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The Ultimate Project to the Stars

By Larry Klaes

Tau Zero journalist Larry Klaes takes on an old subject with a new twist: The multi-generational starship. It’s a familiar trope in science fiction (think Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop or Heinlein’s ‘Universe’), but one given modern impetus in the hands of a small team of visionaries dedicated to making it happen. These guys think big, not just in terms of ship size but trip duration (ten thousand years!), and envision at least 500 years as the time needed to get their project ready to launch. Always a promoter of long-term thinking, Centauri Dreams follows the improbable tale with considerable interest.

Despite how they appear to us in the night sky and the relative ease and speed with which spaceships in most science fiction stories fly to them, the twinkling stars in the heavens are, in reality, immensely far away. The few robotic probes that have left our Solar System faster than any other vehicles yet built would not — if aimed in their direction — reach the the nearest stars for 77,000 years. Spaceships that could attain speeds approaching that of light (186,000 miles per second), while theoretically possible, have many technological and physics hurdles to overcome and are a long way from being built.

Due to this reality, scientists began contemplating in the last century how humans could reach other star systems alive aboard vessels that could become practical in the not too distant future.

Birth and Death Among the Stars

One idea that was quickly taken up by science fiction authors is the multigenerational starship. A large selection of people would be placed aboard a giant spacecraft with the necessary tools and resources to survive the many centuries it would take a relatively slow-moving vessel to reach another star system. The crew members who eventually arrive at the target sun and its circling worlds would be the distant descendants of the original explorers, ready to disembark from their ship and settle in these new lands.

Alpha Centauri and environs

Image: It’s a big sky. Can we do better than the 77,000 years it would take a Voyager-class spacecraft to reach the Centauri stars? In the image, Alpha Centauri is visible just left of center, a triple system whose light here appears as a single bright dot. Credit: Claus Madsen/ESO.

One group of individuals has been inspired enough by the multigenerational starship concept to begin the first serious efforts to make the idea not just a reality but to turn it into a purposeful focus for all of humanity – to expand into the Milky Way galaxy and save our species from any threats of extinction.

Grandly called The Ultimate Project, the plan calls for building a cylindrical starship over one mile long and one mile wide weighing 100 million tons that would carry one million people across interstellar space for 10,000 years or more to colonize an inhabitable Earthlike planet that astronomers hope to find within the next few decades.

Finding Another Earth

The original designer of The Ultimate Project is Dr. Steven Kilston of Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, CO. When Kilston became manager of Ball’s Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) program ten years ago, he began to wonder how humanity would respond to the discovery of a planet much like our world circling another star.

“My answer was that we should go there, and I began discussing with many aerospace industry colleagues the practical considerations that could enable that,” replies Kilston. In January of 1999, he presented his first poster on The Ultimate Project to the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Kilston has since presented his idea at JPL, MIT, and many other institutions.

Artist\'s conception of The Ultimate Project

Kilston envisions a project and ship that would take over 500 years and cost $50 trillion to complete before it even leaves the Solar System. Spinning at one revolution each minute to create a sense of gravity similar to Earth’s surface for the comfort of its one million residents, the ship would use nuclear fusion engines to eventually move at 373 miles per second through the Milky Way galaxy. In addition to the relatively slow speed being an attainable velocity target, a slower travel rate means there will be less chance of a dangerous impact with space debris. A layer of water in the ship’s outermost deck would provide protection for the crew from cosmic radiation.

With the rapid advancements in technology and our understanding of the Universe happening every day, some might wonder why humanity should invest in a project that will take centuries to build and thousands of years to transport people to another star system when a better means of reaching the stars might come along in the near future.

“If people thought like that about computers, they would never buy one,” says Kilston, who also cites Europe’s medieval cathedrals and the Great Wall of China as examples of some successful multigenerational projects. “Also, having experts, machines, and materials on board, together with maintaining communications with Earth throughout the voyage, would mean that any improved technology could be incorporated quickly in situ, possibly keeping this ship ahead of later ones.”

Surviving the Journey

Another concern regarding multigenerational starships is the possibility of the crew’s society degenerating into barbarism and forgetting its original purpose after centuries of isolation from Earth. Most of the science fiction stories that take place aboard such vessels assume this situation.

Sven U. Grenander, a senior engineer at JPL, a “self-assigned Rogue Technologist”, and manager of the formation and start-up of The Ultimate Project, thinks it is a certainly that factionalism and barbarism will flourish aboard the starship without a written constitution that can survive the long trip.

