Saturday at the 100 Year Starship Symposium

by Paul Gilster on September 17, 2012

While I didn’t see too many technical glitches at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houston, I ran into plenty of them in my own attempts to cover the event. The banquet hall where the opening ceremonies were held — and where the plenary sessions occurred each day — was impervious to the hotel’s WiFi, so that I was unable to use Twitter. Friday’s technical sessions in the conference rooms went fine, and I managed to send out a steady stream of tweets from the ‘Time and Distance Solutions’ track. But halfway through the Saturday sessions, Twitter itself went down. I tried all afternoon to get on, but though my Net connection was strong, Twitter wouldn’t come up.

Image: Early arrivals setting up at the opening plenary session for the 100 Year Starship Symposium. Everything in order but the WiFi.

My experience with US Airways was about the same. The two flights out to Houston were uneventful, but coming back I was on an aircraft that reached new levels of passenger compression. With my knees hard up against the seat in front of me and that seat tilted back to maximum extent into my face, I could only close my eyes and pretend I was someplace else. We’ve all gone through things like this on packed flights, but I was reminded again why I have my 1000-mile rule. If a trip is anything less than 1000 miles, I’m going by rail or car. Period.

The Saturday science sessions were top-notch (congratulations to track chairman Eric Davis for his excellent work throughout the conference). Joe Ritter (University of Hawaii) gave an eye-opening talk about metamaterials, which he believes can reduce the cost of telescope fabrication by a factor of 100. This is heartening given the need to deploy big mirrors in space to look for and analyze exoplanet atmospheres. Joe’s team is looking at mirrors with what he describes as ‘photonic muscle,’ material that minimizes ambient light and can respond actively to conditions. Think of today’s adaptive optics extended in entirely new directions and available in ultralight models. A Hubble size mirror using some of these materials would weigh just 1 pound.

If you’re thinking not just of ground- or space-based telescopes but of starships, Joe’s huge, lightweight mirrors could be the basis of communication systems. For that matter, metamaterials like these can become involved in power generation and thermal regulation. There are even solar sail possibilities. In many ways the mission architectures becoming available to us will depend upon the advances in materials technology that this kind of work represents.

Vince Teofilo (Energy Innovations) ran through a conceptual design for a starship ark that he has been working on for the Space Colony Earth project, which involves repositories on Earth, the Moon and a starship that are seen as ways of preserving digital data and human DNA information. What Space Colony Earth has in mind is guarding against mass extinctions of the kind that felled the dinosaurs. A robotic long-haul starship of the kind Vince described would target a star with an Earth-like planet and would include experiments to be run en-route to provide data for future, faster interstellar missions. Among the propulsion options are an inertial electrostatic confinement space thruster developed by George Miley (University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign), though Vince examined a range of alternatives.

Image: The view from outside my 19th floor room at the Hyatt Regency. An MD friend of mine, back in the days when this kind of hotel design was just coming in, looked up at such a scene at a conference and exclaimed “This is Babylon!” Well not quite, but the Hyatt was a good venue.

Icarus Interstellar was all over the science sessions, and the two I attended on Saturday covered recent work involving what the team is learning about the original Daedalus design. Robert Freeland (Podtrac), discussing a paper he did in conjunction with science fiction author Stephen Baxter, noted that the Daedalus team’s calculations had largely been validated, though some aspects were in need of a tune-up. Remember that Daedalus came out of the 1970s, its team working in loose association using slide rules and pencils rather than computers. Freeland described an early Icarus iteration that would reduce payload to 50 tons from Daedalus’ 450 thanks to advances in miniaturization, with an additional set of fuel tanks for each stage and full deceleration into the Alpha Centauri system. Mission time: just under 100 years.

