act much like heat rays, while pulse beam lasers act much like blasters. An intense laser pulse explosively vaporizes whatever it hits, creating a shockwave similar to the blast from an explosive. Repeated high energy pulses can drill deeply into hard materials. Many varieties of laser exist, and some can blast a hole through a sheet of metal. A megawatt-range laser can bring down a jet or missile from hundreds of miles away- but it requires a few seconds of contact to burn through the target.

The problem is that lasers are inefficient and bulky. A modern day laser is only about 30% efficient at best- most are less then 1% efficient. Many kilowatts must be put in to obtain a beam with very low power, and the rest of that energy shows up as heat. At high energy levels, the laser crystals crack and the mirrors melt. The cooling system required to cool the laser makes the entire laser even bulkier. A laser that can kill a human requires a truck to transport it. Some newer lasers are getting surprisingly efficient, so this might change sooner than you’d think.

The next big issue is the power source. We don’t have batteries that can store enough energy to power a blaster- we’re talking about enough energy to vaporize a gaping hole straight through a human, all in a space no larger than a few D-cells. Battery tech is not likely to improve enough for handheld laser guns any time soon. We can’t even make compact batteries strong enough to power a handheld electrothermal gun. Perhaps nanotechnology will allow us to build portable power packs with enough energy to power a ray-gun.

The other possibility for a ray-gun is the particle beam weapon. A particle beam weapon fires a high energy beam of accelerated particles- possibly electrons, but protons or ions are heavier and will penetrate farther. Particle beams are quite spectacular weapons, but you might have to worry about backscattered radiation. Once again, the power source is what limits the capability of handheld particle guns.

It is quite possible to create a ray-gun, even though it might be a while until we finally do get compact laser handguns. I could build a blaster-gun today, but it would be a large, clumsy machine. I’d be lucky to get it in the back of a truck, let alone a holster or that place we’d rather not know about where Jack Harkness kept his Compact Laser Deluxe. When we do get blasters, they won’t fire discrete bolts or pulses that we can see flying out of the gun. Laser beams move at light speed, and particle beams close enough that you can’t tell the difference. The beams will either be invisible or appear as an instantaneous streak of light.

Laser pistols have several advantages over projectile weapons- laser beams strike instantly and are not blown off course by wind or drop in gravitational fields; laser weapons have no recoil; laser weapons can have very deep magazines with a powerful enough power pack; and laser weapons might have a stun setting based on an electrolaser, pulsed energy projectile weapon, or other less-lethal DEW. There is no limit to the amount of energy I can pack into a laser beam- so ray-guns could be very destructive. I could theoretically put the energy of an atomic bomb on a single laser beam (quite useful for those heavy laser cannons).

A ray-gun is not practical with current technology. Neither is commonplace space travel, giant space stations, or starships. There is nothing in the laws of physics that precludes us from building a compact, handheld laser weapon, and by the time we cruise our solar system in massive ships, I think we may very well carry Compact Laser Deluxes. I see no reason why energy weapons can’t be scaled down to portable blasters. We already have working prototypes today, including potentially lethal weapons and less-lethal beam weapons.

Here are a few interesting web sites on energy weapon sidearms (please note that these are hard SF websites, not serious engineering studies, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything written in them).

http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/sidearmenergy.php
http://www.specusphere.com/feature-articles/ray-guns-for-rocketeers.html
http://www.orionsarm.com/eg-article/48fddc50c8880

Ole Burde November 8, 2011 at 17:31

@ Christopher Phenix

“I have no problems with using gene therapy to cure people with genetic diseases. Only extreme neo-luddites have a problem with using genetic engineering to heal the sick. By all means, use the new tools scientists are developing to improve the condition of everyone’s life!! ”

First of all I am happy that you dont have any problems with “gene therapy” , even if I am not sure this notion covers what I meant , which was to use ” genetic engineering” tecniques to excange a damaged gene ( like the one giving you T-sachs) , in a human egg fertilized in the laboratory , and then later in the embryo stage put it back into the natural mothers womb .
As far as I can find out , this is totaly illegal in any developped country where it might be done . Noboddy dares to deal with it professionally .The reason for this is very rarely stated clearly , it seems to be asumed that nobody would need any reasom to be agaist it , and therefore it belongs in the same psycological category as tribal taboos.
So , perhabs we are living an age dominated by extreme neo-luddites disguised as just about anything else .