“The constitution has to serve as a fractal seed that can grow in a predictably orderly fashion and not be overtaken by chaos or lawlessness,” says Grenander. “The constitution is the most important element of the project as it is the only thing that will keep the human crew from spiraling off into any number of project-defeating directions.”

As for how the average citizen can become involved, Nancy J. Grenander, who manages the project’s operations and business structure, says she “would like to see The Ultimate Project stimulate young minds so that they can think about the possibilities of doing something that some may think impossible. I want to see them let their imaginations go forward even though they might not see the completed project.”

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

– Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Matt Metcalf June 18, 2008, 10:45

    I stumbled onto the UP a couple of weeks ago and thought it was an interesting first step. I’m not sure I agree with their approach, but at least they’re fostering discussion of the topic. However, after I tried to register for their message boards I was never approved, so I haven’t been able to contribute to the discussions myself.

    I think the UP would work better not as one ship with a million people, but rather as 100 smaller ships, each with about 10,000 people. That way if something disastrous happens, you don’t lose the whole enchilada in one big bang. And if you send the ships out, say, one every ten years, then you don’t have to string along communication satellites behind the ship… you just use the other ships to relay communications to and from Earth.

  • Ronald June 18, 2008, 11:49

    If one favors mulit-generational transport to Alpha Centauri, then let’s just sit here and wait a while: our solar system is moving towards it and in about 30,000 years the distance to AC will have been reduced to about 3 ly.

  • Jim Baerg June 18, 2008, 11:58

    They should be looking instead at how to build O’Neill style space habitats within the solar system. That would have a nearer term payoff & once we’ve been building lots of them for a century or two we can send a few on interstellar trips

  • Hans Bausewein June 18, 2008, 13:29

    Must be scientists, not entrepeneurs.

    I think the chances are must better starting with a small project that has some of the attractive features:
    – simulated gravity
    – protection against space radiation
    – cruising the solar system

    A ring of 30 m. width and 1 km radius would do.
    Make it attractive to live in and economically viable and sustainable and extend it later.

    There are thousands of people crossing the earth on cruise ships. Maybe the same can be done on a solar system scale.

    Once it is big enough and can live without external supplies, it’s ready to leave the solar system. By that time it’s also more likely that propulsion systems available.

    BTW: Creating sustainable world is a good exercise for earth too.

  • James M. Essig June 18, 2008, 15:29

    Hi Folks;

    This is a very interesting concept. We as a species really do need to think about branching out into the Milky Way. The ship traveling at roughly 0.002 C could travel to any location within the Milky Way Galaxy in under (100,000)[(0.002) EXP -1] years or 50 million years. We could populate the entire Galaxy in 50 million years and plan for humanity’s survival at least as long as star formation and low mass range red dwarfs last or 10 EXP 15 years and 10 EXP 13 years respectively into the future.

    373 + miles/second should be easily doable with fusion rockets and even fission rockets. When it was desired to send humanity further out to say the Andromedea Galaxy, starships with a longer aspect ratio could well be designed that travel at 0.1 C using fusion rockets. Matter/antimatter rocket starships with a fuel to dry weight ratio about a half an order of magnitude greater than unity could allow for near light speed and a gamma factor of about 2 when optimized for fuel energy to ship kinetic conversion efficiency. With these later two examples, we could send humanity throughout our local galaxy cluster or super cluster in about 10 million to 100 million years. Better technologies could take us onward from there.

    But we might have to start with what we could design in the near term. 373 miles/second sounds good, in a way, because of the reduced risk of impacts with interstellar debris. Scaling up the population of such craft could be done simply by making the ship longer. We could build ships with outer cross-section to length ratios similar to long rail-road trains or even that of long pieces of string.



  • tacitus June 18, 2008, 15:51

    I’ve said this before, but I question the premise of the “Ultimate Project”. While they claim that this is just one proposal and that they are open to others proposals for a long-term interstellar plan, this appears to be the only one they ever talk about. It’s putting the cart before the horse — proposing the solution before you’ve thrashed out the what the question is, what problem we are trying to solve.

    If the correct definition of the problem we want to solve is to establish a colony on another star system, then this is almost certainly not the best way to do it. You do not put all your eggs into one basket, particularly one where smaller smaller, faster ships will undoubtedly the same task cheaper and much, much quicker. At 373 miles per second, it will take that ship 40 years just to get to this system’s Oort Cloud. With a fleet of smaller ships, you can be at Alpha Centauri in that time, and by the time the slow ship arrives, the first colonists would be on their fourth or fifth generation and on their way to a thriving society.

