I’ve been surprised by the sizable reaction to my bet with Tibor Pacher, not just in terms of comments here but in related e-mails. For those of you who missed the original post, I found Tibor’s prediction that the first interstellar mission would be launched by 2025 to be an irresistible target. Tibor posted the prediction on the Long Bets site, and the way this works is that someone willing to make a bet on the prediction puts down the money upfront and challenges the predictor to match it.

Negotiations follow, the outcome being that if the terms are worked out and the bet is accepted, it is finalized. Both parties send in their money, and the money grows over the years in a long-term investment portfolio called the Farsight Fund. Ultimately, either the Tau Zero Foundation or (Tibor’s choice) the SOS-Kinderdorf International, will enjoy the result.

Now that Tibor and I have finalized the terms, the details will go up on Long Bets as soon as our funds arrive (which should be in a few days). Until then, I thought you might be interested in some of the details we settled upon. Among other things, we have agreed that:

  • The mission can be a manned or unmanned, either a flyby probe or a spacecraft intended to be captured by the target star’s gravitational field. The mission will have been designed expressly as a mission to another star, and as not an outer-Solar System mission that simply keeps going, with a star more or less along its route of flight.
  • The allowed launch location of the spacecraft is any place in the Solar system within the orbit of Neptune, either from the surface of a Solar System body or from any orbital position.
  • The mission duration must be less than 2000 years.
  • As a minimum requirement for the mission the spacecraft shall be capable of delivering data for at least one scientific measurement.

The actual text of these details and a few other matters will be posted soon on the Long Bets site — I’ll provide the link once it’s available. And as I’ve told more than a few people, I would be delighted to be proven wrong on this matter, for it would mean that our technology is advancing at a far faster clip than I currently assume, and also that enough public support will exist to make such a mission possible. That sort of optimism (even though I think it’s premature) is a bracing tonic after the weekend’s loss of NanoSail-D, a solar sail deployment experiment.

The last time I wrote about solar sails, I noted the frustration that the team at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville must have been feeling about the concept. That frustration grows out of knowing that this technology is ready for space-testing but perennially short of resources, and I suspect it is shared among NASA scientists at all centers involved in sail work. The NanoSail-D deployment experiment, involving a 100-square foot sail, seemed made to order, since it hitched a ride aboard a SpaceX Falcon rocket to which NASA Ames had already committed.

Now we’ve lost both the SpaceX Falcon and NanoSail-D, a setback to be sure, but keeping Elon Musk’s words in mind is probably good advice. In a letter to SpaceX employees, the company’s CEO noted that the Merlin 1C first stage engine worked flawlessly, the problem occurring in staging. The latter evokes the spectre of Cosmos 1, the Planetary Society’s mission, which also perished through booster failure. Musk went on to say:

As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment. Combined with our existing cash reserves, that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon. There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.

Musk means business, and that same attitude is surely felt through the community involved in solar sail activity, and in the larger community thinking about deep space missions at various space agencies, universities and private companies around the planet. Solar sails, leaving the propellant at home and hence able to significantly ramp up payload possibilities, are probably going to be key players in opening up the Solar System. Factor in beaming concepts from microwaves to lasers and you’re talking about a technology that makes sense and is workable under the laws of physics as presently understood. NanoSail-D never made it, but the more commercial possibilities we explore via companies like SpaceX, the sooner we’ll get the next sail into full space deployment.