Interstellar Arrival: Slowing the Sail

by Paul Gilster on November 7, 2014

Some final thoughts on hybrid propulsion will wrap up this series on solar sails, which grew out of ideas I encountered in the new edition of the Matloff, Johnson and Vulpetti book Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel (Copernicus, 2014). The chance to preview the book (publication is slated for later this month) took me in directions I hadn’t anticipated. Solar Sails offers a broad popular treatment of all the sail categories and their history, as you’d expect, but this time through I focused on its four technical chapters on sail theory that helped me review the details.

And because I kept running into the idea of multiple modes of propulsion, my thoughts on avoiding doctrinaire solutions continue to grow. In fact, I’d venture to say that probing into the possibilities of multimodal propulsion may offer a serious opportunity for insights. Centauri Dreams regular Alex Tolley came up with one of these yesterday, asking whether a sail mission to Jupiter space might deploy the planet’s huge magnetic field as an assist. Alex invokes Pekka Janhunen’s ideas about electric sails. Let me quote from the Solar Sails book on what Janhunen has in mind:

Similar to the magsail, this concept uses the solar wind for producing thrust. However, different from the magsail, this sail interacts with the solar plasma via a mesh of long and thin tethers kept at high positive voltage by means of an onboard electron gun. In its baseline configuration, the spacecraft spins and the tethers are tensioned by centrifugal acceleration. It should be possible to control each wire voltage singly, at least to within certain limits.

We get thrust out of this when protons from the solar wind, positively charged, are repelled by the positive voltage of the spacecraft’s tethers, while electrons are captured and ejected — otherwise, their growing numbers would neutralize the voltage in the tether mesh. But Alex also brings to mind Mason Peck’s interesting work at Cornell on miniaturized ‘Sprites,’ tiny chip-like spacecraft that could use the Lorentz force to accelerate in directions perpendicular to the magnetic field. Remember that Jupiter’s magnetic field is 18,000 times stronger than Earth’s, a useful resource if we can tap it even so far as to adjust the orbits of planetary probes.

Alex’s thoughts on the matter deserve to be quoted:

We often think of sail ships as clipper ships – i.e. using large surfaces to capture or direct the wind to move. But modern ships use screws. There have also been numerous wind turbine designs that offer advantages over canvas sails, even if they are not as aesthetic to the eye. (Clipper ships were possibly the most pleasing ship designs ever built). Might we be thinking too much in terms of sails that mimic the romance of traditional sails, rather than designs that might offer better performance, albeit with some aesthetic loss?

Interstellar Arrival

A sense of aesthetics produces pleasing designs but what looks best isn’t always what we need. Back in my flying days some of us used to talk about (and in a few cases actually fly) some of the great aircraft designs of the 1930s and later, and although I never got my hands on the controls of one, a great favorite was the Beech Staggerwing, a gorgeous design with a negative wing stagger, meaning that the lower wing is farther forward than the upper. Designs like this could be sleek and lovely because of the medium they worked in. But spacecraft don’t need wings and streamlined fuselages, and our Voyagers and Cassinis look nothing like the wilder designs of early science fiction because they don’t need to, never encountering a planetary atmosphere.


Image: The Beech Model 17 Staggerwing, first produced in 1932. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A beamed lasersail on its way to Alpha Centauri may be anything but a thing of beauty. Once the mission enters its cruise phase, the sail can be safely stowed, and one good use for it would be to shroud the payload to offer additional protection against radiation. We’re always trying to think of ways to get more value out of existing assets, which is what extended missions are all about. Or think about the Benfords’ JPL work that revealed desorption. No one with an eye for design would come up with painting a desorption layer on a sailcraft, but it’s conceivable that desorption, which is the release of CO2, hydrocarbons and hydrogen from within the manufactured sail as it heats up under the beam, could give an added kick to interplanetary sails being pushed by powerful microwave beams.

Mentioning Forward brings me back around to the ‘staged sail’ concept that he worked out for stopping at another star. The sail has three divisions, as shown in the diagram below, which is taken from his paper on a manned mission to Epsilon Eridani. ‘Staging’ the sail means losing first the outer ring, then the middle one, until only the inner ring is left. In sequence, the spacecraft slows down by using laser light beamed from our Solar System, reflected off the now separated outer sail as it approaches the star — the light is directed back at the two remaining sail segments with payload. Ingenious tinkering let Forward use the second sail detachment as the way the crew got home, with laser light boosting the much smaller inner sail by reflection from the middle segment.


Image: Robert Forward’s staged sail concept. What he calls a ‘paralens’ in the diagram is an enormous Fresnel lens in the outer Solar System, made of concentric rings of lightweight, transparent material with free space between the rings. Credit: Robert Forward.

Staged sails are hard to see as anything but a longshot — the success of the mission depends not only upon perfect execution of the staging process but, crucially, upon the laser beam from Earth being able to illuminate the sail segments effectively. Forward was fully aware of the possibilities here, and you can find discussion in places like his novel Rocheworld (Baen, 1990) about how politics on Earth might affect the use of the expensive beam. I for one wouldn’t want to put my life in the hands of a design like this, which depends so crucially upon decisions made far from the spacecraft.

Interestingly, like Mason Peck, Forward had some thoughts on how we might use the Lorentz force as well. Remember that a charged object moving through a magnetic field experiences this force at right angles to its direction of motion and the magnetic field itself. Out of this you get ‘thrustless turning,’ which both Forward and Philip Norem thought could be used for deceleration. Instead of staged sails, you get an electrostatically charged probe — think of Janhunen’s electric sail tethers — on a trajectory that goes well beyond the target star. The spacecraft’s interactions with the galactic magnetic field bend its trajectory so that it approaches the target from behind.

Once it’s inbound to the destination system, a laser beam from Earth can be turned upon it to slow it down for arrival. The idea is anything but aesthetic, just as the Janhunen sail would look like something closer to a porcupine than the silvery lozenge of an early SF starship. It’s also hampered by the fact that mission times, already measured in decades at minimum, are tripled with the use of this maneuver. I should mention that Solar Sails authors Gregory Matloff and Les Johnson have also explored the uses of electrodynamic tethers to supply power to an Alpha Centauri expedition, even if a Norem-style arrival seems too lengthy.

Creative thinking about these matters often springs from putting two or more solutions together to see what can happen. What I’ve always admired about the interstellar community is its ability to re-examine older concepts to look for interesting cross-pollination of ideas. As we move into the era of increasingly tiny components, it’s heartening to think how many designs will be affected by new nanotechnological possibilities. Mason Peck has talked about using Jupiter’s magnetic field to spew thousands of ‘Sprites’ out on interstellar trajectories. What else can we imagine as we look for extended uses of existing tech and ponder where they might lead us?

Forward’s paper on staged sails is “Roundtrip Interstellar Travel Using Laser-Pushed Lightsails,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 21 (1984), pp. 187-195. The Norem paper is “Interstellar Travel: A Round Trip Propulsion System with Relativistic Capabilities,” AAS 69-388 (June, 1969). Forward’s paper on Lorentz force turning is “Zero-Thrust Velocity Vector Control for Interstellar Probes: Lorentz Force Navigation and Circling,” AIAA Journal 2 (1964), pp. 885-889. Matloff and Johnson discuss electrodynamic tethers in “Applications of the Electrodynamic Tether to Interstellar Travel,” JBIS 58 (June, 2005), pp. 398-402.



Hybrid Strategies for Deep Space

by Paul Gilster on November 6, 2014

On Monday I touched on the topic of multi-modal spacecraft, wondering whether future deep space missions might carry twin or even triple systems of propulsion. The example I want to tinker with is an interstellar craft driven by beamed energy, akin to some of Robert Forward’s designs in the 1980s. Forward went through enormous challenges trying to decelerate at the destination, though as we’ll see, he did come up with more than one solution.