    The mission statement of the Ultimate Project should be simple. To establish a human colony on another star system. There should be no up-front discussion or design proposals of mega-habitats or the like until the a set of detailed requirements is hashed out — like how big the colony should be, how long should it take to get there — both extremely complex issues in their own right. Only then should you start laying out a plan and working on a set of proposals (of which the current UP as specified can be one) that can be debated and discussed over the next few years, or even decades if you like.

    I also reject the comparison of the current UP with building a cathedral or the Great Wall. First, I don’t believe the building of any cathedral was undertaken with the understanding that it would be a multi-generational project (I could be wrong, but is there evidence?), there was also a highly religious and devotional component to those projects which will, they say, will be absent from the UP. As for the Great Wall, well, surprise, surprise, it turns out that some wall is often better than none! i.e. the Great Wall didn’t need to be completed before it was any use to anyone.

    I am a huge fan of long term predictions and speculation, it’s a lot of fun, but the UP just seems to be so far off base from reality — even a speculative reality — that I can’t drum up any enthusiasm for it at all. As a road map it takes us off into the middle of nowhere.

  • Administrator June 18, 2008, 16:31

    tacitus, re your question on medieval cathedrals, bear in mind that the medieval lifespan was short, and the average time for completion of these buildings in continental Europe was 75 to 85 years. Many took longer — the pre-fire version of St. Paul’s (begun by the Normans) required 200 years! A number of factors are at play here, including the necessity to work largely during the summer only, due to problems associated with the building materials. In any case, I think the average worker at the beginning of a cathedral project would have known that the odds against his seeing its completion were all but insurmountable.

  • William Truderung June 18, 2008, 19:11

    This is an interesting concept, but in my opinion mistaken. It appears that the goal of the project is to plant a human colony on an extrasolar Earthlike planet. However, to reach that planet would require mobile habitats capable of housing a million people for 10,000 years — so by the time this project becomes practical, earthlike planets would not be required. Any such planets would surely be studied, but will probably be declared off-limits to colonisation.

    If it did become essential to move a human population to another star system via ‘multigenerational’ STL travel, it would be far more resource-efficient to simply carry the genetic information, either in the form of sperm and ova, or simply in the form of digital copies of several million genomes. I presume that by the time these vessels can be built, it will also be possible to create machines to bear and raise human children once the vessel arrives at its destination.

  • John Hunt June 18, 2008, 22:25

    I agree with most everyone else that the UP misses the point. However they have two premises which I believe have use:
    1) The purpose is to save our species from extinction, and
    2) Travel times around 10,000 years.

    Many people agree that we need an off-Earth colony so that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. It’s a rationale that has real-life buy-in. President Bush cited this reason to move forward with the Vision for Space Exploration. Also, Elon Musk (SpaceX) is ultimately motivated to pursue cheaper access to space and eventually development of the moon in order to pursue “backup plans for a possible species extinction”.

    But the lack of evidence that intelligent species survive long enough to spread through the galaxy (i.e. the Fermi Paradox) might indicate that their lunar or Mars-like bases were not a sufficient back-up. Perhaps only the very difficult task of interstellar travel is sufficient.

    If we hope to get real funding for a real interstellar mission, we need a compelling rationale. Survival of the species is the only rationale that I believe would be sufficient to attract the billions or more that are needed.

    If one establishes survival of the species as the reason for interstellar travel then an interesting thing happens. Short travel times don’t become so important. 10,000 years for science return makes no sense. Even 1,000 years is too long given that technologic development would likely increase craft speeds significantly in the next 100 years.

    But if one launches on a 10,000 year interstellar mission which has the potential to establish humanity elsewhere then the insurance policy is in effect NOW. Even if Earth destroys itself humanity might still survive.

    The advantages of a long travel time is significant and are such that those of us who would like to see an interstellar mission launched in our lifetime should pay good attention to. Most importantly, you don’t need the huge power capacity in order to accelerate to high speeds. Secondly, the shielding issue becomes much easier to deal with.

    The fundamental problem with the UP is that it involves many living, breathing people. As a result you’ve got huge mass, huge energy requirements, exceptionally sustainable life-support systems, and of course an insanely high price tag.