As concerning laserguns , it was only the handheld type I referred to as uneffektive . A soldier goes to war carrying 150 bullets for his m16 in his emmediate personal storage , and all this weighs inn at around 4 kg.
The powerpack necesary for a comparative handheld lasergun would with tomorrows tecknology weigh more like 4 HUNDRED kg ., and no solution to the problem is on this side of the horizon.
On the other hand Tank mounted laserguns might change the battlefield comletely by giving a tank effective defence against missiles and aircraft , restoring the tank to former glory . Boing is working on somthing that might lead in this direction.

Christopher Phoenix November 9, 2011 at 5:44

@Ole Burde

As long as it doesn’t have anything to do with creating a race of blonde supermen or isolating those with the so-called “criminal gene”, I don’t have any issues with the applications of genetic engineering- as long as all the risks have been carefully analyzed, of course!! Eliminating hereditary diseases is surely a worthy cause.

As concerning laserguns , it was only the handheld type I referred to as uneffektive . A soldier goes to war carrying 150 bullets for his m16 in his emmediate personal storage , and all this weighs inn at around 4 kg.
The powerpack necesary for a comparative handheld lasergun would with tomorrows tecknology weigh more like 4 HUNDRED kg ., and no solution to the problem is on this side of the horizon.

That is one of the major problems with creating a laser pistol, the other being the bulk and instability of modern lasers. This is what an article on laser weapons has to say:

One treatment of laser technology in both “soft” and “hard” science fiction — the handheld ray gun — has definitely not emerged, and arguably may never emerge. The smallest laser weapons under development barely fit on Humvees and weigh thousands of pounds, including the energy storage system. Even if engineers produce a battery with sufficiency high energy-density to fit into a handheld weapon, lasers will convert only a fraction of the input energy (perhaps 10-30% at best) into laser output power. The remainder will take the form of heat, rendering a handheld gun red-hot to the touch.

Although handheld laser weapons may remain a fantasy forever, based on foreseeable advances in technology, a rifle-sized solid-state laser weapon may exist in the far, far future. Heat coils wrapped around the rifle barrel might cool the system after firings. A cord leading from the rifle might connect to a large backpack containing the electric generator and the cooling system, complete with large radiators to dissipate the heat. The user would probably need to wear a thick thermal protection suit, however.

And here is another source-

I don’t see lasers being developed within the next ten
years as antipersonnel weapons to be carried by individual
fighting men. The day of the “ray-gun” is not yet here for
two reasons. First, a laser “ray-gun” for use as a
soldier’s individual weapon currently presents little
advantage over a conventional weapon. Both are line of
sight weapons requiring visual, straight-line, target
acquisition. There is no cover or concealment advantage;
the soldier must still physically see his target to kill
it. Secondly, current technology still requires that
lasers be of considerable bulk and cost. This virtually
eliminates the laser as an individual weapon.

That, then, is the situation today. Using current technology, lasers are bulky and very expensive- to bulky to fit in a handheld weapon. Batteries capable storing enough charge to power a laser gun do not exist yet. In the near future, lasers are not going to be used as instantly fatal “death rays” that burn enemy soldiers to death or as handheld “ray-guns” Lasers will be used to dazzle or blind enemy sensors and shoot down missiles or airplanes in the near future. That doesn’t mean that laser cannons and ray-guns won’t be the choice of far future militaries. After all, gunpowder weapons were originally used to scare horses.

Real laser blasters will be somewhat different from what SF shows portray. Laser guns bore holes through things, cause people to die with little visible damage, or conveniently make them “vaporize” with little or no debris in shows like Star Trek. Outside of Hollywood, the discharge of a disintegrator gun will not be neat and tidy and would likely to considerable damage to anything behind the target, not to mention the associated effects of the cloud of superheated vapor and ash.