A beamed laser sailcraft runs into this problem because the power source is in a close solar orbit, while the craft is reaching speeds that make a human crossing to another star possible. How to slow it down from behind? Deceleration is going to take a long time no matter what the method, but if we factor in a second mode of propulsion, a magnetic sail, we can brake against the destination star’s stellar wind. I mentioned on Monday as well that the Venture Star, the starship that got James Cameron’s crew to Alpha Centauri in the film Avatar, was depicted as a hybrid craft, with a Forward-style beamed lightsail to reach cruise and antimatter engines to slow upon arrival.

The Venture Star’s braking strategy involves the annihilation of matter and antimatter to heat up hydrogen propellant for thrust. Cameron’s use of enormous heat radiators also marks this craft, an indication that he tried for scientific accuracy where he could — Robert Frisbee is only one of the scientists who have noted the need to dissipate the heat from matter/antimatter reactions, and he was echoing the prescient Les Shepherd, who wrote about the issue back in 1952.


Image: The Venture Star wins points for accuracy in the details. Winchell Chung has a fine breakdown of its systems on his Project Rho site. Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Near-Term Steps

Hybrid ideas for spacecraft don’t have to wait for science fictional futures, because we’re already seeing interesting steps in this direction. When the Japanese space agency JAXA successfully launched and operated the IKAROS space sail, it demonstrated a unique system of spacecraft control. The liquid crystal films located near the edges of the sail were installed for attitude control. Their reflectivity could be altered by applying a voltage to the strips. Experimenting with the method in 2010, JAXA successfully demonstrated attitude control torque using the method, an adjustment of reflectivity that bodes well for future hybrid methods.

There are various ways of manipulating a sailcraft’s attitude, all of them analyzed mathematically in Giovanni Vulpetti’s book Fast Solar Sailing (Springer, 2012), one of them being the change in reflectance used on IKAROS. I won’t get into the details, though you can find them in the book I’ve been tapping this week for ideas, Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, soon to be released by Springer in its second edition.

Manipulating vanes on a segmented sail, using small sails at the boom ends of the spacecraft, even the use of small rockets has been suggested. But sail reflectance and its alteration point us in new directions. Let me quote from Solar Sails on this:

The concept of thrust maneuvering for solar-photon sails is…more general than sail attitude control via mechanical actuators of conventional and/or advanced type. The above-mentioned experiment on IKAROS appears as a special device opening a new ‘seam’ of very advanced spacecraft.

How we can use changes in reflectance to alter solar sail trajectories in space is now under investigation at the University of Rome, a goal being to develop a comprehensive thrust model. That’s interesting stuff, because multiple attitude control systems give every indication of being both efficient and more fault-tolerant, since you’re carrying a backup system on-board. The suspicion here is that we’ve only begun to realize how these methods may affect future propulsion strategies as well. But it may be that JAXA is thinking well ahead on this matter.


Image: The IKAROS sail, a hybrid design with attached solar cells. Note the solar cells in blue, used to change the spacecraft’s attitude. Credit: JAXA.

For IKAROS has already demonstrated sail deployment, attitude control and maneuverability, as well as showing — with its on-board gamma-ray burst detector — the ability of sails to serve as a platform for science missions. Scaling up such missions for further testing lies ahead, and the success of IKAROS has spurred the agency to continue with an ambitious sail mission to Jupiter that could be launched as early as 2020. Here we’re talking about another hybrid design, one that would use gravitational assists, a solar sail, and an ion engine to explore Jupiter’s magnetosphere, with an additional task of a flyby of at least one of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids.

So we’re combining propulsive methods in this mission, one that should build our experience with the kind of maneuvering that may one day be used on ‘Sundiver’ missions that perform close flybys of the Sun. Called the Jupiter Magnetosphere Orbiter (JMO), the mission’s sail will upgrade the original IKAROS. Based on what has been published so far, it will be a square sail that measures about 100 meters to the side and like IKAROS will use a 7.5 micron polyimide for the sail material. The mass of sail and associated structure including inflatable booms should be in the range of 150 kilograms, with a total mass (including payload) in the range of 250 kilograms.

The Interstellar Hybrid

Giovanni Vulpetti’s name has kept coming up with respect to multi-modal propulsion because as I’ve investigated the concept, I’ve realized he has been studying what he calls ‘multiple propulsion mode’ for many years. At the end of this post I give references for two papers on the matter, the first (“Multiple Propulsion Concept: Theory and Performance”) dating back as far as 1979. In 1992, Vulpetti discussed a deep space vehicle driven by nuclear ion propulsion and a solar sail, much like the JMO spacecraft, at the first World Space Congress in Washington, DC.

The concept here is staging, but instead of coupling stages that each use the same propulsion strategy, we’ll use entirely different propulsion techniques. Staged propulsion spacecraft (this is Vulpetti’s term) are more or less forced upon us as we ponder the complexities of interstellar missions. Gregory Matloff, a fellow author of Vulpetti and Les Johnson on the Solar Sails book, was able to get mission times to Alpha Centauri — for a solar sail using a sundiver approach to the Sun — down to roughly 1000 years in papers he wrote for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in the 1980s. But solar sails are efficient only near a star. Can we use a solar sail by itself for needed deceleration?

More likely is the scenario where a sail or fusion-powered starship at least supplements its primary propulsion with something like a magnetic sail for years-long braking against the stellar wind in the destination system. [Addendum: As noted in the comments, braking against a stellar wind won't be a 'years-long' process because at these speeds the probe would cross the heliosphere within days. I was really thinking about braking against the interstellar medium, an idea that grows out of Bussard's ramscoop ideas and the drag they have been found to create]. Tomorrow I’ll mention some of Robert Forward’s notions about the deceleration dilemma including staged sails, and explore other options, which hybrid missions seem to trump.

Giovanni Vulpetti’s papers on hybrid spacecraft include “Multiple Propulsion Concept: Theory and Performance,” JBIS 32 (June, 1979), pp. 209-214; and “Multiple Propulsion Concept for Interstellar Flight: General Theory and Basic Results,” JBIS 43 (December, 1990).



A Near-Term Sail Niche

by Paul Gilster on November 5, 2014

When Les Johnson spoke to a session on sail technologies at the 100 Year Starship symposium in Houston last September, he startled some in the audience by going through a list of how many solar sail missions are now in the works. The European Space Agency’s Gossamer program accounts for one of these, which is already built and waiting for launch, but three are in the pipeline. The University of Surrey (UK) is a surprisingly active entrant, with three CubeSat sails set for flight in the next three years. We also have the Planetary Society’s LightSail to contend with, a CubeSat design with a 32 square meter sail when deployed.


There are other missions as well, with names like NEA [Near Earth Asteroid] Scout, Lunar Flashlight, and although it is now in limbo at least for several years, NASA’s Sunjammer. The surge in interest in CubeSats is hard to miss here. They’re cheap, small, and ideal for trying out sail experiments as we try to figure out how best to use this technology in space. Master it and we have the possibility of sail-driven CubeSat missions sent deep into the Solar System, carrying miniaturized payloads and perhaps flown in ‘swarm’ configuration. And of course the lessons we learn should scale to the larger sails we hope to fly as we build expertise.

Image: The European Space Agency’s Gossamer sail in an artist’s visualization. Credit: ESA/DLR.