You would think that an Alpha Centauri probe might swing by Proxima Centauri in some way on its way to Centauri A and B, but the scenario turns out to be surprisingly difficult to manage given the speeds involved on the way to the ultimate destination, as Freeland described. Splitting off a flyby probe targeting Proxima after the acceleration of the main probe is perhaps a possibility, but the primary probe still decelerates into the Centauri AB system, with the latter probe dividing into separate probes for the exploration of each star’s (assumed) planetary system.

Still up in the air are issues like inertial confinement fusion and whether it will become the final choice of the Icarus design team. The continuing work at the National Ignition Facility has shown how tricky it is to compress a fuel pellet with lasers symmetrically. A final, major question: How do you do a re-start if the system shuts down? The Daedalus Final Report did not address the problem, and the Icarus team will explore this along with the question of mis-fires and how they could damage the reaction chamber.

Image: Hard at work in the ‘Time and Distance Solutions’ track.

Pat Galea, who gave three papers on Icarus topics, presented his third in place of author Adam Crowl, who could not be in Houston. Crowl was looking at efficient braking mechanisms for an interstellar probe entering its destination system, wondering about the feasibility of magnetic sail braking in which an artificial magnetosphere interacts with the interstellar medium. The magnetosphere itself is created with a huge ring of superconducting wire attached to the vehicle. Magsails turn out to help reduce overall system mass significantly when compared to other methods in a Daedalus-class vehicle.

Finally, Rob Adams (MSFC) discussed the Decade Module Two (DM2) device his team is reassembling after its donation to the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Located at the UAH Aerophysics Laboratory at nearby Redstone Arsenal, the device was originally developed to model the effects of thermonuclear explosions, but can be productively put to work in a variety of fusion experiments ranging from magnetic nozzle tests to the simulation of a solar mass ejection. In a so-called Z-pinch, current applied to plasma by a large bank of capacitors creates a magnetic field that pinches the plasma into a small cylinder to reach fusion conditions. See Z-Pinch: Firing Up Fusion in Huntsville for more.

Image: Rob Adams describing the DM2 and its potential.

Can plasma explosions generated by the Z-pinch be directed into a flow of thrust of the kind that would drive a spacecraft? Fusion-pulsed propulsion may one day be practical, but it will take experiments with equipment like the DM2 to help us find out. All this work is obviously in the early stages of development and it won’t be until the spring of next year that high-power testing could begin, assuming the assembly continues to go well and funding is forthcoming. Adams noted that the DM2 facility will also be made available to outside experimenters.

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{ 19 comments }

James M Essig September 17, 2012 at 10:44

Hi Paul;

Just had to stop by to say “Awesome!” regarding the possibility of getting the Icarus payload down to 50 metric tons, and coming to a full stop at Centauri Dreams. I am hoping to live to see the day when design work of the human crewed ISV Centauri Dreams will begin.

Regarding practical fusion, I received a response in an email I recently sent to the ITER project spokesperson that the ITER folks are very confident they will reach their desired goals with the ITER facility. A fusion rocket is merely more or less an open ended nuclear fusion reactor and so I think you folks at the TZF, Project Icarus, and the 100 Year Starship Program will figure it out.

Regards;

Jim

Tony P September 17, 2012 at 11:09

This was discussed at the symposium: I read an article on space.com about how they redid some calculations about the energy requirements of an Alcubierre “warp drive” that requires significantly less power than previously envisioned, putting it in the realm of practicality. It involves using a toroid of exotic matter instead of a flat ring to bring the energy requirements down.

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

James D. Stilwell September 17, 2012 at 11:47

Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say
New calculations suggest we might actually be able to build a warp drive for faster than light travel.

Read More…Space.com….September 17, 2012….JDS

Barry Branham September 17, 2012 at 13:18

Paul, read CD every day, really enjoy it. One way around the no WiFi problem is use a smartphone to create a WiFi ‘hotspot’, i.e. access point and use that WiFi AP from your netbook. I have an android phone with T-Mobile and it works great. If you have phone service.

