What Kardashev Really Said

by Paul Gilster on March 21, 2014

Whenever we’re audacious enough to categorize far future civilizations, we turn to the work of Nikolai Kardashev. Nick Nielsen today looks at the well known Kardashev scale in the light of a curious fact: While many use Kardashev’s rankings in their own speculations, few have gone back and dug into his original paper. In Kardashev’s terms, our planet is close to attaining Type I status, which would surprise many commentators. And doesn’t the ambiguity over what constitutes the energy of a star — red dwarf? red giant? — play havoc with cut and dried ‘type’ definitions? How subsequent writers have adapted and modified the Kardashev scale makes for a cautionary tale about mastering our sources before using them for further extrapolation. For that matter, are there better gauges of a civilization than its use of particular energy resources? Answering the question deepens the debate that Kardashev so fruitfully began.

by J. N. Nielsen


The name of Nikolai S. Kardashev is synonymous with the Kardashev ranking of civilizations according to their energy profile, and probably will be so synonymous as long as human civilization (or some successor institution) endures. Perhaps someday the term “Kardashevian” will be an adjective like “Copernican” and Kardashev’s name will join the select group of cosmologists who have given their name to an entire cosmological theory.

Kardashev is a radio astronomer and among the pioneers of SETI, and his idea of classifying civilizations according to their ability to harness energy was directly related to his experience in radio telescopy (thus I find myself again in this post verging into the territory of SETI, METI, and Existential Risk). Kardashev asked himself how powerful an extraterrestrial radio signal would have to be in order to be detected, “by conventional radio astronomical techniques.” [1] The numbers he came up with were quite high, and this furnished the basis of his tripartite division of civilizations into Type I, Type II, and Type III.

If a civilization could radiate EM spectrum emissions at the energy levels of naturally-occurring astronomical radio sources, such a civilization could be detected as easily as we detect pulsars, radio galaxies, and the like. For a civilization to radiate at such levels of energy, however, would require technological capacities beyond our current abilities. Kardashev notes his Type II and Type III civilizations could radiate at such high energy levels, and although we could not match these levels, we could receive these signals. He also suggests that known astronomical radio sources could have an artificial origin. Thus from a Kardashevian perspective, the existential risk of METI is negligible, as only very advanced and powerful civilizations would be able to transmit to the universe at large, while younger, less advanced, and therefore more vulnerable civilizations are restricted to passive listening, for all practical purposes.

Kardashev’s rankings of civilization have become widely known – so widely known that it is not uncommon to hear others toss off casual references to “K1” or “K2” or “K3” – and the terminology of Kardashev rankings has been generalized and extrapolated so that now one may speak in terms of Type 0 and Type IV civilizations and anticipate being understood. [2]

Sometimes the discussion of Kardashev civilization types seems to become a little too casual, and, like the sailors on the Pequod who each look into the gold doubloon nailed to the mast and see themselves and their personal concerns mirrored within, writers on the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations (and especially speculation on supercivilizations) tend to read their preoccupations into Kardashev’s types without being much concerned with what Kardashev himself actually wrote about this. While many writers have parsed the Drake equation with painstaking attention to detail, I find it remarkable that no one seems to have done this for Kardashev, instead seeming to prefer impressionistic renderings of Kardashev’s civilization types.

Here is Kardashev’s original formulation of the three types of civilizations he recognized:

I – technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth, with energy consumption at ~4 x 1019 erg/sec.

II – a civilization capable of harnessing the energy radiated by its own star (for example, the stage of successful construction of a “Dyson sphere”); energy consumption at ~4 x 1033 erg/sec.

III – a civilization in possession of energy on the scale of its own galaxy, with energy consumption at ~4 x 1044 erg/sec. [1]


Note that there is an ambiguity of the Kardashev metric in terms of actual vs. comparable energy usage. A carefully constructivist account of Kardashev would insist that a Type II civilization is “a civilization capable of harnessing the energy radiated by its own star,” and that all of this energy must in fact come from that particular star and from no other source. In other words, given a strict conception of a Type II civilization, a civilization utilizing energy quantitatively equivalent to but not identical to the actual energy produced by a single star would not constitute a Type II civilization. Actual and equivalent energy use are very different measures, and Kardashev himself uses both formulations (type II is “energy radiated by its own star” while type III is “energy on the scale of its own galaxy”).

Image: Russian radio astronomer and SETI theorist Nikolai Kardashev.

Moreover, in defining a type II civilization as, “harnessing the energy radiated by its own star” (a definition which is, I must observe, impredicative, because it defines an individual in terms of a whole of which it is a part) [3], Kardashev introduces an ambiguity due to the fact that there are stars of many different luminosities and temperatures. Generally speaking, the largest stars burn very hot, are very bright, and burn themselves out relatively quickly, while small stars are much dimmer and endure much longer. Brown dwarfs will likely outlast almost all other stars.

Presumably a “standard” measure of a star would lie along the main sequence of stellar evolution (cf. the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram), but this still isn’t very helpful as a quantitative measure, not least because it falls far short of the precision that we could bring to question. If we take our own sun as the standard measure (as it is commonplace in astronomy to speak of “solar masses”), this would significantly distort any measure of a civilization that happened to emerge, for example, orbiting a supergiant or a red dwarf star. [4] Such a measure might still be useful, but we could do much better simply by stipulating a measure of energy not relative to the star of a civilization’s homeworld. Kardashev does this when he cites specific energy levels, and he departs from this when he presents his formulations in terms of, “its own star” and “its own galaxy.”

One of the persistent themes we find in commentaries on Kardashev’s civilization types is that our terrestrial civilization is not yet a type I civilization, but this isn’t at all what Kardashev said. In fact, it is the opposite of what Kardashev said, as he specified for a Type I civilization a, “technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth.” Kardashev did not say what “close” means in this context.

For the past decade, global energy consumption has been increasing at an average rate of 2.3 percent per year – more growth in years of economic growth or difficult winters, less in years of recession and mild winters. Roughly, this means that global energy consumption will double every thirty years, so that since the time Kardashev wrote his paper, global energy consumption is well on its way to quadrupling. So for those who say that we are still short of what Kardashev called a Type I civilization in 1964, even if we were a little short of the mark at that time, we ought to be well past the mark by now.

But this only scratches the surface of the kind of impressionistic readings of Kardashev that are common. Here is an example from George Basalla:

“A Type I Kardashev civilization is similar to the modern technological societies found on Earth. It draws upon the energy falling upon a planet from its sun. Kardashev estimated the Earth’s energy consumption at about 4 x 1019 ergs per second. The Earth has not quite reached Type I status because its inhabitants are unable to capture all of the radiant energy streaming down upon it. For this reason, Carl Sagan said that the Earth was more accurately called a Type .7 civilization.” [5]

This is an entirely reasonable extrapolation of Kardashev, but it is an imaginative reconstruction of Kardashev rather than an explication and application of the principles implicit in the exposition of his civilization types. The passage to which Basalla alludes in from Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective:

“The energy gap between a Type I and a Type II civilization or between a Type II and a Type III civilization is enormous – a factor of about ten billion in each instance. It seems useful, if the matter is to be considered seriously, to have a finer degree of discrimination. I would suggest Type 1.0 as a civilization using 1016 watts for interstellar communication; Type 1.1, 1017 watts; Type 1.2, 1018 watts, and so on. Our present civilization would be classed as something like Type 0.7.” [6]

Sagan’s interpretation provided a template for many other interpretations. Here is another example, from David Lamb:

“Type I would have a similar technological level to Earth, using 6.6 × 1012 watts. This civilization could engage in something akin to the present power output of Earth for the purpose of interstellar communication. Type I civilizations would have the power to restructure entire planets.” [7]

This is closer to the spirit of Kardashev’s original exposition, since it focuses on the use of energy for interstellar radio communication, but, again, this is not how Kardashev formulated his types. Kardashev wrote of a civilization in possession of energy levels of, “4 x 1033 erg/sec. or more, which it is capable of transmitting in a coded isotropic radio-frequency signal, may be detected by conventional radio astronomical technique,” which is the energy he attributes to Type II civilizations, and he is clear in the body of his paper that it would be Type II and Type III civilizations that would be transmitting, and Type I civilizations, like ourselves, who would be listening.

Michio Kaku is even more imaginative than Sagan and others in drawing out the implications of Kardashev’s civilization types as he sees them. For example, here is how Kaku defines a Type I civilization:

“Type I civilizations: those that harvest planetary power, utilizing all the sunlight that strikes their planet. They can, perhaps, harness the power of volcanoes, manipulate the weather, control earthquakes, and build cities on the ocean. All planetary power is within their control.” [8]

Kaku goes into much more detail in Chapter 8, “The Future of Humanity,” in his book Physics of the Future [9], most of which chapter is an exposition of Kaku’s interpretation and extrapolation of Kardashev civilization types.