Johnson is deputy manager for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. He’s also an active writer of science fiction, most recently portraying — in a novel called Rescue Mode — a Mars mission’s crew on a crippled ship locked in a struggle for survival. Somehow he also finds time to write non-fiction, bringing his formidable background in space technology to bear in Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, which I’m examining this week as part of a series on sailcraft and their uses. A look at his Amazon offerings illustrates just how prolific Johnson has been in the past decade. [Note: I’m not going to link to the Solar Sails book again until the new edition is available, which should be soon].

Missions in the Near Term

Creating public interest in space is crucial for beginning the gradual spread into the Solar System that some of us think will lead to an infrastructure that can support eventual interstellar missions. After all, we’re asking government, which that same public funds, to play a major role here, even as we also explore what commercial initiatives can achieve. So it’s helpful to keep in mind that technologies have their particular niches. As we talk about multi-modal technologies tomorrow, we’ll consider the fact in greater detail. We’ll never get off the ground with a solar sail — we need rockets for that — but there are missions that even the best rocket design cannot fly.

We know from Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation that carrying more and more propellant gets to be a non-starter, because soon we’re adding propellant just to push more propellant. Here a solar sail can offer unique opportunities. Suppose, for example, that we want to observe what’s going on at the Sun’s poles. Missions we’ve launched Sunward have tended to stay in the ecliptic because that’s where Earth is, which means we have limited views even of the mid-latitude regions.

From the long-term perspective that Centauri Dreams takes, the solar wind might offer propulsive possibilities for various magnetic sail designs. But we have to reckon with the fact that we don’t understand it well. This stream of charged particles can flow outward from the Sun’s equatorial regions at 400 kilometers per second, but much faster streams, up to 800 kilometers per second, seem to originate in the mid to upper latitude regions. This is just one of the things we’d like to study in addition to the factors that lead to solar plasma outbursts.

A highly inclined orbit around the Sun is a tough challenge for chemical rockets, but it’s realistic to design a Solar Polar Imager sailcraft that can take advantage of the sharp increase in photon ‘push’ available to it at 0.5 AU. Remember, it’s an inverse square law, so that if we halve the distance between Earth and the Sun, we get four times the solar flux on the sail. One mission concept under study calls for a square, 3-axis stabilized sail about 150 meters on the side.

Many sail concepts involve close study of the Sun, including missions to warn of solar storms. Consider that coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can crank out accelerated particles with a speed of ejection up to 1000 kilometers per second, a serious ‘gust’ in the solar wind. Protecting our current infrastructure involves shielding the satellite assets we rely on, including the GPS system and the telecommunications satellites that drive cable TV systems. Adequate warning means these can be powered down in the event of a solar storm, and reoriented to put as much onboard spacecraft mass as possible between key systems and incoming radiation.


Image: Solar flares and CMEs are currently the biggest “explosions” in our solar system, roughly approaching the power in one billion hydrogen bombs. Fast CMEs occur more often near the peak of the 11-year solar cycle, and can trigger major disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere. Credit: NASA/GSFC.

The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft is located at the L1 Lagrange point some 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where it monitors the Sun for dangerous events. But the lead time for any warning is short, which emphasizes the need for a sailcraft that can be positioned between the Sun and the Earth. The current mission concept is called Heliostorm. It would use a square sail 70 meters to the side. A more advanced version with a circular sail 230 meters in radius could orbit the Sun at 0.70 AU, maintaining a direct line between Sun and Earth. Our solar storm warning time would go from the current one hour to between 16 and 31 hours.

Or consider the Mars sample return. It’s a high-priority item for astrobiology as we continue to learn about the Red Planet’s interesting past, but the fuel required not only to get our spacecraft to Mars but also to land, launch and return the sample is a demanding barrier to overcome. Instead, we can consider a lander sent to Mars by conventional rocket, one that collects the needed samples and returns them to Mars orbit. There we rendezvous with a sailcraft above Mars, eliminating the propellant mass we’d have otherwise needed for the return.

The list could go on, from ‘pole sitters’ that use solar photons to maintain a position over one of the Earth’s poles — useful for weather and environmental monitoring — to near earth asteroid reconnaissance, where sail propulsion allows a spacecraft to visit multiple NEA’s. The latter is a technology that couples nicely with the growing use of cubesats and miniaturized components, helping us characterize nearby asteroids in large numbers with swarm missions. I should mention too that a mission called L-1 Diamond is being examined that would use four sailcraft to study the Sun, orbiting it in a triangular formation with the fourth looking down at the pole.

So the range of missions is wide, and it extends as we gain expertise with sailcraft into ‘Sundiver’ missions of the sort that Gregory Matloff began writing about in the 1980s (an idea originally hatched by David Brin and Gregory Benford), which could lead to missions to the gravitational lens (550 AU) and even the Oort Cloud. One of the Solar Sails authors, Giovanni Vulpetti, has explored fast outer system missions in a 2012 book called Fast Solar Sailing (Springer). As our infrastructure builds, sail ‘clippers’ to Mars and other closer destinations may begin to supply distant colonists with the supplies they need.

One day, too, a large solar sail could conceivably be deployed near an asteroid on a dangerous trajectory, changing its reflectivity enough to alter its orbit over the course of decades. It’s a thought that takes me back to the Russian Znamya missions, ostensibly tests of a space mirror that might light Siberian cities at night, but for all intents and purposes a deployment shakeout of sail technologies. The potential of sails for interstellar missions continues to intrigue me, and I’ll be talking about sails and multi-modal propulsion designs for starships tomorrow. But building up our near-Earth infrastructure may be most economically served by near-term sails that can return data and haul supplies to support a civilization with a very deep frontier in mind.



Sailcraft: Concepts, Design, Lab Work

by Paul Gilster on November 4, 2014

Although we can trace the growth of research into interstellar flight all the way back to the days of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the effort has often operated outside of government channels. Scientists and engineers whose day job might take in aspects of rocketry were hard pressed to find time for studying trips to the stars when the proximate needs were better communications satellites or improved designs for reaching low Earth orbit. Nonetheless, work continued, marked by the enthusiasm of the practitioners for what was clearly the ultimate mission. Official or unofficial, small groups hammering on ideas have continued to debate the core concepts.

When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena turned Aden and Marjorie Meinel loose on a mission concept aimed at reaching 1000 AU back in the 1970s, the duo looked at two propulsion options. As the new edition of Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel (Copernicus, 2014) points out, the first of these was a nuclear-electric ion drive using xenon. But the Meinels also evaluated the use of a solar sail unfurled near the Sun. It’s interesting to read here that Chauncey Uphoff, senior analyst on the propulsion phase, was unable to publish the results of the sail study, which wound up circulating only as an internal memo within NASA. [Note: The link above goes to the first edition of this book. The new edition is scheduled for publication within the next few weeks. I advise waiting for it.]

Uphoff’s memo considered the solar sail as an alternative propulsion method, and even if this particular deep space sail concept remained out of view, the efforts of Gregory Matloff and Eugene Mallove soon brought interstellar missions using solar sails to the attention of the community. One of the three authors of Solar Sails, Matloff went to work on what might be done with a close solar pass and sail deployment (partial or complete) at perihelion. He and Mallove evaluated space-manufactured metal sails closing to within 0.04 AU of the Sun’s center, with cables approximating the tensile strength of industrial diamond.

Much of this work was published in the 1980s in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, focusing not on beamed laser sails (Robert Forward’s theme) but solar sails using solely the momentum imparted by solar photons. A sail like this, once outbound, could wind cable and sail around the habitat section to provide shielding against cosmic rays. Even a large payload might be accelerated to speeds allowing a trip to Alpha Centauri in 1000 years. Matloff’s 1984 paper “Solar Sail Starships – The Clipper Ships of the Galaxy” (JBIS 34, 371-380) is a classic that he and Mallove would soon update not only in optimization studies in JBIS but also in popular texts like The Starflight Handbook (1989).