MattJ September 17, 2012 at 13:32

I thought the track chairs and presenters did an excellent job. This year, as last year, it was difficult to choose between all the great talks. I spent most of my time in the “Time & Distance” sessions, most of the talks were excellent. Of course there were a lot of great conversations in the hall ways and Halo lounge too.

ljk September 17, 2012 at 14:19

Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say

by Clara Moskowitz, SPACE.com Assistant Managing Editor

Date: 17 September 2012 Time: 07:00 AM ET

HOUSTON — A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel — a concept popularized in television’s Star Trek — may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say.

A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light.

A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.

Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially brining the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.

“There is hope,” Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center said here Friday (Sept. 14) at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss the challenges of interstellar spaceflight.

Full article here:

http://www.space.com/17628-warp-drive-possible-interstellar-spaceflight.html

To quote:

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind.

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn’t being warped at all.

“Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light,” explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. “But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light.”

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

william September 17, 2012 at 14:58

A new piece of news:

Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say

By Clara Moskowitz | SPACE.com – 2 hrs 42 mins ago

HOUSTON — A warp drive to achieve faster-than-light travel — a concept popularized in television’s Star Trek — may not be as unrealistic as once thought, scientists say.

A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship, taking advantage of a loophole in the laws of physics that prevent anything from moving faster than light. A concept for a real-life warp drive was suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, however subsequent calculations found that such a device would require prohibitive amounts of energy.

Now physicists say that adjustments can be made to the proposed warp drive that would enable it to run on significantly less energy, potentially brining the idea back from the realm of science fiction into science.

“There is hope,” Harold “Sonny” White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center said here Friday (Sept. 14) at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss the challenges of interstellar spaceflight.

Warping space-time

An Alcubierre warp drive would involve a football-shape spacecraft attached to a large ring encircling it. This ring, potentially made of exotic matter, would cause space-time to warp around the starship, creating a region of contracted space in front of it and expanded space behind. [Star Trek's Warp Drive: Are We There Yet? | Video]

Meanwhile, the starship itself would stay inside a bubble of flat space-time that wasn’t being warped at all.

“Everything within space is restricted by the speed of light,” explained Richard Obousy, president of Icarus Interstellar, a non-profit group of scientists and engineers devoted to pursuing interstellar spaceflight. “But the really cool thing is space-time, the fabric of space, is not limited by the speed of light.”

With this concept, the spacecraft would be able to achieve an effective speed of about 10 times the speed of light, all without breaking the cosmic speed limit.

The only problem is, previous studies estimated the warp drive would require a minimum amount of energy about equal to the mass-energy of the planet Jupiter.

But recently White calculated what would happen if the shape of the ring encircling the spacecraft was adjusted into more of a rounded donut, as opposed to a flat ring. He found in that case, the warp drive could be powered by a mass about the size of a spacecraft like the Voyager 1 probe NASA launched in 1977.

Furthermore, if the intensity of the space warps can be oscillated over time, the energy required is reduced even more, White found.

“The findings I presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation,” White told SPACE.com. “The additional energy reduction realized by oscillating the bubble intensity is an interesting conjecture that we will enjoy looking at in the lab.”

Laboratory tests

White and his colleagues have begun experimenting with a mini version of the warp drive in their laboratory.

They set up what they call the White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer at the Johnson Space Center, essentially creating a laser interferometer that instigates micro versions of space-time warps.

“We’re trying to see if we can generate a very tiny instance of this in a tabletop experiment, to try to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million,” White said.

He called the project a “humble experiment” compared to what would be needed for a real warp drive, but said it represents a promising first step.

And other scientists stressed that even outlandish-sounding ideas, such as the warp drive, need to be considered if humanity is serious about traveling to other stars.

“If we’re ever going to become a true spacefaring civilization, we’re going to have to think outside the box a little bit, were going to have to be a little bit audacious,” Obousy said.