The biggest limitation is the power pack or batteries. We can’t even store energy at the same energy density of gunpowder, let alone gasoline. The maximum specific energies of a battery using chemical bonds to store its energy is 40 mega-joule per kilogram. This is the energy density you would get if you are storing energy using the elastic properties of perfect carbon sheets or nanotubes to hold your power pack together with no safety factors to ensure the slightest jolt or imperfection does not cause your power cell to explode. In the nearer future, expect batteries with the energy density of 1 to 3 mega-joules per kilogram.

Another big issue is releasing this energy quickly enough. A laser pulse can create an explosion similar to a high explosive, but the pulse needs to be very short and intense. The power output might be on the order of a terawatt, but the energy used is not that much, perhaps comparable to the energy content of a tank of gasoline. Lasers can produce pulses as short as a femtosecond, so this is not a technological limit.

Atomic Rockets discusses Dr. John Schilling’s concept of a scientifically accurate laser pistol that fires a pulsed laser beam carrying a few kilojoules per shot and having an energy magazine holding about 250 kilojoules of energy. That is a reasonable energy magazine. On the extreme end, in L. Neil Smith’s “Brightsuit Macbear”, we find the 5-megawatt fusion powered pistol.

Most ray-guns in SF seem to have no problem blasting people to atoms, cutting metal, heating rocks till they glow, or creating energetic explosions on the order of a stick of dynamite going off. I’d guess your average mesotron rifle contains far more energy than a mere Ni-Cad battery or fuel cell could ever contain. At any rate, we can’t create power packs that store massive amounts of energy in a very small space or “laser bullets” (super-capacitors) that pump a few kilojoules into a particle beam pulse.

One of the best sites on Hard SF laser weaponry, written by an actual physicist- highly recommended!!
http://panoptesv.com/SciFi/LaserDeathRay/DeathRay.html

As for tanks- I think that tanks will be having bigger and bigger issues as time goes on. Orbital weapons can target large, visible targets like tanks with guided missiles, kinetic weapons, or laser cannons. To survive, a ground unit will need to hide from orbital weapons and spacecraft. Infantry can hide in a jungles, cities, and mountains, but tanks cannot. I suspect that tanks might even become obsolete in the future.

Paul Gilster November 9, 2011 at 11:25

While a certain amount of topic drift is inevitable, we started off with Project Icarus and are now discussing laser guns. Interesting stuff, but let’s get back to topic.

Christopher Phoenix November 9, 2011 at 18:37

@Paul Gilster

But laser guns are the traditional weapons of astronauts!! Not to mention internal laser grids (slice them up!!), disruptors that excite molecular bonds unto the hapless target explodes into steam and ash, electro-death-rays (EXTERMINATE!!! zapp!! cool negative effect that lets us see hapless human’s skeleton, target collapses to floor), particle beam carbines, and killer robots. One does have to worry about internal security on starships.

Yes, master…

The easiest way to make a fusion powered starship today is to use a Project Orion style nuclear pulse engine. Freeman Dyson designed thermonuclear starships powered by fusion bombs. Later studies suggest that a fusion powered Orion could reach speeds of 8% to 10% the speed of light. A fission powered Orion might reach a maximum speed of 3% to 5% the speed of light. Super-Orions are the only starship we could build with current or near-future technology. At 10% C, it would take a Project Orion ship at least 44 years to reach Alpha Centauri, not counting acceleration time. The 10% C starship would take at least 100 years to reach the nearest star with known planets, Epsilon Eridani, about 10 light-years away.

A nuclear pulse starship powered by matter-antimatter pulse units might be capable reach a speed of 50% to 80% the speed of light, at which point things start to get really interesting. At 70% C, the break-even point so to speak, as much time will elapse for the crew as it takes light to reach their destination star- a one-way trip to Alpha Centauri would take 5 years ship-time while about 7 years 2 months pass back on Earth.