The Italian Sail Effort

But back to the theme of small-scale collaborations, from which the interstellar community has for so long benefited. It was back in 1993 at the International Astronautical Congress in Graz, Austria that a small group of solar sail enthusiasts gathered to organize a study of the technology. The study group that emerged was dubbed the Aurora Collaboration, a nod to Greek mythology, in which Aurora was the younger sister of Helios, the god of the Sun. Matloff was one of the core seven behind this collaboration, as was Giovanni Vulpetti, who became team coordinator. Other names familiar to Centauri Dreams readers will be FOCAL mission advocate Claudio Maccone and engineer and author Giancarlo Genta.


Image: Artist’s conception of a solar sail in space. Credit: Rick Sternbach.

Excellent work can come out of highly motivated small groups like these, and I think the Aurora effort deserves greater attention than it has received. Fifteen published papers emerged from its labors, with three presentations to European space agencies and a workshop held at the University of Rome. Computer code for optimizing sail trajectories, experimental work on layered sail construction (a plastic substrate that can be detached once the sail has been constructed in space), and a number of deployment concepts resulted. The collaboration also studied telecommunications systems, analyzed aluminum sail optical properties, and optimized trajectories for potential missions to near interstellar space and the Sun’s gravitational lens.

The latter deserves a note: The gravitational well created by the Sun’s mass causes light to curve as it grazes the Sun from an object directly behind it (as seen by the observer). The resulting lensing effect is promising for observations at various wavelengths, which is where we get the idea of a FOCAL mission to the focus beginning at 550 AU. What the Aurora team did — with results presented at a meeting of the International Academy of Astronautics in Turin, Italy in 1996 — was to produce preliminary results for a less demanding mission, a sail to the heliopause. The team members presented a thin-film 250-meter square sail and analyzed ways of reducing the sail areal mass thickness, as well as exploring communications options and offering a structural analysis.

The Aurora team’s sail would act as a bridge between the Voyager probes ( the Aurora spacecraft would exit the system about three times faster than Voyager) and later deep space designs. Massing 150 kg, it would use a close solar pass for acceleration and its target was a more manageable (in the near term) 50 to 100 AU. Without benefit of press coverage or large amounts of funding, the Aurora Collaboration moved the ball forward through serious volunteer efforts of the kind the interstellar community has always relied on.

Beamed Sail Experiments

As we go through the papers groups like these create, it’s easy to think of the interstellar effort as being almost entirely theoretical. But laboratory work on some of these technologies goes back a long way, and we can trace early sail studies in the lab to the work of Russian physicist Peter Lebedev in 1899, who experimented with metal sheets of differing levels of reflectivity to measure the effect of the exchange of momentum from photons. I mentioned above the Aurora Collaboration’s experimental work on layered sail construction, and in the early years of the 21st Century, Gregory and James Benford studied beamed sail technologies in a JPL lab.

Their findings are important as we move from straightforward solar sailing to the beamed variant that Robert Forward studied both for microwave and laser designs. As president of Microwave Sciences in Lafayette, CA, James Benford’s experience with microwaves led him to join with brother Gregory, a physicist and well-known science fiction writer, to use advances in materials technologies to attempt these laboratory experiments. Temperature was a key here: Working on Earth’s surface, a sail would have to overcome gravity, and to do that, the sail materials would need to be heated to temperatures higher than 1500 degrees Celsius.


Aluminum can’t handle that kind of punishment (its melting temperature is 660 degrees Celsius), and the problem persists with many potential metal sails. But carbon undergoes sublimation at temperatures above 3000 degrees Celsius, making the emergence of lightweight carbon structures as potential sail experiments the key. The Benfords used a 10-square centimeter sail in a vacuum chamber, demonstrating acceleration under a 10-kilowatt, 7 GHz microwave beam. Their sails remained intact after experiencing temperatures up to 1725 degrees Celsius.

The carbon microtruss used in the JPL work, developed by San Diego’s Energy Science Research Laboratories and ten times thinner than a human hair, handled the heat requirement with ease. In fact, the Benfords were able to observe accelerations of several gravities in their tests. They also saw a phenomenon known as ‘desorption,’ in which the rapid heating from the microwave beam evaporates molecules — CO2, hydrocarbons and hydrogen — incorporated into the sail during the manufacturing process, adding an interesting second source of acceleration to a sail. A carefully applied layer of compounds painted onto a sail thus creates a propulsive layer of its own.

Image: Carbon disk sail lifting off of truncated rectangular waveguide under 10 kW microwave power (four frames, 30 ms interval, first at top). Credit: James and Gregory Benford.

Solar Sails notes the desorption findings, but the Benfords produced a result that I consider far more valuable. Their experiments have demonstrated that the pressure of a microwave beam will keep a concave-shaped sail in tension. The beam is itself producing a sideways restoring force. The terminology here is ‘beam-riding,’ and in the case of future sail designs, it means that a properly shaped sail will be stable under the intense beam that drives it.

Moreover, it becomes clear from this laboratory work that the beam can carry angular momentum which it can communicate to the sail. We have, then, a mechanism for allowing ground-based controllers to stabilize a beamed sail against yaw and drift. This important finding grows out of comparatively inexpensive experiment and meshes with ongoing efforts to study the deployment and control of conventional solar sails. What we are seeing is a technology track that holds the promise for space missions on both an interplanetary and interstellar scale.

Tomorrow I’ll continue this series on solar sail and beamed sailcraft with a look at near-term sail concepts discussed in Solar Sails and the mission needs that drive them.



An Updated Look at Space Sailing

by Paul Gilster on November 3, 2014

It was back in 2008 that Copernicus Books published an excellent introduction and reference to space sail technologies. Now the work of Gregory Matloff, Giovanni Vulpetti and Les Johnson, Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel is about to be released in a new edition that I’ve been reviewing for the past month (Note: the 2nd edition is not yet up on the book sites, but publication is slated for later in November). The new version preserves the older edition’s structure but inserts three new chapters covering recent developments, one of which — the cancellation of the Sunjammer sail mission — is too current to have made it into the text. [Addendum: My mistake! Although the text I saw didn’t have the Sunjammer news, Les Johnson tells me that the authors were able to insert it into the final version].

So let’s start with that to get up to speed, and then I want to use Solar Sails as a guide through a series of posts covering not just sails themselves, their variants and their potential missions, but their relationship to an emerging interplanetary and even interstellar framework. The new edition is made to order for that, because in addition to providing the needed background to get any newcomer up to speed on how sails operate, it takes pains to contrast sail technologies with conventional rockets as well as other deep space concepts.

But first, Sunjammer, which you can read about in an article with the woeful title NASA Nixes Sunjammer Mission, Cites Integration, Schedule Risk in SpaceNews. Here we learn from writer Dan Leone that NASA has given up on flying the Sunjammer sail in 2015. The 1200 square-meter sail was under development at L’Garde in Tustin, CA, which according to the article will be laying off about half its employees in the near future. I won’t get into the details of Leone’s article, but the upshot is that we’ll likely see no Sunjammer launch before 2018.

SpaceNews quotes an email from congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) to this effect:

“Obviously, I’m very disappointed that we won’t complete this… We never seem to be able to afford these small technology development projects that can have potentially huge impacts … but we can find billions and billions of dollars to build a massive launch vehicle with no payloads, and no missions,” he said, referring to NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.


Image: Artist’s conception of a solar sail above the Earth. This supple technology has numerous near-Earth benefits but scales well to missions to the outer Solar System and beyond. Credit: NASA.