    Why? Why go that direction when you don’t have to? Why not instead achieve the same goal (preservation of humanity) but with a much smaller mass and smaller launch energy needs? Why not work on developing sleeper ships or better yet frozen embryo, stem cell, artificial gestation, and childrearing at destination? Biotechnology and robotics will very soon give us this ability.

  • Zonninger June 18, 2008, 23:14

    The idea of the Ultimate Project is indeed fatally flawed. The IT analogy is not, as Kilston believes, that of never buying a computer, but of choosing to build a computer that would take 50 years to complete – there would be no point. As the technology advances, you would either have to rigidly stick to your antiquated plans (which eventually become unfeasible as components are no longer manufactured) or redo every part of the system that’s already been built, which would have to occur numerous times over before the project was completed. Such an approach would make the project take *longer* and cost *more* than if you initiated it at the right point in time: I.e., it serves no purpose whatsoever to do things the way the UP suggests.

    Moreover, even if we ignore this fatal flaw, there is another related to human psychology. Administrator uses the analogy of medieval workers knowing their work would not be completed in their lifetimes, but there are serious problems with such a comparison: Medieval people believed, quite literally, that they would watch from heaven as their work was completed, and that this work would in fact contribute to their ability to get there. They were not driven by a rational purpose, and had no expectation that they would fail to see the outcome of their labors. Then there is the fact that, for all intents and purposes, they didn’t really have a choice – if their lord (who may also have been a Bishop, adding divine power behind the secular) ordered them to build a cathedral, they would build a cathedral. Contrast that with the multi-generational, voluntary contributors to the mere *construction* of the UP spacecraft – not even the motivations that would drive a more immediate project like a Mars colony would apply, because there would be zero chance of the contributors seeing any significant groundwork laid, let alone the mission launched. If such a project, despite its fatal flaws, managed to scrape together $10,000 per year, it would be incredibly lucky.

    Until we have a rigorously tested Unified Theory that rules out superluminal travel, we’re far, FAR better off committing resources to exploring the possibilities rather than what would be equivalent to attempting a moon landing with ancient Greek technology.

  • J. R. June 19, 2008, 0:29

    I don’t think the UP is stuck on one concept for spaceship design. It seems to be more of a hypothetical example using today’s technology that could be modified and improved upon through future advances in technology. Although the initial concept uses known technologies of today, I believe the UP anticipates or at least hopes for significant advances in technology. For example, the most effective collision avoidance strategies would need considerable advancements in computerized tracking and guidance technologies. With such future advancements, higher speeds could be considered in the final design.

    I believe one comment mentioned that we should be working on colonizing our own solar system first. With the rapid advancements that I foresee as possible, we should already be exploring and colonizing our solar system well within the timeframe of the UP, and hopefully, be ready to go to the stars in the same timeframe as the UP. I think that this knowledge base from exploring and colonizing our own solar system will likely guide the final UP design and mission.

  • Ronald June 19, 2008, 2:48

    Agree with Tacitus and W.Trudering;

    to put so much effort and resources in one Big Thing, is extremely risky, simply for statistical reasons, like putting all your eggs in one basket.

    The chance of something really bad happening during the journey, hence losing everything, is to great.
    As I argued before, it is subject to the laws of island biology: the reason why extinction levels are so much higher on small islands.

    One must limit the travel time in space as much as possible, because the longer the presence in a limited space in a potentially hostile environment, the greater the risk.

    Better to travel as fast as possible, as short as possible and as inactive as possible (cryogenics, suspended animation, and the like).

  • Adam June 19, 2008, 5:24

    Hi All

    10,000 years between the stars seems far too long for the journey to just end at the destination system. More likely the Ship will seek out new resources in the system and then move on, leaving behind any group willing to start a new world. If the colony planting and repair/refuel/restock takes a century that hardly matters on such time-frames. A ship that can last 10,000 years isn’t going to be scrapped when the New World is reached.

  • tacitus June 19, 2008, 5:42

    I readily concede that those who worked on the cathedrals, especially after the first couple of decades, would be pretty realistic about their chances of seeing the building completed (or their grandchildren). More to the point though, is what the planners and the architects were thinking when they drew up those designs. I did a bit of digging, but couldn’t really find anything that answered that — but I would be surprised if they set out with the goal of building something that would take a couple of centuries to complete.

    Either way, I just think the projects are so different in conception and purpose that the comparison intrinsically holds little merit. I guess we shall have to agree to disagree on this point.