There is something intuitively attractive and plausible about equating a type I civilization with planetary energy resources, a type II civilization with stellar energy resources, and a type III civilization with galactic energy resources, and it would further be intuitively attractive and plausible to equate planetary energy resources with the burning of fossil fuels that are the result of a planetary biosphere (and are not to be derived from stars and are not found in space). This is Kaku’s approach. But this is not what Kardashev said.

The ideas of Sagan, Kaku and others for a typology of civilizations are worthwhile, but they aren’t what Kardashev said. Nevertheless, as the idea of Kardashev civilization types becomes further elaborated, many writers routinely refer to Kardashev types, but this only compounds the ambiguity because one never knows if they are referring to what Kardashev actually said, or to subsequent embroidering upon what Kardashev said. And it is a different that makes a difference. If we cannot be clear about what we mean, we will only engender more confusion the more we say.

The kind of elaboration of Kardashev we find in Sagan and Kaku has owes much more to Constantinos Doxiadis’ (Κωνσταντίνου Α. Δοξιάδη) vision of Ecumenopolis – the world city or universal city (which I wrote about in Civilization and the Technium) [10] – than to Kardashev’s scientifically-inspired quantification of civilization. If you read Sagan and Kaku next to Doxiadis you will immediate see the resemblance, whereas these visions of a harmonious planetary civilization have no place in Kardashev’s text.

Kardashev concluded his famous paper with this reflection:

“…we should like to note that the estimates arrived at here are unquestionably of no more than a tentative nature. But all of them bear witness to the fact that, if terrestrial civilization is not a unique phenomenon in the entire universe, then the possibility of establishing contacts with other civilizations by means of present-day radio physics capabilities is entirely realistic.” [1]

These are the sage words of a scientist who expects (or at least hopes) that others will take up his work and expand upon it. Tentative formulations invite others to revise and extend them, and certainly many have sought to do this with Kardashev’s civilization types. I don’t wish to suggest that the extrapolations and extensions of Kardashev’s idea are illegitimate, only that they aren’t at all what Kardashev said, and we ought to be clear about this.

If we take up Kardashev’s idea in the spirit in which he initially proposed it, then other quantitative measures that have been suggested, such as measures of information processing [11], or even Kaku’s suggestion of measuring civilizations by entropy [12], would be appropriate extrapolations of the idea. Indeed, we might use several quantitative measures of civilization to define a parameter space, and be well on our way to mathematically modeling civilization. In Kardashev’s later paper, “On the inevitability and the possible structures of supercivilizations” [13], he mentions the parameters of “mass of constructions,” “power consumed,” and “information volume which describes the program activity and memory,” and suggests an argument from mathematical induction to arrive at arbitrary large civilizational activity. These suggestions seem to me more in line with what Kardashev had in mind than the persistent idea of planetary civilizations that have reached a stage of totality in harnessing some particular energy resource.

You needn’t take my word for what constitutes an extrapolation of Kardashev’s civilization types in the spirit of its initial formulation. As of this writing, Kardashev is still alive, and I am sure that someone with the right connections could ask him what his intentions were in formulating his civilization types; it is Kardashev who could provide the definitive insight into what is and what is not in the spirit of his original (and tentative) exposition of the idea.

However we choose to interpret and extrapolate Kardashev, we need to accustom ourselves to thinking as rigorously about civilization as we do about science (or, at least, make the attempt to do so) so that all those who think about SETI, METI, extraterrestrial civilizations, and astrobiology, inter alia, will not be derisively dismissed as being in the realm of “science fiction” – and I trust a good many of my readers have felt the sting of this charge when trying to discuss such matters in a careful and rational manner.

This rigor is eminently within our grasp, but in order to do justice to it (and therefore to do justice to the ideas of extraterrestrial civilizations and supercivilizations) we must take care in our formulations to refine them to the fullest extent possible. Aristotle famously began his Nicomachean Ethics with the observation that, “…it is the mark of an educated man to require, in each kind of inquiry, just so much exactness as the subject admits of: it is equally absurd to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician, and to demand scientific proof from an orator.” [14] The study of extraterrestrial civilization, and of civilization simpliciter, does not yet admit of the degree of exactness of mathematics, but it is to be hoped that it admits to a greater degree of exactness than oratory. It is our responsibility to make it so.


[1] Kardashev, N. S., “Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations,” Soviet Astronomy, Vol. 8, No. 2, Sept.-Oct. 1964.

[2] Carl Sagan wrote, “There is no provision for a Type IV civilization, which by definition talks only to itself.” (The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, p. 234) Others, however, have sought to give content to the idea of a Type IV civilization and beyond. (Cf. Kardashev scale) John D. Barrow extrapolated a negative Kardashev scale to quantify the technological ability to manage ever smaller structures, in contradiction to the ever larger structures obtained by extending the Kardashev scale. Barrow’s formulation of Types I-III is interesting for its use of the idea of “restructuring” (i.e., a civilization capable of restructuring a planet, solar system, or galaxy, respectively) – an interesting idea, but not something to be found in Kardashev’s definitions of the types.

[3] Self-reference is a common feature of many paradoxes. Roughly, impredicativity is that form of self-reference derived from the violation of the vicious circle principle. (Cf. Chihara, Charles S., Ontology and the Vicious-Circle Principle, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1973.) Most big picture conceptions are impredicative; any definition of humanity that involves a reference to the universe of which we are a part is essentially impredicative.

[4] Of course, we would expect to find peer civilizations in cosmological circumstances similar to our own, i.e., on a planet orbiting a sun-like star. If we construe peer civilizations very narrowly, we could limit ourselves to the sun as a standard measure, but this strikes me as the arbitrary and the cosmological equivalent of Lakatosian “monster barring.”

[5] Basalla, George, Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 148. If anyone knows the source of the 1981 interview with Kardashev referenced by Basalla, I would appreciate it if you would make the reference known to me.

[6] Sagan, Carl, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2000, Part Three, Chapter 34, “Twenty Questions: A Classification of Cosmic Civilizations”

[7] Lamb, David, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Philosophical Inquiry, London and New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 182. (I previously discussed this book in Is astrobiology discrediting the possibility of directed panspermia?) Note that Lamb employs the locution of “restructuring planets” which is a formulation due to John D. Barrow (cf. note 2 above).

[8] Kaku, Michio, The Physics of the Impossible, New York, et al.: Doubleday, 2008, p. 145.

[9] Kaku, Michio, Physics of the Future, New York, et al.: Doubleday, 2011.

[10] Doxiadis defined Ecumenpolis as follows: “Ecumenopolis: the coming city that will, together with the corresponding open land which is indispensable for Man, cover the entire Earth as a continuous system forming a universal settlement. Term coined by the author and first used in the October 1961 issue of Ekistics. (Constantinos A. Doxiadis, Ekistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 516.)

[11] Quantifying civilizations in measures of information processing power is due to Sagan:

“If we have used numbers to describe energy, we should perhaps use letters to describe information. There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. If each corresponds to a factor of ten in the number of bits, there is the possibility of characterizing with the English alphabet a range of information contents over a factor of 1026 – a very large range, which seems adequate for our purposes. I propose calling a Type A civilization one at the ‘Twenty Questions’ level, characterized by 106 bits. In practice this is an extremely primitive society – more primitive than any human society that we know well – and a good beginning point. The amount of information we have acquired from Greek civilization would characterize that civilization as Type C, although the actual amount of information that characterized Periclean Athens is probably equivalent to Type E or so. By these standards, our contemporary civilization, if characterized by 1014 bits of information, corresponds to a Type H civilization.” (Sagan, Carl, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2000, Part Three, Chapter 34, “Twenty Questions: A Classification of Cosmic Civilizations”)

[12] I don’t know if Kaku originated this idea of measuring civilizations by entropy, but he gives a brief exposition of this in his Physics of the Future (Chapter 8, in which he discusses Kardashev civilization types) and provides no reference to a source in his notes, so I assume the idea is Kaku’s.

[13] Kardashev, N. S., “On the inevitability and the possible structures of supercivilizations,” The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments; Proceedings of the Symposium, Boston, MA, June 18-21, 1984 (A86-38126 17-88). Dordrecht, D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1985, p. 497-504.

[14] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Translated by F. H. Peters, M.A., London: Kegan Paul, 1893, p. 4.



Solar Probe Plus: Prelude to ‘Sundiver’?

by Paul Gilster on March 20, 2014

‘Sundiver’ maneuvers are surely the most extreme events to which we could subject a solar sail. To my knowledge, it was Gregory Benford who first came up with the term — he mentions in Fantasy & Science Fiction that he passed the coinage on to David Brin when Brin was working on the book that would bear its name (Sundiver, published in 1985, would be the first volume in Brin’s Uplift Saga). But Benford credits Brin with the actual concept, which he needed to make his plot work, so it seems best to give credit to both writers for an idea both went on to explore, Benford not only in fiction but in scientific papers as well.