Small Missions with Big Advantages

At this stage of the game, solar sails are indeed small technology projects with potentially big impacts, and a look through Solar Sails confirms the case that this technology is both ready to fly and possessed of certain key advantages over chemical rockets. We can’t launch them from Earth, so we need chemical rockets to get them into an orbit from which they can be deployed, but once there, sails need to carry no propellant themselves. We can leave behind not just the safety concerns about solid or liquid rocket boosters but also the sheer complexity of the engine, and the extreme situations it must be harnessed to overcome.

All of this can get touchy when we’re operating on Earth — The Space Shuttle’s main engine, says NASA, “operates at greater temperature extremes than any mechanical system in common use today,” and indeed, we can look at the temperature contrasts in such an engine, from down to 20 degrees Kelvin (the temperature of liquid hydrogen fuel) all the way up to 3600 degrees K in the engine’s combustion chamber when the hydrogen burns with liquid oxygen.

But the deep space situation is likewise problematic. A probe to another planet has the same need to store, pump and mix liquid fuel with an oxidizer, but it must also rely on pumps and other internals that have been in a state of storage for up to years at a time. Let me quote the book on a telling case in point:

In 2004, the rocket engine used by the Cassini spacecraft to enter into Saturn’s orbit had to fire for more than 90 minutes after being mostly dormant since its launch 7 years previously. The engine performed as designed, but as Project Manager Bob Mitchell is quoted as saying before the engine was ignited: “We’re about to go through our second hair-graying event… Todd Barber, Cassini’s leader for the propulsion system, called that system “a plumber’s nightmare.” So complicated was the engine that a complete backup was launched onboard in case the primary were to fail… The mass required for the spare engine might have been used to accommodate more science instruments.

None of this is to downplay the need for basic rocketry to get us to Earth orbit, but a case for continued, and ramped up, experimentation with solar sails is certainly there. When we’re contemplating missions to the outer Solar System and beyond, we have to look at the rocket equation developed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, which has governed everything we do with these tools. It tells us that a rocket gains speed linearly as its starting mass of propellant rises exponentially. So if we keep adding more fuel to get where we want to go faster, we demand still more fuel, in exponential fashion, just to push the mass of the fuel we added in the first place.

The case space scientists will have to continue to make is that sails are not just exotic attempts to mimic the great sailing ships of old (although the analogy is delightful and often tapped by sail theorists). Instead, by carrying no propellant, the sail gets us around the rocket equation entirely. We wind up with tiny thrust delivered, in the case of solar sails, by the momentum imparted by photons from the Sun. Small thrust over time builds continuously, allowing the slowly-starting sail to gradually overtake the probe hurled along the same trajectory by a chemical rocket.

Sunlight drops sharply as we move toward the outer Solar System, and indeed, by the time we’ve reached the orbit of Jupiter, our sail is experiencing a severe shortage of solar photons. But if we turn our attention to deep space, we have the option of beaming energy to the sail through laser or microwave methods that can compensate for the loss. In fact, some of the designs for beamed sails offer us interstellar options, trips to nearby stars within decades, at the cost of building a Solar System-wide economy that can afford the needed power stations. Solar Sails explores these options in detail, as we’ll see later this week.

Enter the Multi-Modal Mission

Just how and where to deploy solar sails on interplanetary missions? We know that at the distance of the Earth from the Sun, the solar flux is on the order of 1.4 kilowatts per square meter, which works out to being nine orders of magnitude weaker than the force of the wind on the Earth’s surface. You can see why sails have to be both lightweight and large. We also know that the light impinging on the sail varies inversely by the square of the distance from the Sun. This is why the Japanese space agency JAXA, which pulled off the successful IKAROS sail mission, is looking at a Jupiter mission using not just a solar sail but ion propulsion. The sail gets you to interplanetary speeds but the ion engine will be fully efficient at 5 AU and beyond.

When I wrote Centauri Dreams (the book), I speculated that a true interstellar mission might be likewise reliant on more than one propulsion technology. A laser-beamed lightsail might, for example, deploy a magnetic sail using a lightweight but immense superconductor loop to brake against a destination star’s stellar wind upon arrival. The idea of multi-modal propulsion was hardly original with me. In fact, Giovanni Vulpetti had been talking about such an idea for some time, and in Solar Sails refers to it as ‘multiple propulsion mode.’ Film director James Cameron also picked up on the concept in 2009’s Avatar, in which the starship Venture Star uses both antimatter technologies as well as a laser-driven lightsail. Hollywood had never before shown such an interesting starship idea.

Tomorrow I want to look not just at interstellar sail theory but in particular at some of the private initiatives that have pushed sail design forward, in particular the Aurora Collaboration in Italy (both Vulpetti and author Gregory Matloff were key players here, with Vulpetti serving as team coordinator), and the laboratory work accomplished by James and Gregory Benford at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where core beamed sail ideas were put to the test.



Driggers on The Space Show

by Paul Gilster on November 2, 2014


Aerospace engineer and science fiction novelist Gerald Driggers will be a guest on The Space Show, hosted by David Livingston, tomorrow (Monday) at 5 PM Eastern US time (2200 UTC). You can listen to the show here. Centauri Dreams readers know Gerald as a champion of space colonization efforts going back to the days of the L-5 Society in the 1960s and 1970s, but of late he’s been chronicling our prospects on Mars with novels like The Earth-Mars Chronicles Vol. 1 Hope for Humanity. He’s also just released an Amazon short called Butterscotch Dawn. On Livingston’s show, expect discussion of the large-scale settlement of Mars and the role of the Red Planet in our species’ colonization of the larger Solar System. The show will be archived at



Replenishing a Proto-Planetary Disk

by Paul Gilster on October 31, 2014

Because building an economically sustainable infrastructure in the Solar System is crucial for the development of interstellar flight, I was interested to learn about a game called High Frontier, which looks to combine O’Neill habitats with a steady expansion of our species outward. Have a look at the Kickstarter campaign page if the idea of modeling space colonies as an extension of human civilization appeals to you. High Frontier seems to be a chance to get involved in game creation from the ground up to create models of how a starfaring culture might grow.

I’ve never gotten involved in gaming, but I can see the potential for education in games that accurately model complex economies or cultural interactions. In the case of deep space scenarios, it’s possible to model an interstellar mission that does not rely on an established infrastructure. Indeed, we just looked at one in Dana Andrews’ recent paper, which asks how a mission without such resources could be mounted. But building a system-wide economy that can sustain an interstellar effort and tunes up the basic technologies seems like the most likely outcome, and I’m all for exploring the various scenarios within which that could occur.

Back to the Exoplanet Chase

As we build infrastructures, whether in simulations or in reality, we keep looking outward at potential targets for exploration, and at stellar systems that tell us more about how planets form. The news about a multiple-star system called GG Tauri-A, some 450 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus, is intriguing. This is a system with a large, circumbinary outer disk as well as a second, inner disk around one of the two binary components. The inner disk is losing material to its star at a rate that should have made it disappear a long time ago.

Artist’s impression of the double-star system GG Tauri-A

Image: Artist’s impression of the double-star system GG Tauri-A. Credit: ESO.

A research team led by Anne Dutrey (Laboratory of Astrophysics of Bordeaux and CNRS) used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in new observations of the dust and gas dispersed in the GG Tau-A system. What has turned up are clumps of gas flowing between the outer and inner disk, replenishing and sustaining the latter. Here’s Dutrey’s comment on the finding:

“Material flowing through the cavity was predicted by computer simulations but has not been imaged before. Detecting these clumps indicates that material is moving between the discs, allowing one to feed off the other. These observations demonstrate that material from the outer disc can sustain the inner disc for a long time. This has major consequences for potential planet formation.”