    But I still think the way the project as it is being conceived is fatally flawed. I just looked at the latest blurb and nothing appears to have changed since I last critiqued it a few months back. There is a solution and there is a schedule, but nothing to suggest why this solution and schedule is the one we should be tackling. It’s supposed to be their answer to the question “what if we find a habitable planet tomorrow, what should we do?”, and we jump directly to a plan that seems to be “let’s spend 500 years designing and building a massive spaceship so we can all hop in and our distant descendants can hop out and take a look at it.” (I’m not trying to be facetious, just trying to make my point clear.)

    My point is that there is a ton of stuff missing in between the question — the right question as it happens — and their answer, even if it’s just offered as an outline solution.

    Why 500 years? Why a million people? What possible motivation would a world community have for expending the trillions of dollars on a project when there are likely millions of other more urgent calls on that money at any one time? Why risk spending 200 years planning and designing only to find that one unforeseen breakthrough makes the whole idea obsolete overnight?

    I just don’t see people getting enthused by a project that just doesn’t seem realistic in the first place. If you want to get people engaged you start by laying out the mission statement (i.e. getting to an exoplanet) and provide an infrastructure, pose a few guidelines and goals (not solutions or schedules!) and tell them to “have at it”. Brainstorming. Let people figure out what the problems are, what issues need to be solved — the technology, the psychology, the funding sources, the expense. *Then* you can start establishing more detailed goals — how much it should cost, how long it should take, what assumptions can we make, etc. etc.

    And then finally you’re ready to start brainstorming solutions, but only after (probably) several months or years have already passed. And I would bet anything that the final solution settled on would not look anything like the UP as outlined today.

    I’m sorry to be such a downer on this, but I just think they’re going about it all wrong. They’ve skipped over years of critical research and brainstorming and just come up with a solution that’s about as unrealistic as they come. (At least as a first migration effort, maybe a couple of thousand years down the road we might see something like this.)

    I get the sense that two thoughts were at play with this proposal. One was to make a splash — think huge and people will get to hear about it; the other is the nice, but unrealistic in almost all circumstances, idea that we will all come together as humanity by working on this lofty goal. That’s a fine sentiment, but not really a useful design point when you’re trying to figure out the best way to get to another star system.

  • msadesign June 19, 2008, 6:38

    I love it, Paul, when you take leave on wings of fancy, taking me to some of my favorite SF stories. This is the kind of piece that keeps the magic alive.

    Too, I remember well a sub-class of the genre; in these, a generation ship arrives only to find that technology has leapt over them, and that the goal-planet i settled already by folks on much faster ships!

    In some inherent way this makes a lot of sense. Who knows what 500 years will bring? In 1508, an imaginative person might want ‘super-horses’ propelling his wagons, never ever conceiving of horseless carriages.

  • george scaglione June 19, 2008, 10:08

    paul yes the average worker probably in those days figured that the odds against him where insurmountable! but you know what i’m beginning to think?! not long ago i heard it said on tv that we might be “decades” away from a crewed mars landing!!?? LOL i begin to wonder about MY chances of seeing it!!!! ………….and msadesign, yes indeed that sf story is tragic.sort of an argument really against generational ships.really sort of foolish to embark on such a mission,KNOWING darn well that the future will probably see much more modern and faster ships blowing by you!! and yes, that super horses comment is right on the mark. paul,ms, do you recall the original star trek episode “for the earth is hollow and i have touched the sky”!? heck,those folks even FORGOT THAT they where on such a ship! wow! thank you both very much your friend george

  • ljk June 19, 2008, 11:19

    Much of what The UP is about – in addition to giving humanity a
    noble and beneficial focus for our future plus a way to survive
    any catastrophes – is to start a dialogue on this very subject of
    transporting people to another star system, based on the idea
    that we will find Earthlike planets in the near future. And that
    it certainly has done.

    None of The UP team think what they are talking about now is
    the end all of everything. What they are doing is planning this
    major space project with technology and knowledge that is
    available now or possible in the very near future, rather than
    go off into flights of fancy about warp drives or cosmic wormholes
    or other such things.

    This is similar to what the British Interplanetary Society (BIS)
    did with the Daedalus starprobe in the late 1970s. Certainly
    things have improved since then to make the probe even
    better and even eliminate some original plans, including the
    target destination of Barnard’s Star, which probably does not
    have the planets the system was thought to have at the time
    (Plus Alpha Centauri is only 34 years away using Daedalus, as
    opposed to 50 years travel time to Barnard’s Star).