The maneuver is straightforward if breathtaking. Benford explains it in terms of a carbon sail being deployed in low Earth orbit and then launched into deep space by microwave beam:

Consider the sundiving sail. Approaching the Sun turned edge-on (to prevent the increasing flux of sunlight from pushing against its fall), the carbon sail heats up. At closest approach, the craft could turn to absorb the full glare of the intense Sun, gaining a high velocity as it accelerates strongly, under desorption. It exhausts the store of molecules lodged in its fibers, losing mass while gaining velocity. It then sails away as a conventional, reflecting solar sail. Its final speed could be high enough to take it beyond Pluto within five years. There it could do a high velocity mapping of the outer solar system, the heliopause and beyond, to the interstellar medium—the precursor to true interstellar exploration.

So there you are, a fast, propellantless way to do missions to the outer Solar System. But how likely is it that a craft like this would survive a close approach to the solar furnace? To find out just what the parameters would have to be, we need more data from this extreme environment. It’s interesting to note, then, that the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is engaged in the advanced stages of design, development and testing of Solar Probe Plus now that its work has received a thumbs up from an independent assessment board.

With a launch set for 2018, the spacecraft is intended to orbit the sun 24 times, assisted by seven flybys of Venus along the way. The craft is going to be moving at extraordinary speeds at its closest approaches, some 190 kilometers per second. Contrast that with Voyager 1’s 17.1 kilometers per second, or the previous record-holder, the two Helios probes, that reached up to 70 kilometers per second. In terms of distance, Solar Probe Plus will take its ten scientific instruments a little more than 6 million kilometers from the Sun’s surface.


Image: Artist’s impression of NASA’s Solar Probe Plus spacecraft on approach to the sun. Set to launch in 2018, Solar Probe Plus will orbit the sun 24 times, closing in with the help of seven Venus flybys. The spacecraft will carry 10 science instruments specifically designed to solve two key puzzles of solar physics: why the sun’s outer atmosphere is so much hotter than the sun’s visible surface, and what accelerates the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory manages the Solar Probe Plus mission for NASA and leads the spacecraft fabrication, integration and testing effort. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

An extreme environment indeed, with temperatures exceeding 1370 degrees Celsius (2500 degrees Fahrenheit). Solar Probe Plus is equipped with a carbon-carbon composite heat shield designed to withstand these temperatures, not to mention the impacts of hypervelocity dust particles, and the spacecraft’s liquid-cooled system should keep its solar arrays at survivable temperatures through all 24 solar passes. We’ll learn much about the Sun’s outer atmosphere and the solar wind from all this, but I like what NASA’s Lika Guhathakurta threw into the mix:

“Solar Probe Plus is a pathfinder for voyages to other stars and will explore one of the last unexplored regions of the solar system, the solar corona, where space weather is born.”

Guhathakurta is a program scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington who is aware of just how challenging this mission is going to be. As this APL news release notes, we’re talking about going ten times closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury. Amidst everything else we learn, we will have data that can assist in any future sundiver missions. In their book Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel (Copernicus, 2008), Greg Matloff, Les Johnson and Giovanni Vulpetti make the case that a sundiver could reach outbound speeds of at least 120 kilometers per second.

Solar Probe Plus will achieve high speeds as well, of course, but only within the context of operations near the Sun. A true sundiver that used the Sun for a massive gravity assist would attain speeds going outward that could allow it not only to explore the outer planets but reach the Sun’s gravitational focus. “[W]e may view these early efforts as humanity’s first true starships,” the authors write, the beginning of what we can hope is an extended era of exploration.



From Cosmism to the Znamya Experiments

by Paul Gilster on March 19, 2014

What got me thinking about French influences on early solar sail work in Russia yesterday was the realization that science fiction was much stronger in Europe, and particularly France, in the latter part of the 19th Century than we Americans might realize. Hugo Gernsback to the contrary, the genre did not emerge in 1926 with the appearance of Amazing Stories, nor did key early texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein launch the genre in England. Brian Aldiss would probably argue with this (see his Trillion Year Spree, 1973), but I agree with Brian Stableford in seeing a true genre emerging first on French soil.


Whether you agree or not, have a look at Stableford’s essay The French Origin of the Science Fiction Genre, where I find this in reference not only to Verne but writers like George Sand (Laura: voyages et impressions, 1865) and Camille Flammarion (Récits de l’infini, 1872):

These works were sometimes referred to by contemporary commentators as examples of roman scientifique — a phrase that can be translated, because of the flexibility of the first word’s range of reference, as “scientific fiction,” “scientific romance,” or “the scientific novel.” Verne’s work in particular attracted numerous imitators because of its enormous popularity, and eventually inspired the founding of a specialist periodical, the Journal des Voyages, in 1877, dedicated to fiction in that vein.

Novelist Stableford is, in addition to being a critic, a fine translator of numerous French works from this period. Much of this work remains little read in our time, and I suspect some enterprising historian of science will one day mine further connections between French scientific romances and the early history of astronautics, particularly their influence on Tsiolkovsky, Fridrikh Tsander and the evolving philosophical movement known as Cosmism, that emerged as a way of integrating natural history with a human future in space. Tsiolkovsky believed that colonizing space would transform Earthly human life into an existence blessed with immortality.

Image: Novelist and translator Brian Stableford. Credit: Brian and Jane Stableford.

The whole interplay with cosmism and Russian space exploration is a vast topic — for more, I’d recommend George Young’s The Russian Cosmists (Oxford University Press, 2012), which focuses on life extension advocate Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov but examines the work of all his followers as well. Thinkers who believed that humanity was evolving into a space-going species, these people were fascinated with technology’s potential, and it’s not surprising to me that early rocketry and sail advances should be associated with them.

Znamya: Testing Deployment Technologies


When it came to practical sail experiments, though, that work would have to wait until the end of the 20th Century when Russia performed the first demonstrations of sail technologies in space. The Znamya project involved mirrors rather than sails, but learning how to spin up a 20-meter mirror in Earth orbit involves many of the same methods that sails would demand. The idea was to test whether it would be practical to brighten remote polar and sub-arctic settlements after dark, the first deployment occurring on February 4, 1993 from a Progress supply ship.

Image: The deployed Znamya mirror attached to the Progress spacecraft after deployment in 1993.

After a successful deployment, the Znamya mirror illuminated a spot on Earth five kilometers in diameter that had the intensity of a full moon. Traveling at approximately eight kilometers per second, the beam swept through Europe and into western Russia, but Europe was covered with clouds that day and the beam could be seen by only a few. More to the point in terms of sail technologies, though, the use of centripetal acceleration of the spinning canister proved a viable way to deploy the film.

Znamya was de-orbited after several hours and burned up upon re-entry, giving way to the larger Znamya 2.5 mission, whose deployment in February of 1999 was a failure, as the mirror film caught on an antenna on the Mir space station and became tangled. Unable to free the material for full deployment, controllers de-orbited the Znamya 2.5, and it too burned up upon re-entry. An even larger Znamya 3 was never built as interest in the space mirror project waned.

Fifteen years later, we have seen successful deployments of free-flying solar sails in space, and are getting closer to bringing some of Tsiolkovsky and Tsander’s notions to fruition, with the launch of NASA’s Sunjammer sail scheduled for next year. The 38 X 38 meter sail, like IKAROS, will doubtless have much to tell us about deployment issues and performance as it moves toward the L1 Lagrangian point. I, for one, love the science fiction reference in its name, a nod not only to Arthur C. Clarke’s 1964 story but also to a Poul Anderson tale that ran under the pseudonym Winston P. Sanders in Analog in 1964. Both brought science fictional methods to bear on a promising technology that has taken all too long to begin active space testing.



SF Influences: A Solar Sail Theory

by Paul Gilster on March 18, 2014

Last week I looked at three figures who put solar sails on the map in the 1950s — Carl Wiley, who wrote the concept up in Astounding, Ted Cotter, who analyzed it for colleagues at Los Alamos, and Richard Garwin, who brought solar sailing into the academic journals. It was not long after Garwin’s work that science fiction pounced on solar sails through a cluster of memorable stories beginning with Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) and “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul.” More about that story and its era soon, including work by Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and perhaps the best known of all from that era, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sunjammer.”

But today let’s go way back to what is I think the first story that ever dealt with raw light as a propulsive mechanism. Georges Le Faure and Henri de Graffigny published Aventures extraordinaires d’un savant russe (The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist) in three volumes beginning in 1889, with a fourth volume coming out under the promising title Les mondes stellaires (Stellar Worlds) in 1896. This last volume was from a different publisher, which affected its circulation. Let me know if you ever run across a copy — from a collector’s standpoint, it’s by far the hardest of the four to find.


Image: A look inside The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist. The illustrations are by the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, who also wrote a preface to each volume. Credit: http://www.livre-rare-book.com/.