Interestingly, it would take one year at 1 G acceleration in order to accelerate to nearly the speed of light. Once at this speed, the crew will experience plenty of time dilation. Contrary to popular opinion, the light-speed limit is not what stops us from launching starships that reach other stars in a few years travel time. We simply have not made suitable engines or harnessed enough energy to propel a starship to significant fractions of C yet, but if we become a Type 2 civilization that can harness the power of our Sun and generate copious amounts of antimatter, we could build fast starships. There are doubtless many exotic destinations within fifty light years future astronauts will want to visit- we don’t need warp drives to have a star trek.

ljk December 3, 2011 at 1:49

http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/12/new-extraordinary-claims-of-nuclear.html?m=1

December 01, 2011

New Extraordinary claims of a nuclear fusion breakthrough in Australia

A new Kachan report on new safer, cleaner nuclear technology, interviewed dozens of scientists at nuclear research outfits like Flibe Energy, General Atomics, General Fusion, Helion Energy, Hyperion Power Generation, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), Invap, Lightbridge, NuScale, Ottawa Valley Research, QPower, Radix Power and Energy Corp, Rare Earth Extraction Co., Rhodia, Scandinavian Advanced Technology (SCATEC), Terra Power, Thor Energy, Thorium One International, Tri Alpha Energy and U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF). (H/T Al fin)

UPDATE – The extraordinary claim is probably from Star Scientific which is working on muon nuclear fusion. They claim to be able to generate Pions with over one hundreds times greater efficiency. Muon fusion has been studied extensively for 50 years and national labs in the US and Japan had achieved 40% return on energy.

One interviewee, in a face-to-face conversation told us of a small company he’s involved with that he claims has built a working 1 megawatt fusion reactor the size of a rice cooker (though it’s dubious that approximation includes the requisite shielding, cooling, turbines, etc.) The company is now apparently in the process of building a 10MW version that it plans to trial in 2012.

For a 40-watt power input, the reactor is said to be able to generate a megawatt. The company is based in Australia.

The technology’s inventor has apparently tinkered with his design for 40 years, and self-funded the company’s early stages, reinvesting income from earlier lucrative inventions. Now, strategic investors are said to include family money, such as a Shanghai real estate baron and decedents of American industrialist John Pitcairn, Jr.

Culture of secrecy: The company’s secrecy about its actual progress makes Apple look sophomoric. In development since the 90s, it has sworn employees and investors not to let on how successful its research has been. It’s said to have retained the former head of Israel’s counter terrorism unit as its chief of security.

No to takeover offers: The company is said to have already fielded a buyout attempt by General Electric (NYSE:GE). The founder apparently didn’t want the invention owned by just one corporation, characterizing it an invention for mankind, apparently.

Requisite military involvement: The company is said to be secretly working with the Australian Air Force and Navy, and the U.S. Department of Defense, and aims to trial a 10MW version of its reactor in 2012 with an Australian utility.

The $1295 report claims to provide more details of this breakthrough, but there is no information about it in the table of contents or the executive summary

ljk February 8, 2012 at 13:39

Project Icarus: The Interstellar Communication Problem

Guest contributor Pat Galea discusses how a starship may transmit signals across the light-years between the stars.

Mon Feb 6, 2012 04:42 PM ET

Content provided by Pat Galea, Icarus Interstellar Inc.

Project Icarus is an ambitious five-year study into launching an unmanned spacecraft to an interstellar destination. Initiated by the Tau Zero Foundation and British Interplanetary Society, and managed by Icarus Interstellar Inc., a non-profit group of scientists dedicated to interstellar spaceflight, Icarus is working to develop a spacecraft that can travel to a nearby star.

Pat Galea, a software and communications engineer from the United Kingdom, serves as Secretary for Icarus Interstellar.

WIDE ANGLE: Project Icarus: Reaching for Interstellar Space

When we think about the engineering required for an interstellar probe, it’s easy to get absorbed in the obvious — and admittedly very exciting — challenges involving the propulsion system.

However, we also need to keep in mind that unless we can get scientific data from the probe back to Earth then there is very little point in getting the probe to another star at all. The data are the product that we have paid for; all the other engineering can be seen as the means to that end.

In this article I’ll be looking at the communications and telemetry investigations that we have been undertaking for Project Icarus.

Full article and animations here:

http://news.discovery.com/space/project-icarus-interstellar-communications-120206.html

ljk February 24, 2012 at 1:50

Project Icarus: Laying the Plans for Interstellar Travel

By Ross Andersen

Feb 23 2012, 1:56 PM ET31

Andreas Tziolas is drafting a blueprint for a mission to a nearby star. Here, he discusses how we’ll get there — and why we try.