Paul Gilster September 17, 2012 at 15:29

Barry Branham writes:

One way around the no WiFi problem is use a smartphone to create a WiFi ‘hotspot’, i.e. access point and use that WiFi AP from your netbook. I have an android phone with T-Mobile and it works great. If you have phone service.

Good point — I’ll be prepared for this problem next time!

Paul Gilster September 17, 2012 at 15:30

Re Sonny White’s warp drive laboratory studies, which so many of you have noticed in the press, he presented this in the ‘Time and Distance Solutions’ track. I’ve already talked to him about preparing an article for Centauri Dreams on what he and his team are doing at Johnson Space Center. He agreed enthusiastically, so expect more here.

ljk September 17, 2012 at 16:04

Looks like we all jumped on the Warp Drive Bandwagon.

Despite this slimmed-down version, the sticking point remains: What exactly is this “exotic” material? Is it a close relative of unobtanium, computronium, handwavium, and bunchofbalonium?

Ron S September 17, 2012 at 16:11

I’m trying to get my around how it is helpful that we require a smaller amount of unobtainium to construct a warp drive. For sure it is theoretically interesting, but is it useful? Also, exotic matter is not the only problem with the Alcubierre drive. I’ll be very interested in reading that future article Paul is promising.

Paul, if you haven’t done this you should let your netbook (or any Wi-Fi device) sniff for open APs. I am frequently surprised at what’s available (intentional or otherwise) in public spaces and in urban residential areas.

henk September 17, 2012 at 16:51

They finally done it. They warp drive is almost created. This is the best news of the century.

Tony P September 17, 2012 at 17:22

Excellent, thanks Paul. I look forward to reading the article!

coolstar September 17, 2012 at 18:46

Here’s a link to a paper by Ritter’s group on metamaterials for ultra-light telescope mirrors: http://www.niac.usra.edu/files/library/meetings/fellows/mar07/1350Ritter.pdf
Fascinating stuff; my personal guess it that they’re somewhere between ten years and never from actually demonstrating a prototype though. They seem to be getting the engineering ahead of the science. the science seems promising, the engineering mostly science fiction…..

Paul Titze September 17, 2012 at 19:30

Hi Paul,

Thanks for keeping us upto date on the conference great job. Look forward to reading Sonny’s interview and more info on NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratory for Advanced Propulsion Physics Research. Is this a revival of the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Programme at NASA? Sounds like it from Sonny’s paper.

http://www.futureincredible.com/2012/nasa-eagleworks-advanced-propulsion/

I’d be particularly interested on their work on inertia control and quantum vacuum thrusters.

The NASA NTRS server seems to be down however if you google “nasa eagleworks advanced propulsion” then quick view you can access the paper through google.

Cheers, Paul.

Paul Gilster September 17, 2012 at 20:38

Ron S writes:

Paul, if you haven’t done this you should let your netbook (or any Wi-Fi device) sniff for open APs. I am frequently surprised at what’s available (intentional or otherwise) in public spaces and in urban residential areas.

Good idea, but in this case I wasn’t detecting any other networks in that space. I agree with you, though, about how surprisingly available WiFi is getting to be in general.

Eniac September 17, 2012 at 22:08

Paul, I have noticed recently a lot of verbatim reposting of articles, when a link would have sufficed. I wonder if we could discourage this practice, to me it seems like it dilutes the excellent content of these pages unnecessarily.

Eniac September 17, 2012 at 22:11

What exactly is this “exotic” material? Is it a close relative of unobtanium, computronium, handwavium, and bunchofbalonium?

The mother of them all, I’d say.

Paul Gilster September 18, 2012 at 9:12

Eniac writes:

Paul, I have noticed recently a lot of verbatim reposting of articles, when a link would have sufficed. I wonder if we could discourage this practice, to me it seems like it dilutes the excellent content of these pages unnecessarily.

Eniac has a point, so let me get reader reactions to this — would, say, the first paragraph of a story, followed by a link, be preferred to an entire inserted article (this is in the Comments section only)?

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