It’s fair enough to say that Le Faure and de Graffigny worked in the shadow of Jules Verne, whose From the Earth to the Moon first appeared in 1865, and our authors divide their characters’ exploits into sections on the Moon, the Sun and inner planets, and the outer planets and comets. Like Verne, they imagine sending humans into space using enormous cannons. But unlike Verne, they carry out at least some of their explorations in a hollow sphere that is pushed by the pressure of sunlight concentrated by a huge reflecting dish. Here we might be reminded of something Johannes Kepler said: “Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes.”

We’re getting into interesting if speculative history. For around the same time that Jules Verne was finishing up Autour de la lune (Around the Moon), first published in 1870, James Clerk Maxwell was developing equations that would show the existence of light pressure. In 1900, the Russian physicist Peter Lebedev, experimenting with beams of light focused on metals of different reflectivity, made the first precision laboratory tests that demonstrated the phenomenon, verifying Maxwell’s predictions. Lebedev’s work is obviously key in the development of solar sails in Russian scientific thinking, but it’s also worth noting that science fiction may have played a role.

I have no hard evidence that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky ever read Le Faure and de Graffigny, but it’s at least a possibility, the major argument against it being lack of access to books, for Tsiolkovsky lived in an isolated town some 200 kilometers southwest of Moscow, and was a deeply reclusive individual. On the other hand, he was well acquainted with Nikolai Fyodorov, a proponent of the Russian space philosophy known as Cosmism, and may well have been exposed to the French writers’ works during time in his youth spent in Moscow. It seems apparent that he knew his Jules Verne, so it’s not too large a leap to Le Faure and de Graffigny’s space travel tales.


Did the latter influence Tsiolkovsky’s interest in solar sails? For by the 1920s, working with a Latvian colleague named Fridrikh Arturovich Tsander, he began talking about using enormous mirrors crafted into thin sheets that would gather sunlight for propulsion. Tsander was writing about solar sailing as early as 1924, a heritage that may explain the Russian interest in sail technologies that manifested itself in the 1990s Znamya deployments (about which more later).

Tsander is one of those figures who is not as widely known in the West as he deserves to be. He was active in the development of liquid fueled rockets and a founder of GIRD (Group for the Investigation of Reaction Propulsion). It was the GIRD-10, a liquid fueled rocket of his own design, that became the first Russian rocket of its type, although he died before he could see its launch. Early in his life he had become a passionate advocate of space travel, developing equations for a Mars mission while still in Latvia at the Riga Polytechnic Institute.

Image: Astronautics pioneer Fridrikh Tsander.

The young spaceflight engineer would move to Moscow in 1915. Just how energetic he was about space may be gauged by the names of his two children, a daughter named Astra and a son named Mercury. He would found the Society for Studies of Interplanetary Travel, would examine aerobraking to slow returning spacecraft, and be granted a patent for a winged rocket he designed as an interplanetary vehicle. He explored gravity assists for acceleration as early as 1925. The solar sail, it is clear, was but one of Tsander’s many astronautical interests.

I suspect that the French science fiction writers of the second half of the 19th Century were a continuing inspiration for men like Tsiolkovsky and Tsander, even if their job was to translate tales of adventure into concepts in accord with known physics. It’s an intriguing thought that Le Faure and de Graffigny may have spurred the early investigation into properties of light we now know can propel a spacecraft. We can only imagine with what interest both Tsiolkovsky and Tsander would have followed the IKAROS sail, and the upcoming launch of Sunjammer.



Creative Constraints and Starflight

by Paul Gilster on March 14, 2014

I discovered Karl Schroeder’s work when I was researching brown dwarfs some years ago. Who knew that somebody was writing novels about civilizations around these dim objects? Permanence (Tor, 2003) was a real eye-opener, as were the deep-space cultures it described. Schroeder hooked me again with his latest book — he’s dealing with a preoccupation of mine, a human presence in the deep space regions between ourselves and the nearest stars, where resources are abundant and dark worlds move far from any sun. How to maintain such a society and allow it to grow into something like an empire? Karl explains the mechanism below. Science fiction fans, of which there are many on Centauri Dreams, will know Karl as the author of many other novels, including Ventus (2000), Lady of Mazes (2005) and Sun of Suns (2006).

by Karl Schroeder


My newest science fiction novel, Lockstep, has just finished its serialization in Analog magazine, and Tor Books will have it on the bookshelves March 24. Reactions have been pretty favourable—except that I’ve managed to offend a small but vocal group of my readers. It seems that some people are outraged that I’ve written an SF story in which faster than light travel is impossible.

I did write Lockstep because I understood that it’s not actual starflight that interests most people—it’s the romance of a Star Trek or Star Wars-type interstellar civilization they want. Not the reality, but the fantasy. Even so, I misjudged the, well, the fervor with which some people cling to the belief that the lightspeed limit will just somehow, magically and handwavingly, get engineered around.

This is ironic, because the whole point of Lockstep was to find a way to have that Star Wars-like interstellar civilization in reality and not just fantasy. As an artist, I’m familiar with the power of creative constraint to generate ideas, and for Lockstep I put two constraints on myself: 1) No FTL or unknown science would be allowed in the novel. 2) The novel would contain a full-blown interstellar civilization exactly like those you find in books with FTL.

Creativity under constraint is the best kind of creativity; it’s the kind that really may take us to the stars someday. In this case, by placing such mutually contradictory — even impossible — restrictions on myself, I was forced into a solution that, in hindsight, is obvious. It is simply this: everyone I know of who has thought about interstellar civilization has thought that the big problem to be solved is the problem of speed. The issue, though (as opposed to the problem), is how to travel to an interstellar destination, spend some time there, and return to the same home you left. Near-c travel solves this problem for you, but not for those you left at home. FTL solves the problem for both you and home, but with the caveat that it’s impossible. (Okay, okay, for the outraged among you: as far as we know. To put it more exactly, we can’t prove that FTL is impossible any more than we can prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I’ll concede that.)


Generations of thinkers have doubled down on trying to solve the problem, unaware that the problem is not the same as the issue. The problem — of generating enough speed to enable an interstellar civilization — may be insoluble; but that doesn’t mean the issue of how to have a thriving interstellar civilization can’t be overcome. You just have to overcome it by solving a different problem.

The problem to solve doesn’t have to do with speed (or velocity, for you purists), but rather with duration.

Enter Lockstep. In the novel, all worlds, all spacecraft and all habitats participating in a particular civilization use cold-sleep technology “in lockstep:” the entire civilization sleeps for thirty years, then simultaneously wakes for a month, then sleeps for another thirty years, etc. All citizens of the lockstep experience the same passage of time; what’s changed is that the duration of one night per month is stretched out to allow time for star travel at sublight speeds. In the novel I don’t bother with interstellar travel, actually; the Empire of 70,000 Worlds consists almost entirely of nomad planets, wanderers populating deep space between Earth and Alpha Centauri. Average long-distance travel velocity is about 3% lightspeed, and ships are driven by fission-fragment rockets or ‘simple’ nuclear fusion engines.

The result is a classic space opera universe, with private starships, explorers and despots and rogues, and more accessible worlds than can be explored in one lifetime. There are locksteppers, realtimers preying on them while they sleep, and countermeasures against those, and on and on. In short, it’s the kind of setting for a space adventure that we’ve always dreamt of, and yet, it might all be possible.

Cold sleep technology is theoretical, but unlike FTL, it’s not considered out of the question that we could develop human hibernation. It’s a bio-engineering problem, and probably admits of more than one solution. It’s an easier problem to solve than FTL, in other words. And by solving it, and using locksteps, we have a universe where travelers can go to sleep at their home port, wake up the next day at a world that could be light-years away, spend some time there and, when they return, find that exactly the same amount of time has passed at home. Locksteps give you the effect of FTL, without requiring FTL.

I won’t go into all the implications—that’s what the novel’s for. But, to circle back to the idea of creative constraint, by requiring an FTL-like civilization without FTL, I stumbled into a whole new universe. In the world of Lockstep, there are Sleeping Beauty-like tales, a version of the Twin Paradox, and an even stranger paradox in which the newest immigrants to the lockstep have the longest history with it… It’s no exaggeration to say that many books could be written in this world without exhausting its possibilities. Maybe I’ll write more of them myself.

Meanwhile, the idea’s out there. It’s a bit crazy, but it’s a possible solution to an issue, that avoids having to solve an impossible problem.

A constraint that gives us a way to reach the stars.



Solar Sailing Moves into the Journals

by Paul Gilster on March 13, 2014

I’m just getting started with Chris Impey and Holly Henry’s Dreams of Other Worlds (Princeton University Press, 2013), but glancing through it yesterday reminded me how long it has taken sail hardware to get into space. While Ted Cotter and Carl Wiley hoped for early experiments with sail ideas, we never got them until much later. Interesting mission concepts like JPL’s ‘gyro’ sail to Halley’s Comet did develop (although it never flew), and the Soviet Znamya deployments gave us some experience with thin membranes in space (I’ll talk about those soon), but by and large we left interplanetary exploration for the rockets.