Indeed, it’s an interesting situation. In close binaries, we might expect to find a circumstellar disk around each star, and an outer circumbinary disk around both. The paper makes the case that inner disks should be depleted on timescales of no more than a few thousand years as their material is accreted onto the parent star. Here we’re seeing a replenishment process that heightens the possibility of planet formation by continually feeding this region with new materials.

This isn’t the first time that a gas flow between two disk systems — or between gaps within a single disk — has been found. Around the young star HD 142527, Simon Casassus (Universidad de Chile, Chile) and colleagues found streams of gas flowing across such a gap and described it in a paper published in 2013. At HD 142527, the inner disk extends to about 10 AU, with the outer disk about 14 times further out. As with GG Tau-A, these findings were made with ALMA.

We’re looking at a mechanism that could play a significant role in planet formation around both single and binary stars. The paper summarizes the finding, noting that the outer ring shows a distinctive ‘puffed-up’ rim which the researchers think could be caused by stellar heating:

Our observations demonstrate that active replenishment from the outer disk can sustain the circumprimary disc surrounding GG Tau-Aa beyond accretion lifetime, increasing its potential for planet formation. The presence of the condensation at the inner edge of the outer ring is puzzling and needs further investigations to determine its links with accretion processes and possible planet formation. Since almost half of Sun-like stars were born in multiple systems, our observations provide a step towards understanding the true complexity of protoplanetary discs in multiple stellar systems and unveiling planet formation mechanisms for a significant fraction of stellar systems in our Galaxy.

Notice the reference to GG Tau-Aa above. GG Tau-A is part of a still more complex star system known as GG Tauri. This ESO news release points out that recent observations of the multiple star system show that one of its stars — GG Tau Ab, the one that is not surrounded by a disk — is itself a close binary, consisting of GG Tau-Ab1 and GG Tau-Ab2. Beneath the cumbersome nomenclature is the fact that we have identified five objects altogether in the GG Tauri system.

The paper is Dutrey et al., “Planet formation in the young, low-mass multiple stellar system GG Tau-A,” Nature 514 (30 October 2014), pp. 600-602 (abstract).



A Test Case for Astroengineering

by Paul Gilster on October 30, 2014

Last year the New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology program, set up by the John Templeton Foundation as a grant-awarding organization, dispensed three grants with a bearing on what Clément Vidal calls ‘Zen SETI.’ The idea of looking into our astronomical data and making new observations to track possible signs of an extraterrestrial civilization at work is not new, and yesterday we looked at Freeman Dyson’s early contribution. Carl Sagan and Josif Shklovskii are also among those in a lineage we can extend back at least to the early 20th Century.

The recent grants show a gathering momentum for extending SETI in new directions. The team of Jason Wright (Pennsylvania State) and colleagues Steinn Sigurðsson and Matthew Povich is embarking on a hunt for Dyson spheres, which if observed in a distant galaxy colonized by a Kardashev Type III civilization, should throw an unmistakable signature in the infrared. Could we find such an object in our data from WISE, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer satellite?

Or how about Kepler? Lucianne Walkowicz at Princeton was a winner of one of the 2013 grants, looking for hints of technology — of artificiality — around distant stars. The third recipient was exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy (UC-Berkeley), working with Andrew Howard (University of Hawaii) and John Johnson (Caltech) on data from Kepler. When Clément Vidal writes about SETI as an observing rather than a communications program (in The Beginning and the End (Springer, 2014), he gives a powerful boost to the principles behind such searches.

Vidal’s book is rich and densely textured, which is why what I’ve tried to do in the last few days is to extract a few core ideas in the area most related to what we do here on Centauri Dreams. The early chapters are primarily concerned with building a worldview that is consistent with the latest thinking in cosmology, and Vidal speculates as well not only on multiverse theories but on a role for life in the cosmos that includes cosmogenesis, the creation of new universes. Olaf Stapledon immediately comes to mind because Vidal’s ambitious lunge into new intellectual terrain reminds me so much of the British writer. He would be at home with Vidal’s ideas of a cosmological artificial selection, one that draws on and extends ideas originally put forward by another deeply creative thinker, Lee Smolin.

Black Holes and their Uses

What can we, for example, say about black holes in a SETI context? For one thing, they form what would surely be the most powerful gravitational lensing opportunity available. Claudio Maccone has written about the potential of the central black hole in galaxies like the Milky Way becoming surrounded by a swarm of observing stations aligned with targets throughout the universe. For that matter, the lensing of electromagnetic radiation around a black hole is so intense that a communications channel could be set up for intergalactic distances (waiting out the answer is a different problem).

But black holes offer more than this. As the densest known objects in the universe, they can meet the needs of a Type III civilization faced with a continuing demand to support its energy consumption. Vidal runs through the literature on the matter, starting with Roger Penrose, who imagined extraction of black hole rotational energy by injection of matter, and through other scientists (the bibliography is extensive and quite good) who worked out the specifics of drawing energy from rotating black holes. Another possibility: Collecting energy from gravitational waves generated when black holes collide, or actually manipulating the merger of smaller black holes. In recent days, Louis Crane has studied small black holes as a power source — these objects convert matter into energy (Hawking radiation) at high levels of efficiency.

There are computational uses for black holes that push us out to the boundaries of computer science in the form of theorized ‘hypercomputers’ that draw on relativistic effects to dilate time in the proximity of black holes. Vidal’s philosophical ideas of cosmological artificial selection draw on the prospect that a Type III civilization may learn how to use black holes to create entirely new universes. However we view such prospects, the idea here is that for a wide variety of reasons, black holes should be attractors for intelligence. Vidal wants to know what the observable manifestations of any of these uses might be. Would such things be detectable?

Energy Sources for Advanced Civilizations

But we don’t have to confine our search to black holes themselves. If extracting energy from the thin accretion disk around a rotating black hole may be one of the most efficient power sources we can imagine, we can also look for similar configurations around neutron stars or white dwarfs. A key question, then is this: Could a civilization harness its star’s energy with efficiencies that approach black hole densities? The interesting family of binary systems called X-ray binaries (because of their emissions in the X-ray electromagnetic spectrum) should, Vidal believes, intrigue us as one possible sign of an artificial astrophysical system.


Image: An artist’s impression of GRS 1915, which is thought to be an X-ray binary. The black hole sucks material off the companion star, which is heated by friction, emitting X-rays. Credit: Rob Hynes, from

There are others, including a whole range of contact binaries where stars exchange matter and energy in complicated ways. Vidal’s assumption is that these binaries are natural objects, but he doesn’t want to rule out the possibility that in at least some, we may be seeing something else at work.

Let me quote the author on this:

Accretion is a ubiquitous astrophysical process in galaxy and planet formation, so we may object that all binaries may simply always be natural. But let me introduce an analogy. Fission can be found in natural processes, as well as fusion, which is one of the core energetic processes in stellar evolution. Yet humans seek to copy them, and would certainly benefit greatly from — always — controlling them. So it is not because a process is known to occur naturally that its use in a given case is not under intelligent control. In fact, the situation may even be more subtle. The formation of XRBs might be natural, but they may later be controlled or taken over by ETIs, just as a river flowing down a mountain is a natural gravitational energy source that humans can harness with hydroelectric power stations.

In other words, there is a wide variety of binary stars in which we find accretion disks forming that could provide useful sources of energy to an advanced civilization. Vidal creates the term starivore to describe a civilization that could ‘feed’ on stars. More specifically:

It is an extraterrestrial civilization using stellar energy (Type KII) in the configuration of a slow non-conservative transient accreting binary…, with the dense primary… being either a planet, a white dwarf, a neutron star, or a black hole.