We humans have known for a very long time that going to the stars will be difficult, if not impossible. The motto of NASA, Per Aspera Ad Astra, a latin phrase meaning “through hardship to the stars,” comes down to us all the way from Seneca the Younger, a contemporary of Nero. Even today, when our metaphors of exertion and ambition are many –”swing for the fences,” “go for gold” — when we strain to capture the difficulty of a task, or the enormity of an achievement, “reach for the stars” is the first and most natural phrase that comes to mind. Our hierarchy of the ultimate human accomplishments is in this sense remarkably stable at the top.

And with good reason, because interstellar travel is in fact very difficult. With today’s best propulsion technology, chemical rockets, it would take between 50 and a 100 millennia to reach Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun. The ideas we have about how to expedite such a journey are just that: ideas. They belong to the realm of speculation. Nonetheless, they are beginning to take on an empirical glow. To be sure, the bundle of technologies that could conceivably send a spacecraft to another star won’t be here within the decade, or even within several, but neither are those technologies mere magical realism — indeed, planning for their development has begun in earnest.

In September of last year DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, convened a conference in Orlando, Florida, to discuss and promote one of its newest and most intriguing research projects: The 100 Year Starship Study. According to DARPA, the study is intended to “develop and mature a technology portfolio that will enable long-distance manned space flight a century from now.” To that end, DARPA is now negotiating a grant of $500,000 to ex-astronaut Dorothy Jemison, whose personal foundation will team up with Project Icarus, a division of Icarus Interstellar, to seed the plans for an interstellar mission that could span several centuries.

Project Icarus, which will focus on the mission’s technological challenges, is a theoretical engineering study that was launched in 2009 by the British Interplanetary Society with the purpose of designing an interstellar spacecraft. It brings together an international group of volunteer aerospace engineers from government space agencies, universities and the private sector with the purpose of generating technical reports on the engineering layout, functionality, physics, operation, and mission profile of an interstellar probe. You can think of it as a kind of repository for bleeding-edge thinking about interstellar travel.

Project Icarus takes its inspiration from Project Daedalus, a five-year study launched by the British Interplanetary Society in 1973 to determine whether interstellar travel was feasible at all. Project Daedalus ultimately concluded that interstellar was possible, but acknowledged that the technical challenges were significant. Icarus aims to pick up where Daedalus left off, by trying to chip away at some of those technical challenges. Andreas Tziolas, a former research fellow at NASA who holds a Ph.D. in Gravitation and Cosmology, is the Project Leader for Project Icarus. Yesterday I spoke to Tziolas about how and, more interestingly, why we might someday send a mission to the stars,

Full article here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/project-icarus-laying-the-plans-for-interstellar-travel/253335/

To quote:

Have you and your colleagues given any thought to including something like the Golden Record that was stowed away on the two Voyager probes, the disc of sounds and images from Earth compiled by Carl Sagan?

Tziolas: We have, actually. It only took a week after the project began for people to start putting together a new record, and to start thinking about what the content of the record would be, but we haven’t really agreed on what the message would be. After the core design team had the initial discussion, we decided that the message should not be designed by physicists and engineers but rather by a sociologist or an anthropologist, but that was the limit to what we agreed on. We all agreed that what Carl Sagan sent was great; we just need to adapt it to our own time. Since then we’ve been actively trying to recruit anthropologists and sociologists to the team.

One of my concerns is that if we send another golden disc, it might not be well suited to reaching its audience. The chances of an extraterrestrial finding it and reading it are worse than a needle in a haystack; it’s like a particle in a universe. So my preference is to design some kind of module that was more technological than the analog disc, that way you could send it in to orbit around your target star, equip it with solar panels, have it charge up and once every twelve hours or so it gives out a pulse. And that would be just to give this other civilization something to look at, and when they design the capabilities to go check it out, they would, and then inside there would be something static, something like the golden record.

ljk April 24, 2012 at 9:43

Here is Kelvin Long’s personal Web site with lots of interesting information on interstellar vessels:

http://horizonar.co.uk/1411.html

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