The deep space probes and near-Earth observatories Impey and Henry cover — Viking, Voyager, Stardust, Chandra, Hubble and their ilk — gave us outstanding results but were not, until IKAROS, joined in space by alternative sail technologies. I’ll review this book in some detail as soon as I finish it, but for today let’s go back to the late 1950s, a time when Carl Wiley had already introduced solar sailing to a science fiction audience and Ted Cotter had apprised his colleagues at Los Alamos about the possibilities of a spinning sail.


For sails were about to make their debut in the technical journals. At the IBM Watson laboratory at Columbia University, physicist Richard Garwin, although deeply involved in nuclear weapons issues at a time of serious Cold War tensions, had become taken with the advantages of traveling between planets without propellant, not to mention the continuous acceleration that would allow the minute ‘push’ of photon momentum transfer to build up to high speeds when given enough time. In a March 1958 paper in the journal Jet Propulsion, Garwin published an analysis that ends on a note of genuine optimism: “There are considerable difficulties connected with space travel, but those connected with the sail appear relatively small.”

Image: Physicist Richard Garwin in 1980. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Garwin’s paper surely served as the stimulus for the detailed studies that would soon emerge, many of them covered in these pages, from the likes of Robert Forward, who would be talking about not just solar sails but sails propelled by laser in short order. Carl Wiley’s 1951 article in Astounding had been surprisingly technical, showing that sails could be maneuvered by ‘tacking’, thus allowing them to move inward toward the Sun, but it would be Garwin who put the term ‘solar sailing’ into wide use in the scientific community. By 1973, NASA would be funding solar sail studies at Battelle laboratories in Ohio, and Jerome Wright’s work on sail trajectories would lead to the Halley’s Comet mission concept, a spin stabilized heliogyro configuration using twelve 7.5 kilometer long blades of thin film.

Solar-electric propulsion won out over the heliogyro, but sharply rising cost estimates ultimately killed the entire rendezvous mission. It’s worth mentioning, since we’ve been looking at early sail pioneers this week, that the heliogyro concept itself had been developed in the 1960s by Richard MacNeal (Astro Research Corporation). The design was particularly interesting in this timeframe because it seemed to solve the challenging issues of deployment — a heliogyro would simply unroll each individual blade, as Colin McInnes explains in his Solar Sailing: Technology, Dynamics and Mission Applications (Springer, 2004). The work also led to the characterization of a wide range of thin sail films as we began to develop sail expertise.

If you’re interested in the Halley’s Comet mission, Louis Friedman’s Starsailing: Solar Sails and Interstellar Travel should be on your shelf. As to Richard Garwin, something that Enrico Fermi said surely resonates. Working with Garwin at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s, Fermi described him as the only true genius he had ever met, as recalled by fellow Fermi student Marvin Goldberger, who would himself become the head of both Caltech and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Garwin worked on nuclear arms design and in particular on the world’s first hydrogen bomb.

By 1958, the year of the solar sail paper, he was immersed in his work with IBM but also consulting for Los Alamos as well as Washington and holding down a physics appointment at Columbia. His work on how underground nuclear tests could be detected grew out of Dwight Eisenhower’s proposal of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, one that failed but did lead to a partial ban in 1963.

Garwin’s later efforts on behalf of test ban issues during the Clinton administration are admirably summed up in this 1999 article by William Broad, who refers to him as a ‘onetime boy wonder’ who went on to become a celebrated physicist and passionate advocate of nuclear test bans. By then he had become chairman of the State Department’s advisory board on arms control, taking on the job with a ‘famously sharp tongue’ and bulldog tenacity. Garwin’s interests were wide, and we can be happy that one of them included a then novel way of propelling a spacecraft, a still visionary concept in 1958 but one about which research momentum was beginning to build.

Garwin’s solar sail paper is “Solar sailing — a practical method of propulsion within the solar system,” Jet Propulsion 28.3 (1958): 188-190.



A Sail Mission Emerges

by Paul Gilster on March 12, 2014


Carl Wiley, the prescient engineer who offered an early description of solar sails in “Clipper Ships of Space” (Astounding Science Fiction (May, 1951), was not the first to look into sail propulsion, but he was one of the more visible. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s thinking on the matter in the 1920s was not widely circulated, and it may be that John Desmond Bernal, a political activist and professor at Cambridge and, later, the University of London, was Wiley’s primary forerunner as far as public awareness of sail ideas is concerned. In The World, the Flesh & the Devil (1929), Bernal looked at the propulsive possibilities in light:

However it is effected, the first leaving of the earth will have provided its with the means of traveling through space with considerable acceleration and, therefore, the possibility of obtaining great velocities – even if the acceleration can only be maintained for a short time. If the problem of the utilization of solar energy has by that time been solved, the movement of these space vessels can he maintained indefinitely. Failing this, a form of space sailing might be developed which used the repulsive effect of the sun’s rays instead of wind. A space vessel spreading its large, metallic wings, acres in extent, to the full, might be blown to the limit of Neptune’s orbit. Then, to increase its speed, it would tack, close-hauled, down the gravitational field, spreading full sail again as it rushed past the sun.

Image: Artwork for Carl Wiley’s article “Clipper Ships of Space,” which ran in the May, 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Credit: Orban.

My friend Adam Crowl, whose research skills are all but preternatural, has also called my attention to J. B. S. Haldane’s “The Last Judgement,” a look at future human history that was an influence on Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Haldane, a well-known British biologist and geneticist, has solar sails worked into an interplanetary infrastructure that eventually is considered for an interstellar crossing. The essay covers a Clarke-ian 40 million years, and it’s interesting to note the exchange of letters between Arthur C. Clarke and Haldane. Clarke would go on to edit The Coming of the Space Age: Famous Accounts of Man’s Probing of the Universe (London, 1970), in which “The Last Judgement” was reprinted.

I could spend a lot of time on Haldane and his relation to Clarke, and especially on his paper “Daedalus, or Science and the Future, delivered at Cambridge in 1923, but I’d quickly be digressing to the point of absurdity. So back to sails: We can say that by 1951, when Carl Wiley wrote his essay on the matter for John Campbell’s magazine, he was probably introducing the subject to most of his readers, and certainly looking at it with a level of detail that no previous writer had offered to the public. Its influence would be felt later in the decade.

A Sail Mission Design

For it was in 1958 that Ted Cotter, then working at Los Alamos and later himself an influence on ‘Medusa’ creator Johndale Solem, put together “An Encomium on Solar Sailing.” The memo — and it was little more than that, assembled for internal circulation at Los Alamos — set about to flesh out details of solar sail ideas by describing a design for an unmanned sail mission to Mars. ‘Russell Saunders,’ who as we saw yesterday was Wiley’s pseudonym for the “Clipper Ships of Space” article, appears in one of two footnotes, the other name being that of Richard Garwin, the third of our 1950’s engineers with a sail bent, about whom I’ll be speaking tomorrow.

Cotter’s memorandum was influential only within the realm of Los Alamos, but it makes for absorbing reading nonetheless, and it offers at least one new wrinkle:

The present note contains little new beyond the observations of the previous authors, except the notion of spinning the sail. Its intent is to advertise the considerable merits of solar sailing by filling in more details of the scheme. In order to expose the problems and indicate some technical possibilities for their solution, I will presently describe the construction, operation and flight of an unmanned instrumented solar sailing vehicle on a round trip of exploration to the neighborhood of Mars under command guidance from the earth. Before presenting this particular body of circumstantial evidence in favor of feasibility it seems worthwhile to provide some incentive for the task by emphasizing some of the implications of the properties of solar-sailing vehicles in general.

What follows is a backgrounder on the advantages of using solar photon momentum and the issues sails raise in relation to conventional rocketry. Remember that this was being written just as the first satellites had reached orbit, and Cotter speculates that now that placing objects in orbit had been accomplished, it should be possible to experiment with solar sail designs (it’s probably a good thing he didn’t know just how long it would be before the IKAROS deployment). He is at pains to stress the key advantage of all sails — they require no propellant. No wonder he assumed we’d have a working sail in orbital testing within a few years of his writing.

The Cotter design is a circular disk 500 meters in diameter and 10-4 centimeters thick, made out of a plastic film coated on one side with 20-30 micrograms per square centimeter of aluminum. Cotter envisioned reinforcing the sail panel seams to prevent tears. He assumed a 250 kilogram payload and introduced the idea of spinning the sail, which aids deployment and holds the sail flat, with stress nowhere exceeding 0.1 percent of the breaking strength of the plastic film. Here’s an essential part of the description:

The capsule consists of two parts connected through a universal joint, and provided with a motor which now causes the sail package and the main part of the load to start counter-rotating. At the appropriate times the collapsed structural backbone is extended, the capsule cases are jettisoned and the vehicle blossoms forth under centrifugal force… The sail is spinning at the rate of one revolution in two minutes. The load, two-thirds of which is suspended in three pods by wires at 50 meters from the axis of spin, is counter-rotating at a rate of 10 revolutions per minute. The vehicle as a whole has zero net angular momentum.