And indeed, Vidal quotes Stapledon’s novel Star Maker by way of showing that the idea of energy extraction from binary systems is not new. A speculative scenario that grows out of this is where our own civilization may one day go. As our technologies function on smaller and denser scales and we continue to move up the Kardashev ladder, thus using more and more energy, we run out of energy even if we cover the Earth with solar panels. So we bring Earth closer to the Sun (a Stapledon notion) to get more energy, with our descendants now living as postbiological beings. Still we need more energy, so stellar engineers create active accretion from, the Sun, transforming what had once been human life into a starivore civilization.

The density of the evolved Earth now approaches that of a white dwarf, and the new binary resembles what we see in our data as a cataclysmic variable, a binary system with white dwarf component. Vidal:

If such binary systems are starivores, then we should find that the primitive versions of them extract energy from a star paired with a planet that is not dense compared to WDs, NS, or BHs. This would happen at a low accretion rate, so planetary accretion is one of the concrete predictions from the starivore hypothesis (and indeed planet-star interactions have recently been discovered…)


Image: An artist’s concept of the accretion disk around the binary star system WZ Sge. P. Marenfeld and NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Vidal’s hypothesis of starivores lets us see high energy astrophysics from an astrobiological point of view. Speculative? Of course, but Vidal is a philosopher for whom the play of ideas is as entrancing as the flow of notes in a Bach fugue. Rather than claiming the existence of starivore civilizations, he offers data on the wide variety of binary systems and the possibilities for energy extraction, with predictions about what we might see if such civilizations exist. A high energy astrobiology agenda is presented containing proposals for specific research. I do not have time this morning to go through the wealth of supporting argument but the book is well worth extended study.

Ultimately, the starivore idea is Vidal’s way of describing SETI’s new direction, a concrete example of how we can study objects in our data that may show the signature of extraterrestrial engineering. Building a robust scientific structure for such inquiries is at the heart of The Beginning and the End, whose principles are being played out and refined in the ongoing SETI searches mentioned at the beginning of this post. As with the original SETI work back to the days of Project Ozma, we can’t know what we’re going to find until we mount the actual search. Finding a Type II or III culture — or its remnants — would show us what intelligent life is capable of, while raising the familiar question of how long any technological species can hope to survive.



Examining SETI Assumptions

by Paul Gilster on October 28, 2014

If we’re trying to extend the boundaries of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, how do we proceed? A speculative mind is essential, and one of the delights of science fiction is the ability to move through an unrestricted imaginative space, working out the ramifications of various scenarios. But we have to prioritize what we’re doing, which is why Freeman Dyson settled on the idea of looking for conspicuous examples of intelligence using technology. It’s no surprise that the term ‘Dysonian SETI’ has arisen to describe how such a search might proceed.


The Dyson sphere is a case in point. We can imagine a civilization vastly more ancient and technologically adept than our own deciding to maximize the amount of power it can draw from a star. Although Dyson spheres are sometimes pictured as shells completely surrounding a star, Dyson’s ideas are more readily thought of in terms of a ‘swarm’ of objects soaking up as much power as possible. Other configurations are in the mix, including the ‘ringworld’ envisioned by Larry Niven in the novel of the same name. Such engineering would throw a unique astronomical signature. Even a completely enclosed star could be detected by its radiation in the infrared, which is where previous searches for Dyson spheres have been conducted.

Image: Physicist Freeman Dyson, whose work has inspired not only SETI proponents but aerospace engineers, science fiction authors and philosophers of science. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Would a powerful civilization build such things? It’s a key question, and as Clément Vidal points out in The Beginning and the End (Springer, 2014), Dyson’s 1966 paper on the matter made the assumption that an alien intelligence would use a technology we can understand. The idea has been rightfully criticized as anthropocentric, even by Dyson himself, who called the notion ‘utterly unrealistic.’ But we have to start somewhere, acknowledging the very real prospect that a truly advanced civilization might operate in ways that mimic natural processes. Developing criteria based on what we do understand at least gives us an opening into studying things we see in our astronomical data that might flag the presence of astroengineering. We’re limited by but must employ our own level of scientific knowledge.

As I mentioned yesterday, Dysonian SETI (or Vidal’s ‘Zen SETI’) does not conflict with older radio and optical SETI methods. By looking for manifestations of technology at work in our astronomical data, Zen SETI largely abandons the idea of SETI as an attempt at receiving intentional communications, and looks instead to identify large-scale anomalies that show us another civilization at work. This form of SETI also pushes not only deep into our own galaxy but into any observable astronomical objects we can see with our telescopes. As I said yesterday, this is a bit like archaeology, with conceivable discoveries that are billions of years old.

Where Life Can Emerge

So while traditional SETI pushes on with its entirely valid search, newer forms of SETI widen the search space and cause us to question the philosophical bases of our assumptions. Should we, for example, assume we are looking for forms of life reliant on carbon and water? Vidal notes a 1980 definition of life by Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro (in Life Beyond Earth, Morrow) that describes life as highly ordered systems of matter and energy ‘characterized by complex cycles that maintain or gradually increase the order of the system through the exchange of energy with the environment.’ Vidal comments:

It is important to notice the high generality of such a definition. There is no mention of carbon, water or DNA. What remains are energetic exchanges leading to an increase of order. Free from the limiting assumptions of [carbon and water], the two authors conceive possible beings living in lava flows, in Earth’s magma, or on the surface of neutron stars. The idea of life on neutron stars was explored not only in science fiction… but also by scientist [Frank] Drake.

The reference to science fiction takes in Robert Forward’s Dragon’s Egg (Ballantine, 1980), a punchy tale driven by the usual Forward gusto. Drake lesser known article is “Life on a Neutron Star,” which ran in Astronomy (Vol. 1, No. 5) in 1973, and which I still have buried in the stacks of old magazines that fill a cabinet here in my office. I remember the Drake with pleasure as one of those eye-opening things that make you look at the world a bit differently when you see how much you are a creature of your own environment. And then you start thinking about how many environments are out there…

The field for speculation is wide — Robert Freitas has even written about the possibility of metabolisms of living systems based on the four fundamental physical forces: the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, the weak force, and gravitation. We should also consider the possibility (likelihood?) that an advanced civilization will be comprised largely of postbiological beings. Vidal reminds us of the many generations computers have gone through in our own lifetimes, with three-dimensional molecular computing as a possible follow-on to today’s integrated circuits. And he asks what a computer scientist from the 1940s would make of today’s digital world. Would he be able to find large parts of our technology, much less understand it? Vidal adds:


The moral of the story is that in SETI, matter doesn’t matter (much). What is important is the ability to manipulate matter-energy and information, not the material substrate itself. The case for postbiology is strong… Abandoning the hypothesis of ET using a biological substrate such as carbon, water, DNA molecules, or proteins makes us focus on the functional systems theory, which aims to be independent of a particular material substrate. This makes system theory the interdisciplinary research field par excellence and also an indispensable tool in astrobiology and SETI.

Image: Philosopher Clément Vidal approaches SETI with a multidisciplinary background that he uses to question underlying assumptions that affect the search. Credit: Sébastien Herrmann.

Maybe these extracts give some sense of how provocative this tightly written study is, and how often it questions the assumptions we bring to astrobiology. In fact, Vidal thinks a tight analysis of SETI can help us rid ourselves of those assumptions that apply only to terrestrial life so that we can try to uncover what the essential characteristics of all life must be. He’s looking for concepts of living systems and especially intelligence that can be generalized to extraterrestrial venues as we proceed to tighten our criteria for studying anomalous astronomical data.