    But what was important was not only that it was considered
    at all, but that an actual interstellar mission was planned out
    in detail using realistic technology and physics along with
    technology that could happen in the near future.

    So look at The UP as a first stepping stone and idea generator
    based on realistic technology and astronomical knowledge,
    rather than this is the plan and that’s it. I am just thrilled
    that someone is even actually trying to do something about
    getting us to another star system.

  • Peter June 19, 2008, 13:00

    Just a thought- it might make more sense if seen as an end in itself rather than a means. If we built, say, 50,000 ships, each with 100,000 people, it would put an end to our global overpopulation and environmental problem (sooner rather than later). The ships could land and colonize planets, but there wouldn’t be much point beyond the science if the ships were self-sustaining. As new faster propulsion technology comes along, those ships just find, dock, and unload the passengers as they go…but in a completely self-supporting environment, with all the luxuries of earth, perhaps many would be content to stay on board the old ships, living out their years as though on a cruise ship, with no particular destination…

  • James M. Essig June 19, 2008, 17:40

    Hi Folks;

    Even if FTL travel proves impossible, I think humanity urge to explore will eventually lead to our colonization of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.

    Regarding the observed entanglement of photons at a record distance of 18 kilometers in an article whose URL was posted on site by ljk within the last few days, one can imagine that non-locality of quantum entanglement can exist over much greater distances, perhaps over interstellar distances.

    I can imagine future technologies wherein huge supplies of entangled photons or perhaps even fermions are produced at a common location of origin and then carried away from each other such as one half of the supply of entangled particles is carried on a sub C, relativistic craft such as an ion, electron, or photon rocket, a nuclear fusion rocket, a matter/antimatter rocket, a beamed energy sail, and the like.

    The transported portion of the entangled mattergy particles would act as a medium for the transport of the quantum information defining a human’s body, a space craft, or a coded message for FTL communication.

    If by chance, the processes that define a human personality or at least the linkage of any existent human soul to its body simply involve the existence or arrangement of quantum information, then perhaps the human personality can be quantum teleported along with the teleported associated quantum information.

    Either way, I just can not see humanity being confined to the solar system. We just have to reach out. Even if the ultimate speed limit of information travel proves to be C, well than C is the limit which in theory would allow, or should I say impose on us, an absolute bounding gamma factor of infinity. This still gives us much to work with in spreading humanity ever further out into the cosmos. I will have more comments to add to this thread after dinner tonight.



  • James M. Essig June 19, 2008, 21:26

    Hi Folks;

    I just read in the latest issue of Science News an article about so called super atoms, which in actuality, are molecules of certain configurations that have electrons in orbitals or shared arrangements similar to the electron shells around single atoms.

    It was stated that new forms of extremely energetic rocket fuels might result from rocket fuel made from super atoms. In one such form, the article stated the possible storage of hydrogen in a metallic state inside these so-called super atoms. I could imagine densely stored hydrogen using super atoms wherein pure fusion devices could be constructed utilizing the dense state of metallic hydrogen. The concept that comes to mind is a super efficient Orion style vehicle or a pulse jet fusion device rocket. Such a device might conceivably reach 0.1 C or greater thus promoting manned colonization of the Milky Way over the next million years and much further beyond over the coming billions and trillions of years.

    Just think, at one trillion years at 0.1C, we could travel out to 100 billion LY assuming no universe expansion or contraction. In actuality, at the current rate of expansion, we could travel much much further with recessional velocities from the Milky Way at many times C.

    One way or another, we are going interstellar and hopefully intergalactic.



  • ljk June 20, 2008, 11:17

    Two things to keep in mind:

    500 years or even 10,000 years may seem like long time
    spans to us short-lived humans (average age 80 years), but
    for the galaxy and Universe, those times are the proverbial
    drops in the bucket.

    No matter how much is said against the feasibility of this
    or any similar interstellar mission, there will be groups who
    will make the attempt to leave Earth and the Sol system for
    the potential promise of the wider galaxy. Enough will likely
    head out into the Milky Way that at least a few will make it
    and thrive among the stars.

    To quote Jurassic Park: “If there is one thing the history of
    evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life
    breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through
    barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously.”

    So unless something wipes out all life on Earth, some of its
    residents will spread out eventually. What happens then is
    the really interesting part.

  • tacitus June 20, 2008, 16:56

    Well, 80 years is not likely to be our lifespan for much longer. It’s quite possible that some of the kids being born this year will live 200 years or more. If not, then I would be very surprised if their grandchildren don’t.