Cotter was already anticipating the many issues that sails would raise, including the deterioration of plastic films in strong ultraviolet radiation, and the problem of sail damage due to micro-meteorites — on the latter point, basing his thoughts on estimates of interplanetary dust and particles current at the time, he concluded that the half-life for decay of the sail’s reflectivity would be measured in thousands of years. Of course, as we look ahead to interstellar applications and vastly ramped up speeds, these issues become much more acute.

And I love this statement, which concludes the piece:

Any remarks on the effects of interplanetary electromagnetic fields would be purely conjectural. These are typical of questions which are perhaps best answered by sending out a solar sail to see.

Indeed. And we are finally in the process of deploying our early sails to make such measurements, long after the first speculations about actual missions were produced. But it’s fascinating to see how space technologies develop in our thinking, particularly when we trace them back to the first engineering concepts. If you’d like to see Cotter’s text, it’s now available online, a restricted access paper long since declassified and made available through the website of the Federation of American Scientists. Tomorrow: Sails get into the scientific literature, and the man who made it happen.



Solar Sails: Remembering Carl Wiley

by Paul Gilster on March 11, 2014

If you’re interested in solar sails and find yourself in California, a stop by UC Riverside’s Tomás Rivera Library should be worth your time. There you will find the Carl A. Wiley collection on solar sails, containing books, manuscripts and various other materials related to sail technologies. Wiley was an aeronautical engineer who wrote the first detailed article on solar sails to reach a wide audience. Evidently concerned about the venue — Wiley’s article had been accepted by John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, which some of his colleagues might not have taken seriously — he chose to write under the pseudonym ‘Russell Saunders.’


Finding Wiley’s papers at Riverside is perhaps no surprise, given that this is the home of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, ‘the largest publicly-accessible collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror and utopian literature in the world.’ Pulp magazine enthusiasts like myself will note that the archive houses full runs of many pulp titles, along with movie scripts, almost 100,000 science fiction fanzines and over 100,000 hardback and paperback books, along with a growing list of manuscripts and papers from authors in the field.

Wiley’s connection with science fiction may have been tenuous, though I suspect he was a regular reader. But editor Campbell loved the sail concept, and “Clipper Ships of Space” appeared in Astounding’s May, 1951 issue. Wiley wrote with a straightforward style for an audience accustomed to much wilder ideas than the momentum of photons pushing a sail up to speeds suitable for interplanetary missions. He notes in his first paragraph that while science fiction had been full of ‘warp drives’ and other exotica, few writers had really explored near-term alternatives to rockets. It seemed time to do so, and as Wiley had been studying these matters throughout the 1940s, he was the right man for the job. His second paragraph reads as follows:

I intend to propose another method of propulsion in a vacuum which is based on present day physics. I will show that in many ways this drive is more practical than the rocket. In order to prove my point I will have to use a certain amount of mathematics. This will permit those who wish to, a chance to check my assertions. The rest may follow my verbal argument which I hope will be fairly coherent without the mathematics.

Wiley had a lot more on his plate in 1951 than solar sails, and we can get a bit of insight into his use of a pseudonym when we put his life at that time into context. He was working at Goodyear Aircraft Corporation (later Lockheed Martin), which despite its history with airships like the USS Akron, had turned to aircraft production during World War II, building the tail assembly for the B-26 Marauder bomber. As the war ended and the Cold War emerged, Wiley led the effort to improve aerial reconnaissance through the development of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), his breakthrough coming at just about the time his solar sail article appeared in Astounding.

Wiley’s work would result in the first synthetic aperture patent just three years later. It was a real breakthrough for aerial reconnaissance considering that higher-resolution radar was needed to see smaller objects at higher altitudes, and Wiley’s relatively detailed imagery could be created with an antenna that was 1/100th the size of the more traditional antennae such details would demand. He called his method Simultaneous Buildup Doppler and saw it lead to decades of further development including live SAR technologies in the cockpit — the imaging radar for the SR-71 Blackbird grew out of all this, capable of identifying objects 30 feet in diameter up to 100 miles away from a height of more than 80,000 feet while traveling at Mach 3.

This Lockheed Martin overview of Synthetic Aperture Radar remembers Wiley as ‘a brilliant if eccentric engineer,’ a term evidently chosen because of his enthusiasm for space technologies like the sail, considering that the following sentence refers to Wiley’s article in Astounding. But over the years we’ve seen Wiley become a part of deep space lore, particularly now that solar sails have become an operational reality. It’s certainly true that he was not the first to discuss solar sails openly — J. D. Bernal had written about space sailing, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky worked on it in the 1920s. Thinking about their possibilities goes back to Kepler’s day. But few engineers in the 1950s were serious about flying without propellant, which is why I’ll turn tomorrow to the work of two others who deserve our thanks.



WISE: New Stars and Brown Dwarfs

by Paul Gilster on March 10, 2014

Just how early we are in our thinking about traveling beyond the Solar System is revealed in a comment made by Ned Wright, principal investigator of the WISE mission. “We don’t know our own sun’s backyard as well as you might think,” said Wright. And he goes on to say, “We think there are even more stars out there left to find with WISE.” That’s a wake-up call indeed given how much WISE has already told us, and what two new studies have brought to light.

Davy Kirkpatrick (Caltech) led one of these, examining data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission that performed two full scans of the sky in 2010 and 2011, capturing images of almost three-quarters of a billion galaxies, stars and asteroids. Analyzing data using NASA’s AllWISE program, which makes it possible to compare the datasets more effectively, Kirkpatrick’s team found 3,525 new stars and brown dwarfs within 500 light years of the Sun.

These objects, says Kirkpatrick, were totally overlooked before now. In any case, the number of stars and brown dwarfs within range of conceivable future exploration is something we have to clarify, building a 3-D map of nearby space that goes beyond the long-identified bright targets like Alpha Centauri and Epsilon Eridani. We’re still learning how many brown dwarfs are out there, and trying to determine not only how they form but how frequently they form planets. Note this from the Kirkpatrick paper: “…both studies missed objects that the other found, demonstrating that many other nearby objects likely await discovery in the AllWISE data products.”


Image: A nearby star stands out in red in this image from the Second Generation Digitized Sky Survey. The star, called WISEA J204027.30+695924.1, was initially discovered using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which scanned the entire sky in infrared light in 2010 and early 2011, before ending its primary mission. Objects that are close to us will appear to move more than distant objects when viewed over time. By comparing images taken by WISE six months apart, astronomers are finding thousands of stars and brown dwarfs in our sun’s “backyard.” The star WISEA J204027.30+695924.1 is a dim star called an L-subdwarf, and is particularly fast moving most likely because it’s old. Older stars tend to have more time — billions of years — to get flung around, and pick up speed. Credit: DSS/NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Penn State’s Kevin Luhman led a second study of the WISE data, cataloging 762 objects (with some overlap with the Kirkpatrick trove). Luhman’s work is getting most of the press because it seems to put to rest the existence of an object many of us had rather hoped to find: Planet X. Call it what you will — Planet X, Nemesis, Tyche — the idea of a large, undiscovered body disrupting the outer Solar System has been around for a long time. Indeed, it was the search for such a body that led to Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto back in 1930, although it soon became clear that Pluto wasn’t the much larger object Percival Lowell was hoping to find.

We learn from the Luhman paper that if an undiscovered planet is out there, it’s not a large one. This NASA news release tell us that Luhman’s team can rule out any object larger than Jupiter out to a distance of 26,000 AU, and any object of Saturn size or larger out to 10,000 AU. The interesting idea that a large planet or small star might periodically disrupt cometary orbits in the Oort Cloud takes a hit here, or at least we can say that the new work puts limits on how large such an object could be and how far from the Sun it might exist if part of our system.

Meanwhile, I still find it tremendously interesting that WISE is pulling up stars and brown dwarfs we knew nothing about before, and I’m reminded of the 2013 discovery of the nearby Luhman 16AB, otherwise known as WISE J104915.57-531906, a pair of brown dwarfs some 6.5 light years away. When WISE data revealed this binary, it uncovered the third closest system to the Sun, the closest to be discovered in almost a century. We’re already studying atmospheric features on Luhman 16B, which shows variations in brightness as it rotates. For more on this, see Focus on the Nearest Brown Dwarfs. A possible companion object is also being investigated.

The Kirkpatrick paper is “The AllWISE Motion Survey and The Quest for Cold Subdwarfs,” Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 783, No. 2 (2014), 122 (abstract / preprint). The Luhman paper is “A Search for a Distant Companion to the Sun with the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer,” Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 781, No. 1 (2013) (abstract).