What kind of things might we hope to find if there is such a thing as astroengineering on an interstellar scale? Beyond the aforementioned Dyson spheres, could we detect extensive mining in asteroid belts in exoplanetary systems? How about anomalous stars, far too young to be in the region we find them, or stars that display unusual spectra that may indicate a civilization trying to lengthen the hydrogen fusion burning cycle of its home sun? As I mentioned yesterday, you can see a summary of recent ideas on the matter in my essay Distant Ruins, which ran in Aeon.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this discussion of The Beginning and the End with Vidal’s own thinking on what may be a candidate for what we can call ‘high energy astrobiology,’ an astronomical phenomenon that is curious enough to provoke Dysonian SETI theorists. But I’ll argue in advance that the value of this book isn’t in a specific SETI candidate but in the far broader context Vidal brings to the human quest for other civilizations, a context that challenges readers to examine their own views of the place of intelligent beings in the universe.

The original Dyson paper covering a broadened search for ETI is “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology,” in Marshak, R.E. (ed.) Perspectives in Modern Physics (Wiley, 1966), pp. 641-655.



The Zen of SETI

by Paul Gilster on October 27, 2014

The SETI challenge has often been likened to archaeology, and for good reason. In both cases, we are trying to recover information about cultures from the past. When Heinrich Schliemann dug into the numerous layers of Troy — and in the process inadvertently damaged precious remnants of later eras — he and his team were exploring the heroic age of Homer. Any SETI detection will likewise deal with a signal from the past. Just how old it is will depend upon how far away the source world is, for this information travels at the speed of light.

The archaeology analogy is hardly perfect, because on Earth we are dealing with artifacts of our own species and are often working with linguistic remains we can decipher to aid our understanding. Figuring out Egyptian hieroglyphs wasn’t easy, but the stele known as the Rosetta Stone gave us a text in three scripts that helped us make sense of them. Even Linear B, the script of the Mycenaean Greeks before the emergence of the Greek alphabet, can be placed into context as the oldest Greek dialect, apparently borrowed as a script from the Minoan Linear A. But a SETI reception will be pure message, and absent the numerous cultural and linguistic cues we rely on to make sense of an undeciphered language, how will we approach it?


While we have significant problems with some ancient languages — the resolution of Mayan awaited seeing the glyphs in an entirely new context, looking at them phonemically and morphologically, and Etruscan is a challenge to this day — the problems with a genuinely alien message from another star dwarf these issues. Which brings me around to Clément Vidal, who has written a book that digs with gusto into the SETI question by way of asking what kind of detection we may expect to make. What we might call ‘traditional’ SETI by and large supposes that a distant civilization will be trying to get a message to us, for we’re highly unlikely to pick up radio signals not beamed in our direction.

The Beginning and the End (Springer, 2014) is subtitled ‘The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective,’ and SETI is only one aspect of its tripartite discussion. But its analysis of SETI and its application of a cosmological worldview help us see current SETI efforts as part of a larger picture. The communication assumption is sensible given SETI’s roots and the deliberate decision to look for signals in the most probable part of the spectrum, which early advocates saw as the region between the spectral lines of hydrogen and the hydroxyl radical — between 1420 and 1665 MHz. The ‘water hole’ for communication was quiet and presumably would attract cultures looking for other intelligent beings. But there are other ways to search for life that add valuable tools to our quest.

Vidal is a philosopher and, as his book attests, a polymath who delves into astrobiology, complexity science, cosmology and much else in the course of his discussion. Analyzing the weaknesses of our underlying assumptions is a key part of his argument. He believes we do not need to assume communication to conduct a SETI search, nor do we need to confine our efforts to our own galaxy. Radio methods offer us the hope of one day engaging in a two-way conversation with another species, putting the premium on nearby stars, but what I often call ‘interstellar archaeology’ — the science of looking for ETI in the data, and that data may be spread over numerous galaxies — yields on communications while stressing detection of civilizations that may be far more powerful than our own.

‘Zen SETI’ is the entertaining term Vidal coins for this approach, one that has been championed in recent years by Milan Ćirković, though analyzed by many scientists over the years, from Freeman Dyson to Nikolai Kardashev, James Annis, Richard Carrigan and current working groups like Penn State’s Jason Wright, Matthew Povich and Steinn Sigurðsson. I won’t go through a complete round-up here, but you can find current work discussed in my essay Distant Ruins, which ran in Aeon. The point is to think creatively about information that may already be in our astronomical data, and about new searches that put a premium on the signature that a Kardashev Type II or III civilization would leave.

Needless to say, Zen SETI makes no claim at being the only approach to the discipline, and indeed, these methods should be seen as complementary to ongoing radio and optical searches. When Richard Carrigan went to work searching infrared data from the IRAS satellite for the signature of possible Dyson spheres (see Toward an Interstellar Archaeology), he was broadening the effort to study SETI targets in places as distant as M51, the Whirlpool galaxy, pondering how a Kardashev Type III culture might begin turning stars en masse into a wavefront of such spheres as it maximized its energy resources.


Image: M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. If a Kardashev Type III culture were active here building Dyson spheres, would we be able to see its signature as a growing void in visible light? Credit: NASA/ESA.

Such a search doesn’t preclude communications from a much closer civilization, but it does ask a thoughtful question. We now peg the age of our universe at roughly 13.7-13.8 billion years. We also think that the oldest Sun-like stars formed as early as about 12.5 billion years ago, with rocky planets beginning to emerge at that time. Give life five billion years to emerge, as it did on Earth, and you have the possibility of the earliest intelligence appearing as early as six billion years after the Big Bang. Because the Milky Way is thought to have formed between 10 and 11 billion years ago, intelligence may have appeared in our galaxy as much as five billion years before we humans began turning radio telescope dishes toward the nearby stars.

Charles Lineweaver (Australian National University) is the go-to guy on these matters, with work showing that on average, Earth-like planets around other stars are 1.8 billion years older than our planet, give or take 0.9 billion years either way. Given Lineweaver’s findings, isn’t it likely that any civilization we do discover is going to be significantly advanced over our own? Milan Ćirković made the case in a 2006 paper:

Applying the Copernican assumption naively, we would expect that correspondingly complex life forms on those others to be on the average 1.8 Gyr older. Intelligent societies, therefore, should also be older than ours by the same amount. In fact, the situation is even worse, since this is just the average value, and it is reasonable to assume that there will be, somewhere in the Galaxy, an inhabitable planet (say) 3 Gyr older than Earth. Since the set of intelligent societies is likely to be dominated by a small number of oldest and most advanced members…we are likely to encounter a civilization actually more ancient than 1.8 Gyr (and probably significantly more).

All of which compels Vidal to argue that the terms of our SETI search must be flexible:

We need not be overcautious in our astrobiological speculations. Quite the contrary, we must push them to their extreme limits if we want to glimpse what such advanced civilizations could look like. Naturally, such an ambitious search should be balanced with considered conclusions. Furthermore, given our total ignorance of such civilizations, it remains wise to encourage and maintain a wide variety of search strategies. A commitment to observation, to the scientific method, and to the most general scientific theories remains our best touchstone.

Paul Davies makes much the same point and is quoted by Vidal as saying that “the universe is a rich and complex arena in which signs of alien intelligence might be buried amid a welter of data from natural processes, and unearthed only after some ingenious sifting.” Tomorrow I want to go further into our SETI assumptions and where they might be challenged, using Clément Vidal’s fine discussion of Zen SETI and its consequences for how we proceed.

The Ćirković paper is “Macroengineering in the Galactic Context” (full text). Charles Lineweaver’s study is “An Estimate of the Age Distribution of Terrestrial Planets in the Universe: Quantifying Metallicity as a Selection Effect,” Icarus Vol. 151, No. 2 (2001), pp. 307-313 (full text).