    I also think that it’s extremely unlikely the Earth will suffer a total extinction event (manmade or natural) before some of us leave Earth for good. There may be some terrible setbacks where perhaps even billions of people die (it’s not too hard to imaging possible scenarios, unfortunately), but some will survive, and pick up close to where we left off. There will be no going back to the stone age. We are too resourceful for that to happen.

  • Zonninger June 20, 2008, 19:17

    I think you underestimate two things: (1)The extent to which technology depends on political stability – something that would be categorically destroyed in an event that brought about a billion deaths – and (2)the relatively small proportion of the population that has any fundamental knowledge of technology. Without political stability, education collapses – i.e., the social and political underpinnings that support scientific pursuits collapse – and the eventual restoration of stability after a period of chaos is typically authoritarian and stifling, which means science is usually ignored (if not actively suppressed, in theocratic scenarios). This is the reason the Romans went in the course of a century from invincible, armadillo-like plate armor to leather jerkins and cheap chain mail that would have been recognizable to any barbarian for the next millennium.

    Technology is not a bunch of independent products and capabilities, it is a single system going all the way from raw material extraction to end products. If you destroy a major part of that system, it collapses, and it cannot simply pull itself back up like Bugs Bunny pulling himself up by his own ears. If the United States had not been around to rebuild Europe after WW2, the destruction of its economies would have led to a second Dark Age. If our civilization was massively set back, what good would textbooks explaining how to make an electronic circuit be to people sleeping beneath mattresses in destroyed buildings, cradling their children with one arm and an AK-47 with the other? They would be used for kindling. Yes, eventually stability would be restored, and in some places that stability might be technology-friendly, but our system comes from *global stability*. Little pockets of stability wouldn’t do much – it would take a dozen generations to reestablish the political environment where getting back to this was even possible.

  • James M. Essig June 20, 2008, 20:57

    Hi Folks;

    Regarding the concept of super atoms and dense storage of hydrogen within in a metallic state, I bring up a concept that has already existed in some forms or another and that is the possibility of storing antimatter protons or antiprotons within the interiors cavities of such super atoms in a manner perhaps similar to concepts that anticipate antimatter storage within buckyballs, or other fullerene like structures.

    Perhaps the bulk materials storing such antimatter can have a relatively significant but still small electrical charge imbalance wherein the antiprotons would be released from their superatom cages and made to annihilate with hydrogen nuclei. The resultant energy release just might be sufficient to trigger the complete fusion, or nearly so, of miniature antimatter triggered thermonuclear devices for Orion style space craft or pulsed jet powered manned interstellar space craft able to reach 0.1 C to 0.2 C or even greater.

    Perhaps the quantity of antiprotons needed is miniscule compared to that of the mass of the fusion fuel. If ordinary hydrogen nuclei will not suffice, than perhaps deuterium, or lithium-deuteride, a classic fuel in hydrogen bomb designs, could be used. Another possibility is cages made of boron nitride wherein the great bulk of the cages would contain deuterium, or other fusion fuels that undergo fusion reactions with or mediated by boron when initiated by proton-antiproton annihilation.



  • James M. Essig June 21, 2008, 13:28

    Hi Folks;

    Another idea for setting off miniature thermonuclear fusion devices perhaps useful for Orion style craft or pulsed-rocket, relativistic, fusion powered, manned interstellar space craft involves miniature fusion devices set of by something similar to a so called “z pinch”. The nuclear weapons laboratories within the U.S. and organizations responsible for developing commercial fusion generated electrical power are actively researching such device configurations.

    A “z pinch” is a cage made of very thin conductive wires, perhaps with a mass of a fraction of a milligram wherein a tremendous ultra short burst of electrical current is passed through the cage which is ultimately designed to enclose or surround a supply of fusion fuel. I believe that the vaporized, or should I say ionized temperatures of the exploding z-pinch’s have reached several million K. Researchers anticipate going to much higher temperatures with this technology and perhaps even miniaturizing the z-pinch’s so that they can reach appropriate temperatures wherein the much smaller mass of the z-pinch would permit much lower energy bursts of ionizing electrical energy thus perhaps making practical nuclear fusion reactor concepts based on the z-pinch and/or miniaturized self contained thermonuclear devices or pure fusion devices of any yield possible if not practical.