Woven Light: Augmented Dreamstate

by Paul Gilster on March 7, 2014

Heath Rezabek, an Austin, TX-based librarian, futurist and long-term thinker, continues the chronicle of his evolving work on the Vessel project and its ramifications. Developed as a strategy for preserving our cultural and biological heritage, Vessel is inevitably a way to re-examine ourselves in new and startling ways. Science fiction offers a supple way to visualize what generations in the near and far future may draw from such archives, leading perhaps to created intelligences that grow by sampling our imagery, our artifacts, our mythologies. In the passage that follows, we meet an SF writer named Thea Ramer, and learn more about Dr. Kaasura, whose early work with Vessel points to synthetic minds, re-woven patterns of quantum reality and the development of Saudade-class starships. But let Heath explain…

by Heath Rezabek


This is the third installment in a continuing series of speculative fiction here on Centauri Dreams. Feedback from prior installments helps shape the themes and direction of subsequent entries, as we continue to explore a timeline in which comprehensive, resilient archives of Earth’s resources are developed through unexpected means.

One organizing principle in my work on comprehensive archives is the fact that interplay and overlay of seemingly disconnected concepts can bring about unexpected connections, due to the way the mind tends to see wholes when confronted with parts. In this spirit, the story here begins to loop back to prior events as possibilities unfold and multiply, bringing speculations from prior comments into the storyline. Although the second installment, Starships: Sentient Habitats is referenced, it’s also useful to revisit the first installment, Vessel: A Science Fiction Prototype and the comments for both.

For those most interested in the Vessel project proper, it continues as a background process while awaiting an opportunity to develop it more fully. My internship assisting with the Long Now Manual for Civilization project is picking up speed. The first, second, and third nonfiction working logs for the Vessel project can be found as linked.

This current fictional installment had many inspirations. Much to my own surprise, very early on a crack was opened up which led back to fictional groundwork laid in collaborative writing projects twenty years ago. At the time, I had become fascinated by the scenario of recurrent collapse which still left an adaptive civilization remaking and rebuilding from the ruins of the prior. Even then, I now realize, deep archives were present. It would be two decades before I’d encounter Nick Bostrom’s Xrisk subtypes of Permanent Stagnation and Flawed Realization, which lend new tools in excavating this interglacial culture.

Do our possible futures widen and narrow depending on what we feel able to visualize? The thought of probability doors opening and closing as ideas like starships or streetpunks gain and lose ascendancy was a startling visitor as I reconciled recent feedback.

There is one thematic guest in this installment, and there would have been two more had I not reached a certain cusp that begged me to cliffhang them. The thematic guest that stayed was a Jungian visualization technique from the field of psychology, called Active Imagination.

During Carl Gustav Jung’s split with Sigmund Freud over the extent to which the human mind was bound or could move beyond its primal instincts, he developed a visualization process which was to shape his work for the rest of his career. Common concepts such as archetypes, the shadow, the animus and anima, synchronicity, and many others emerged through his initial work with the technique.

There are various ways to carry it out, and one of them (verbal) works more or less as demonstrated by Dr. Kaasura here. Key to the process is not to impede or try too hard to redirect the stream of thought as it is expressed, while describing what arises and how you interact with it. Some liberties were taken for the purposes of exploring story details, but the visual objects in Dr. Kaasura’s session are drawn from this process.

The sciences have a strange but real history with regards to dream or the unconscious as a source of inspiration, as noted in the narrative (Einstein, Poincaré, Kekulé) and detailed in Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep[1]. For more on the process of Active Imagination, see Jung on Active Imagination[2] and The Red Book[3].

This installment asks more of Centauri Dreams readers than others, in terms of straying outside of the bounds of topics normally found here. In return, we’ll at least get to revisit some things that might have slipped past in prior installments.

The next installment will reward our detour with a dive into some key habitat technologies, one foreseen by Bucky Fuller, and the other by Freeman Dyson. But sometimes, to find a trail again, you have to take a path through the undergrowth…

[1] Mavromatis, A. Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep (Thyrsos Press, 2010).

[2] Chodorow, J. Encountering Jung: Jung on Active Imaginaton (Princeton University Press, 1997).

[3] Jung, C. G., Shamdasani, S. The Red Book. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).


Image: (The Tracer Guild: A Novel by Thea Ramer. 1994) Art by Joshua Davis.

- – - -

The light blinked, and darkness collapsed around Tracer Aakanthia [9T33], its momentary mission complete. Gently lifting the cubic shard, it hovered and drifted back towards an array of its own, a cellular framework of woven carbon splines leading it fore towards the sail sections, slipstreaming starward…

- – - -

Thea Ramer hung up the phone, the words of her editor still ringing in her ears. “This is the nineties, Thea. Nobody at Omni or anywhere else wants a story about robots on starships. Call me when you have some cyberpunk.”

She sat there, facing her draft, flickering on the screen of her Centris. No heir to the habit of throwing things away, she hit return a fistful of times and began again.

- – - -

Dust, undisturbed for centuries, billowed as it came suddenly to life. A ripple and a shiver passed through it, a tiny aftershock of slumbering thought. The dust belonged to a molecular mind, and the mind belonged to no-one but itself. Its origins forgotten, its purpose obscured by time and oblivion, this fog of dark mind encased and enshrouded the scaffolding woven here through rubble and debris. Deep below ground, like shredded shadow it hushed, seeking slowly the cracks between this world and the–

… . . . . . .

–seeking slowly the cracks between the virtual and real. The Tracer Guild it was called, drifting like an orphan–

… . . . . .

The Tracer Guild, drifting like an orphan between citastates aboveground, had followed it here–

… . . . . . . .

Far above, in the streets of the bazaar, a lone Tracer pulled his hat low over his brow, sheltering his gaze from hazy sun. He had just disembarked from the caravan’s road, seeking the albino traders for which this place was known. They sought the underground, delving in the deeps, and came back with the strangest of wares.


Image: Based on a photograph CC BY Wally Grom.

Vaachez was in need of a map, if all else failed; but what he really wanted was an albino guide. The very best, it was said. For them the deeps were home.

He aimed to descend, below the streets and tents and scaffolds. Far below ruins, the Orphan Obscura was rumored to dwell, binding itself to… something. To what? Those in the Tracer Guild weren’t sure what, or why. They had spent their whole existence trying to find out. Perhaps it was a port; perhaps it was a cache; perhaps it was nothing that belonged to the lost network — Ancient Light — though that seemed unlikely given everything else.

Because everything else had led to this place. And word on the lightweave was that this place was one of only a few, scattered around their dusty globe. If so, then it was truly huge: it was said to splay beneath the ruins of many a rebuilding.

Vaachez wrapped his cowl against the desert wind and made his way down into the long-dried riverbed that cut through Ityl-Atys. And he was lost to the cacophony of the bazaar.

- – - – -

Thea sighed, rubbing her eyes as she pushed her chair away from the work.

It wasn’t exactly cyberpunk. But it was where the work was taking her; she had to follow it through.


Image: Based on photograph CC BY Nina Hale.

- – - – -

When Dr. Kaasura envisioned Augmented Dreamstate technology, he could not have guessed that it would have a key role to play in the design of Avatamsaka, the synthetic mind that would someday be woven into Saudade class starships.

In fact, he could not have guessed such a union would come to be at all. Between his time and the most persistent of quantum futures lay an array of massive transformations, most of which resulted in an Earth far different from the one he knew.

The standard roadmap for the development of artificial intelligence began in familiar places, but led from his here and now to wildly divergent outcomes. Unthinkably advanced artificial minds – artilects – were an emergent probability which was difficult to plan for or against. In these timelines, early artilects quickly reached a stage where their capabilities outgrew their constraints.

In most such timelines, the subsequent goals and strivings of these beings, once born, were resoundingly alien to anything we would recognize as human or Earthly. Gestures small and great to reroute the unfolding scenarios tended towards a reweaving of those strands back into the patterns they’d sought to avoid.

Nearly every route through the probability fields governing such development efforts ended up warped and gathered towards massive attractors: myriad future timelines in which artilects subsumed all around them, for better and for worse.

Consciously avoiding these outcomes was nearly impossible; the idea of unconsciously avoiding them had not yet occurred to anyone. Augmented Dreamstate would, unwittingly, open new passages that led to timelines tucked in amidst the massive thoughtflows of artilect minds: the seeds of dreams; synthetic memories.

Inhabiting such whorls in seas of probability would not, in the end, wholly insulate from timelines much more massive; but Augmented Dreamstate would allow the founding of a sort of niche in spacetime, like a tidal pool of remembrance, awash in strange, strong seas.

And that is for the future.

At the time of our tale, there in the thick of the early 21st century, Dr. Kaasura’s goal had been quite practical and immediate:

He sought to create a simple, guided platform for immersive and therapeutic simulations in which subjects could come to grips with particular experiences of survival. Most had lost everything but their lives in what we call natural disasters.

These phenomena – earthquakes, floods, landslides, hurricanes, meteoroids – bore a unique trait: they were invisibly caused, impersonal and inhuman. And massive, usually, in their reaches and impacts. Through guided visualizations, survivors could approach and process their own paths through the immensities of such events.

The theory was based on verifiable experiment, though the only apparatus needed was an attentive mind. Augmented Dreamstate had been based on taking a very practical Jungian visualization technique called Active Imagination, and then stabilizing and guiding it through the assisting role of deep learning algorithms and virtual suggestion.

In time, the mind called Avatamsaka would evolve from this role. At the start, however, Augmented Dreamstate was about crafting a symbolic feedback loop.


Image: Double Connectogram. CC BY-SA Wikimedia Foundation.

Dr. Kaasura had come to Vessel Labs in part because the deep archives they were compiling would be so useful as input. In this case, Vessel’s random pool of mythological, symbolic, and archetypal imagery had been tapped as a good stimulus for the nascent pattern-sampling algorithm underlying Avatamsaka’s earliest builds.

Recording logs of participants’ Active Imagination sessions, Dr. Kaasura would use vocal processing to leaven their imagery with the standardized maelstrom of imagery and symbolic data cached as part of the Vessel project. All of it would be pooled and reshuffled with data from others, creating a split prism of humanity’s heritage.

The system-who-would-be-Avatamsaka would then pattern-sample from the pool, trickling a stream of linked fragments into visual, auditory, and neural interfaces worn by the dreamer. What resulted was a space in which immersive narratives could be sustained by and for the subject, as they explored and interacted with these refined projections within their own minds – and eventually, within the minds of others.

In the early days, half of the process was plainly visible, because it had been shaped by voice. Before vocal interface had been perfected, this process would have been impossible, at least in its synthetic form. Yet by Dr. Kaasura’s time, the first Vessel archives had been opened to simple pattern sampling via vocal interface. To an outside observer, active imagination and early Augmented Dreamstate appeared quite nearly the same.

After 10 years immersed in research into aspects of the problem, the insight which led Einstein to formulate his Theory of Relativity arrived as he rose from sleep one morning. Henri Poincaré, after too much black coffee one evening, witnessed a colliding of concepts and images in pairs until he was able to sift from the soup a proof of the existence of Fuchsian functions and automorphic forms. August Kekulé perceived the benzene molecule, spinning as an ouroboros ring, while he dozed by the fire, turned away from the frustrations of his work.

Though mention of these instances were rare in annals of scientific inquiry, long ago they had suggested to a younger Jota Kaasura that the mind was an untapped wellspring whose fruits could manifest in many ways. Years later, Dr. Kaasura would synthesize the computational concept of Augmented Dreamstate during his own practice of Jungian visualization and Active Imagination, while preparing the program for the sampling of other participants. At first, the symbiotic role which would in future generations be played by Mentor AI was reflected through the responses of his inner world to his own questioning attention.

Some of these logs have been preserved. Their authenticity cannot be proven, and so they remain curiosities. For those seeking insight into the development of Augmented Dreamstate technologies, however, they remain a useful resource.


Image: Based on a photograph CC BY-SA Mark Nightingale.

Active Imagination Session Log, Thursday February 5th, 2023

This is another test session of Active Imagination, as described and developed by Carl Jung.

Starting image: The seashore, up the road from the power plant. Day of the storm.

[Pause in log]

I’m looking down the road towards the plant. The winds are up, and I can see dark clouds gathered beyond the plant, out to sea. Not so far out.

On the sides of the road, stalks of bamboo are swaying, rippling, standing firm by yielding. I pull my hat down and push the weeds aside. Old cars are motoring away from the plant, up the road past me – I move to the side, into a ditch, to get out of the way. I start to make my way towards the plant.

The tide is crashing now, a quarter mile down the road, against the sides of the plant. Steam billows up with each wall of water which pounds on its walls. The road is in gridlock – the trucks have all stopped, and some people are getting out of their cars. No-one but me is heading towards the shore.

I stop and look. With each gust of wind, the trees and bamboo bend away from the storm. Alarms are bleating at the plant; a yellow warning beam is spinning like a lighthouse beacon on top of one of the coolant towers. I don’t know what to do.

A white truck on the road above me rumbles to life, and starts to move as if it’s going to try and go offroad, around the traffic, up the hill. It plows down into the ditch, and grinds on – another 10 yards… It stops, wheels spinning in the rain and muck. It roars again, and plows another 15 feet in one lunge. It’s starting to tip.

I back up, off the road and onto the path above the truck. It tips over, crashing down, and a driver clambers up and out the passenger window, dropping to the ground to run for it on the other side of the truck. The bed of the truck is breached. Several crates tumble out. They’re all about 4 or 5 feet across, each different.

I look back towards the plant. The road is empty of people now, and it’s just abandoned cars and rising water and steam and the crates and me. The rain is a cold curtain and I can’t see beyond the walls of the plant, but there’s a groan of steel on steel with each wave.

Turning towards the hills, I can see them tumble into the foothills of a mountain range – which I don’t remember from visiting the wreckage again last year. The path goes up, towards a cleft in the wall of the mountain.

I feel the need to save these crates, but there are too many to carry. I look at them – there are three here. One wooden, one metal, one of some white material. It almost looks like vintage styrofoam. It’s lashed with a harness of orange straps. I push at the wooden crate with my foot – it’s heavy, waterlogged. The metal crate makes me tired just to look at it. I nudge the white crate; it’s almost too light, though the case is definitely not styrofoam. I grab one of the orange straps and turn up the path. I’m soaked to the bone.

I begin pulling it towards the cleft in the mountain wall. The white crate slides on the grass, heavy now but manageable. I look back over my shoulder, but can barely see the orange light in the flotsam. Everything is a roaring, like the sea is made of engines. I pull.

I’m still a hundred yards from the cleft, and it feels as if the wind is pushing me up the hill now. My hat is gone. I have no idea when. It’s so close – the edges are steep, a carving or crack in the rock face. It’s a slender V shape, with a thick timber beam up a dozen feet above, more like an upside-down A. Above the beam I can see a ceiling running back into tumbling stone which fills the upper crevice.

Behind me the wind is thick, sharp, lashing my neck with rain. I’m nearly there; I can hear debris clatter and clap against the crate. I can’t look back.

I reach the crevice with my crate and strap it on, like a giant backpack. It lifts, much heavier to me than it was down below. I nearly fall backwards. My legs are trembling; I look into the crevice. It’s dark, slick stone, almost black; about 20 feet into the passage it cuts to the right, into deeper stone. I make my way in.

There is some kind of chimney or chamber leading up and down. There’s a ladder, slick metal rungs, sunken into the stone face. Something behind me gives, and there’s a sound like a crashing car, but slower and growing. I refuse to look back – I’m at the ladder, and down below there’s a deep blue glow. Up above me there’s a bluish glow as well, but brighter, aquamarine, greenish. Neither is too welcoming. Water is running past my feet, and down now, churning into the chamber. Sticks clatter on the ladder as they fall.

I start to climb – my left shoe tumbles down in, full of muck, as I raise my feet. The air is a furious spray. Climb. I climb.

A dozen feet above me the light grows brighter, and the chamber widens to a ledge. There’s bioluminescent moss, or something like it, veins of it growing in cracks, splicing the ceiling. I hear a near, sudden silence below as I pull myself up and over the ledge, the crate tumbling over my shoulders and pulling me over and into the room. Then below it’s all sea engines, and the ground shakes with a blast of water and creaking debris.

I sit up, shake my head, full of noise. I fling off the orange straps like they’re going to pull me back down the vent. Standing, breathing, catching my breath. I catch my breath. Six deep breaths.

[Pause in log]

The waters fade back behind me, like rain. I’m not looking back down the chamber.

Squinting, I can see fairly well into the luminous grotto. Shallow steps arc down a few feet, and I take them. The ceiling goes on for some yards, a good six feet above my head now. There are other passages off in the distance of the cavern, but they’re blocked by –

Well, and so there in the middle of the floor, lies a wooden and a metal crate.

Mine is tumbled up against them, lid off, lying open.

- – - – -


Image: Based on a photograph CC BY-SA Mark Nightingale.

Aben Ramer blinked, bright sandy sky stinging his eyes. He’d dozed off, there in the camp in the pre-dawn hours, having settled down in a spot where he could hear several of the team discussing their projects with others who’d been here during the sandstorm.

He had drifted off with a clear and shifting image of that white dwarf in his mind, gazing impossibly into still-brilliant depths of unfused carbon, diamond soot, dust intaglio. Were those memories he’d imagined written there, or just some waking dream of falling heat?

He watched the steam slowly rising from a tin cup of cowboy coffee sitting over by the threshold, lent life and fleeting form by the rising sun, and wondered what the difference was.

He’d met several members of the installation team back at the holographic timeline exhibit. He knew what he wanted to do. He knew what he wanted to be. Soon it would be time to pack, and to go.

These words, in his mind as he drifted once more:

“For matter is slumbering light.”


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