    As a novel means of generating a plasma hot enough to induce nuclear fusion, I can hardly see a better use for research that has had its legacy from the tail ends of the Cold War. If we can do miniature z-pinch style pulsed rocket propulsion with pure fusion devices, I can see that relativistic manned space craft could by plying the depths of local interstellar space and reaching our stellar neighbors this very century.

    Fusion device pellet runways should in theory allow us to reach very high gamma factors thus potentially putting all of the Milky Way within reach of manned expeditions within one or perhaps at most, only a few normal human generations ship time. I cannot think of a better use for the cosmic energy source of nuclear fusion.



  • ljk July 8, 2008, 13:05

    Speaking of really long projects, check out this one: A
    concert that will last for 639 years – longer than the
    planned construction and testing time of The Ultimate

    ‘World’s longest concert’ resumes

    By Steve Rosenberg

    BBC News, Halberstadt, Germany

    A note from a piece by a US composer is to be played this
    weekend in a German town in what has been called the
    world’s slowest and longest concert.

    The church organ in Halberstadt will play the next – sixth –
    chord of John Cage’s As Slow As Possible work.

    The performance began in 2000 and is scheduled to last
    a total of 639 years.

    The idea of taking so long to get through the composer’s
    piece is to find a musical way of countering the hustle and
    bustle of modern life.

    Full article here:


  • Ed Williamson November 4, 2008, 11:32

    The post of Ronald (June 18 2008):

    If one favors mulit-generational transport to Alpha Centauri, then let’s just sit here and wait a while: our solar system is moving towards it and in about 30,000 years the distance to AC will have been reduced to about 3 ly.

    I think he has hit the nail on the head. This idea seems to be in sink with the 2004 novel by A. Ahad of a voyage to Alpha Centauri in a cylindrical ark. I expect his thesis had taken these things into consideration, as he’d brainstormed quite a few of us on the physics forum at the time.
    Where I think there could be some mileage in this idea of a tens of thousands of years long journey is the ability to scoop up ionic matter from the Ooort cloud to resource a biosphere that may “dry up” on these kinds of journey.

    At the very least, it’s food for thought.

  • Gregory June 27, 2009, 4:38

    Points to consider:

    1. Any interstellar journey will take a long time to prepare.

    2. The Earth is not able to support our current population, let alone the predicted growth.

    3. We have the technology available now to live in space.

    4. Every realistic suggestion for a journey to habitable planets currently involves generational timespans for the trip.

    5. These points apply to considerations about terraforming as well as colonising other planets.

    For now, we should get a population into space and achieving self sufficiency. Such a colony becomes a much better launching point for re-useable craft as well as a permanent experiment in artificial habitats. From here we can find ways to mine the extra-terrestrial resources neccesary to build and improve upon the spacecraft designs as well as look for possible destinations.

    Modularisation of the crafts is important, both for safety and so that the colony can be expanded and disbanded incrementally. Drive systems can be integrated into the crafts individually or as a superstructure/series of superstructures as the technology develops. In the case of multi-generational journeys, factionalism can be dealt with by seperating the colony.

    Finding a way to reach other planets is putting the horse before the cart. Getting off this planet should be the first step. Once we can releive the pressure we are placing on the Earth we can set our minds to the other aspect of the threat to our survival and start reversing the damage we have already done to this planet.

    The survival of the species isn’t about our genetic material, it’s about the people walking around right now. And no matter how esoteric and fanciful ideas like this are, they are about saving the people walking around right now. We don’t leave people inside a burning building just because it’s easier to let their genetic material live on through thier children, we do whatever it takes to get them out.

  • ljk November 3, 2010, 5:31

    In “Seed Seeker,” teens from an Earth colony meet their maker

    Pamela Sargent’s Seed Seeker is the long-awaited third book in her early 1980s Seed Trilogy. It’s a graceful coming-of-age story set on a colony world, where a group of troubled teens meet the generation ship who engineered them.

    The descendant of humans who colonized the planet Home many generations ago, Bian is a young woman who has never wandered far from the tiny riverside village where she grew up. She’s heard tales of distant worlds and generation ships from her grandmother Nuy (a character in the earlier novels), but she’s never had the courage to follow the river to other towns, or to the high-tech enclave of the Domes, where all that remains of advanced Earth technology is being tended by a small band of separatists.

    But when a strange light appears in the sky overhead, she joins her friend Arnagh on a quest to find out whether it’s Ship, the generation ship/A.I. who deposited her people on Home centuries ago.

    Full article here: