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Space Voyaging a Century Out

A nice, tidy liftoff for Kepler, and like all night launches, well worth watching. The mission is generating a satisfying amount of attention in the press and a slew of news releases, from one of which which I’ll quote Geoff Marcy:

“In part, learning about other Earths — the frequency of them, the environment on them, the stability of the environment on other Earths, their habitability over the eons — is going to teach us about our own Earth, how fragile and special it might be. We learn a little bit about home, ironically, by studying the stars.”

And of course it’s hard to argue with that, although the focus for most of us will only be tangentially here and most emphatically there — just how many terrestrial worlds are out there, and how likely are the chances for their being in the habitable zone? Marcy gets preferential treatment here simply because, along with Paul Butler and a team of exoplanet hunters spread out over the globe, he has been involved in almost half of our exoplanet detections.

As we sit back to monitor Kepler’s progress, enjoy a bit of weekend reading with the latest Carnival of Space, offered through the good services of Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog. Be aware of the Society’s new Catalog of Exoplanets, designed for anyone with an interest in these matters from the rankest amateur to student and professional, and note the helpful animations, where you can see planets in orbit around their stars. It’s a user-friendly site that should do much to keep the planet hunt accessible to the public.

More reading for the weekend might include Charlie Stross’ 21st Century FAQ, wherein the futurist condenses the next ninety years into a few paragraphs guaranteed to cause controversy. As in this statement about space colonization:

Forget it.

Assuming we avoid a systemic collapse, there’ll probably be a moon base, by and by. Whether it’s American, Chinese, Indian, or Indonesian is anybody’s guess, and probably doesn’t matter as far as the 99.999% of the human species who will never get off the planet are concerned. There’ll probably be a Mars expedition too. But barring fundamental biomedical breakthroughs, or physics/engineering breakthroughs that play hell with the laws of physics as currently understood, canned monkeys aren’t going to Jupiter any time soon, never mind colonizing the universe. (See also Saturn’s Children for a somewhat snarky look at this.)

I see that Brian Wang has taken on Stross on his NextBigFuture site, Brian being a proponent of Orion technologies that scale up to massive spacecraft that could theoretically open up the outer Solar System to human exploration. Re Orion, John Hunt coincidentally passed along this video, the first of six available on YouTube on the subject, drawn from a BBC show called To Mars by A-Bomb. The first segment is below:

It’s bracing stuff, containing interviews with Ted Taylor and Freeman Dyson, among others, including Freeman’s son George, author of the indispensable Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship.

But I think, Orion or not, that Charlie should be taken seriously. He’s talking about the 21st Century, the start of which should remind us that while we’ve been able to do some remarkable robotic missions to places like Saturn, we’re a long way from expanding a manned human presence to another world, even the Moon. If you confine your time frame to this century alone, his position isn’t extreme.

Not that I necessarily agree. The further out we look, the murkier the shape of things, and I’m a long way from being convinced that breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will not rule out launching some seriously interesting missions (unmanned) to destinations now thought unreachable, such as the outer Kuiper Belt or the Oort Cloud, within the next hundred years. In any case, I have little confidence in technological predictions that attempt to get too specific.

Here’s where I am on this: We should be working within a long-term horizon, mounting an effort to explore space with the understanding that our work will be passed along to future generations. I am relatively sure that we will, by whatever technology, eventually get humans to the stars, but I would be astonished if it happens in this century. That shouldn’t slow down the necessary work of exploring propulsion alternatives and analyzing planetary systems, because what we are after is to understand the universe better, and bit by bit to explore it. Whether achieving an interstellar capability is a matter of centuries or millennia, what counts is that we do what we can to contribute to that goal now.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Didac March 7, 2009, 16:00

    It’s very probable that “transhumanization” o “robotization” or “AI” will precede any serious attempt of “intelligent permanent mission” out of the Earth-Moon system. In JD Bernalesque words we will surpass our World only if we surpass previously our Flesh and, probably enough, our Devil. BTW, the 21st Century will be a very long century the same way that 19th or 20th Century were. What a different 1900s world was from Napoleonic times!!! Or what a different 2000s world is compared to the Theodore Roosevelt era!!! Contrarily, the 1700s world was not so different for most people from the 1800s world or 1600s world.

  • andy March 7, 2009, 17:43

    It’s very probable that “transhumanization” o “robotization” or “AI” will precede any serious attempt of “intelligent permanent mission” out of the Earth-Moon system.

    What Charles Stross said about the singularity in the question immediately after the one quoted here.

  • andy March 7, 2009, 17:43

    (i.e. should read what Charles Stross said, not that I was quoting Stross)

  • Paul Titze March 7, 2009, 20:43

    One of the exciting things I find in Physics/Astronomy is that no one knows what’s around the corner, as far as Interstellar Travel is concerned it’s all up in the air what the future holds: “Those insights in science which have led to a breakthrough were not logically derived from pre-existing knowledge; the creative processes on which the progress of science is based operate on the level of the subconscious” -Leo Szilard, 1964. Amazing!

    Cheers, Paul.

  • djlactin March 7, 2009, 23:21

    “canned monkeys” Great turn of phrase!

  • James M. Essig March 8, 2009, 0:07

    Hi Paul;

    This is a most excellent and inspirational thread. I have personally come to identify very strongly with the motto Ad Astra Incrementis.

    The above YouTube video is fascinating. I do not think I have ever viewed such a detailed audiovisual account of Project Orion.

    I believe that there is an anecdotal account by some U.S. general or political leader back during the middle of the 20th Century that mankind has progressed to harness the power of the cosmos while refering to nuclear fusion in the form of the hydrogen bomb.

    I like to muze that the harnessing of this cosmic energy source, may be just as infinite in terms of mattergy content as the potentially infinite cosmos. How we will tap into this infinite energy reserve to facilitate ever higher gamma factor capable space craft, and also, perhaps even superluminal travel is anyones guess at this point. I hold hope from a philosphical perspective that this infinite potential energy supply can some how be marshalled in part in ever greater quantities by yet to be developed kinematic processes or devices.

    I think one of our near term best bets for reaching the stars might be some sort of interstellar fusion powered ramjet, even if such a craft would at least initially be limited to perhaps the often quoted 0.25 C to 0.90C range. I still hold the hope that improved understanding of kinematic interactions of the interstellar medium with improved or yet to be developed ISR craft including recycling of drag energy and the like might lead to essentially unlimited gamma factors.

    I remember reading an article in our family addition of a mid 1960s addition of Collier’s Encyclopedia wherein the author made some rather obscure reference to a mathematician’s calcuations that either an interstellar ramjet or a photon rocket, I am not sure but I think it was the former, could in theory accelerate to velocities much greater than C, to velocities arbitrarilly greater than C. I do not recall the details of the article but when I first came accross this particular statement about 25 years ago, my thought was that perhaps some mathematical trick involviing special relativity and non-renormalizable reified infinite values, or perhaps some general relativistic effect might permit such superluminal inertial travel through space time.

    How we will sport about our visible universe, but first our galaxy and local interstellar neighboorhood is anyones guess. However, we do atleast have one thing on our side, and that is unlimited quantities of nuclear fusion fuel. Our quest for peaceful uses of nuclear fusion and perhaps even some yet to be discovered forms of sub-nuclear energy for manned space travel rests on the shoulders of the bold giants who envisioned the Project Orion Space craft.

    With that, the power of the atom and quantum-chromo-dynamics gives me hope for an Era of Peace and travel ever further out into the cosmos.

    In the spirit of Tau Zero, I say Onward Ho! as a die hard self admitted wannabe interstellar pioneer.



  • bigdan201 March 8, 2009, 0:17

    ive looked through alot of wikipedia articles about ideas for colonizing the solar system, and for spacecraft propulsion. technologies like vasimr are viable and could provide away to move around the solar system within relatively short amounts of time. apparently theres also been spacecraft drives on the drawing board that rely on nuclear power among other things, that could go a long way to solve the problem of travelling in space.

    with that said, it will take some time before humans establish themselves on other planets and/or reach nearby stars. however, it is important that we take that step.. and eventually wel have to.

    back to the wiki articles, apparently the most realistic possibilities for space colonies are the moon, mars, and venus. the moon is very close, but theres not too much gravity there, which would make long-term living more difficult. mars has reduced gravity, but its not as bad, and its definitely within range. venus is also close.. naturally the surface conditions there are extreme, and terraforming is a daunting prospect. but colonies in the cloudtops of venus seem very possible for various reasons outlined in the article. the gravity there is also almost like earths’.

    the outer solar system is more difficult, but the moons of jupiter and saturn (especially europa, ganymede, callisto around jupiter and titan around saturn) offer possibilities. we cant overlook all the hydrocarbons and natural resources out there. also, while jupiter has extreme gravity and radiation, saturn is easier to deal with and has earthlike gravity. cloudtop operations in the gas giants are a possibility.

    in conclusion, we will take to the moons/planets/stars at some point. colonizing the solar system seems very possible, and once we get better at space travel, terrestrial planets around other stars offer alot of possibilities too.

  • Paul F. Dietz March 8, 2009, 10:00

    Technologies like vasimr are viable and could provide away to move around the solar system within relatively short amounts of time

    The achilles heal of VASIMIR, like any other electric propulsion scheme, is the power supply. To travel in the solar system in “short amounts of time” you need power production systems with specific power (W/kg) much higher than achieved to date. The high specific impulse of VASIMIR relative to, say, ion engines, only makes this problem worse.

    Say what you will of chemical rockets, but they have extremely high specific power, and require no significant external power supply.

  • george scaglione March 8, 2009, 12:39

    good good thoughts everybody! thank you your friend george scaglione

  • bigdan201 March 8, 2009, 21:07

    im gonna try typical forum quote tags, forgive me if they dont work properly..

    [quote]”The achilles heal of VASIMIR, like any other electric propulsion scheme, is the power supply. To travel in the solar system in “short amounts of time” you need power production systems with specific power (W/kg) much higher than achieved to date. The high specific impulse of VASIMIR relative to, say, ion engines, only makes this problem worse.

    Say what you will of chemical rockets, but they have extremely high specific power, and require no significant external power supply.”[/quote]

    to be specific about short amounts of time, i was thinking along the lines of getting to mars in weeks and to the gas giants in months, or possibly faster than that.

    thats a very good point about power supply. theres alot that needs to be worked out, and alot of stuff on the drawing board. theres ideas for ion, electric, nuclear, and combinations thereof. solar sails or beam propulsion could be good as a secondary thrust.

    chemical rockets are very effective and reliable, however, they are limited. after a certain point the fuel requirements add up too high. so reliable alternatives will need to be found to expand our presence in space.

    ive seen some potential propulsion systems that could get speeds up to 10% the speed of light – that could put nearby stars within reach of a voyage over several decades. if we get faster than that, recently discovered exoplanets become reachable.

    overall, its a cool discussion, and i agree that it will be some time before we advance.. but im sure we will.

  • James M. Essig March 8, 2009, 21:54

    Hi Folks;

    Regarding Project Orion;

    Another way in which fusion can be used to propel a craft that does not involve carrying the fusion fuel aboard the craft is obviously the so-called fusion runway.

    As I like to envision it, pure nuclear fusion bomblets would be laid out in a spiraling trail in orbit around the Sun with a length as long as 40 light years. For 40 light year long trails, accelerations tangental to the trail could be as high as several Gs and angular craft accelerations as great as 100s of Gs might be sustained wherein the occupants of the craft would live in hydrostatically sealed pressure vessels to cancell the squashing affects of the G forces.The yield of the hydrogen bombs could be limited to a safe 1 kiloton or less, or perhaps have a higher yield as ship size, refractive properties, and mechanical strength permits. Lorenze electrodynamic forces could perhaps keep the craft in solar orbit as it accelerated.

    If the hydrogen bombs took the form of pure fusion bombs wherein almost all of the fusion fuel would be made to fuse, the 1 kiloton bomblets would have a paltry mass of only about 7 grams each. One kiloton is equal to about 4 trillion joules and so if such an atomic bomb was detonated behind, along side or within a space craft rocket chamber at a rate of one per second, in one year, the space craft could acquire (10 EXP 12)(3 x 10 EXP 7) Joules of kinetic energy assuming that the explosion conversion efficiency was 25 percent. Thus, a space craft with a mass of 300 metric tons could obtain a relativistic gamma factor of 1.001. If ten such devices where exploded per second, given the same conversion efficiency, the craft could obtain a gamma factor of 1.01. In one hundred years, the craft could obtain a gamma factor of 2 which is not bad for local star travel. The caveat here is the ability to shield the crew from ionizing radiation more than anything else, and this would be difficult using a space craft with a mass of only 300 metric tons. Higher gamma factors would be possible using more extreme systems.

    The real point is that the folks of Project Orion have given us much food for thought in terms of potential ways of using nuclear energy to reach for the stars.



  • Adam March 9, 2009, 8:21

    Hi Jim

    A kiloton bomb would accelerate a 300 ton vehicle at just 0.08 gee, using the 4 terajoule energy and 7 gram mass you quote – even less if the thrust efficiency is just 0.25. I don’t see how it could be kept in the circular path you describe. But the fusion runway does have a certain fascination. Personally I prefer the mass-beam approach, but it has more than a few problems and limitations of its own. Some hybrid might even be developed since they have similar issues.

  • Administrator March 9, 2009, 9:03

    andy mentioned earlier what Charles Stross said about the Singularity in his FAQ. Let me quote it for those who haven’t seen it:

    Forget it.

    The rapture of the nerds, like space colonization, is likely to be a non-participatory event for 99.999% of humanity — unless we’re very unlucky. If it happens and it’s interested in us, all our plans go out the window. If it doesn’t happen, sitting around waiting for the AIs to save us from the rising sea level/oil shortage/intelligent bioengineered termites looks like being a Real Bad Idea. The best approach to the singularity is to apply Pascal’s Wager — in reverse — and plan on the assumption that it ain’t going to happen, much less save us from ourselves.

  • James M. Essig March 9, 2009, 14:56

    Hi Adam;

    Thanks for the above response.

    I like the mass beam concept as well. The use of Cold War schemes to develop charged particle beam weapons might best serve as peaceful precusors to more refined beam technology that could beam reaction mass and/or fuel to an outward bound manned interstellar space craft.

    The idea that the craft would then not be at risk of running into a bomblet has good merit.

    If one kiloton fusion pebbles proved to be too powerful for a fusion runway driven space craft with only a mass of 300 metric tons, perhaps 0.1 kt pebbles or even 0.01 kt pebbles could be utilized in much more rapid detonation sequence. One caveat is actually being able to get most or all of the fusion fuel in these small pebbles to fuse. The actual G-forces of the craft due to acceleration could be arbitrally ramped up to the extent that the quantity of fuel used per unit of time would not over burden the ships radiation shielding mechanisms, the ship’s mechanical strength properties, etc.

    I could see that 0.01 kt pure fusion pebbles might make excellent mass driver or LINAC material for a mass and/or fuel beam driven craft being that they would have a mass of only 70 milligrams.



  • ad March 9, 2009, 16:11

    Few people have decided to move to Antarctica, the Gobi desert or the ocean floors. So why should Mars be any more popular?

    It would put you even further from your suppliers and customers.

  • bigdan201 March 9, 2009, 22:29

    @ ad

    theres alot to be said for settled, habitable environments. when people go out into space, it will start with scientific and mining operations. the minerals in the asteroids etc and the hydrocarbons in the gas giants and thier moons cannot be ignored. scientific expeditions are already a reality, and once propulsion is faster and cheaper, economic interest will follow. eventually people will start to permenantly move outside the earth – dont underestimate humanitys willingness to strike out into frontiers. 400 years ago, america was a vast wilderness populated by hostile tribes, and an ocean away from the home of western civilization… that didnt stop the colonists/pioneers. people WILL travel and spread out when it becomes more viable, theres plenty of precedent for that. in the long run we will need to do so… civilization will eventually outgrow the earth.

  • bigdan201 March 9, 2009, 22:36

    and just to add on, ocean travel in the age of exploration was a bit like space travel today – time-consuming, risky and expensive. but they made thier voyages and so will we… and just like they came up with steamships, wel come up with better ways of travel too.

  • Ronald March 10, 2009, 4:48

    @ad: you are right about that argument.

    However, the (only) good rationale that I see for colonizing and terraforming Mars, is that it would provide us with an entire planet. This in turn would mean risk-spreading for humankind and some good practice in terraforming.

    As I have argued before, I believe that the future of humankind in our galaxy is foremost one of terraforming potentially suitable, but still lifeless, terrestrial planets, rather than settling already inhabited ones. First of all, because the former category is probably (much?) more common, and secondly because it eliminates the ethical and biological issues concerning settling inhabited planets. The latter category will rather be used for scientific study, observation and the like.

  • Adam March 10, 2009, 5:26

    But Mars is an alien planet! Actually ocean floors are much harder to live on than Mars – crushing pressure and no light are rather dreary.

  • James M. Essig March 10, 2009, 17:51

    Hi Folks;

    This is turning out to be an outstanding thread.

    I have to agree with the above stated reasons and motives for human space travel ever further out into the cosmos. There will always be the next metaphorical hill to climb, or the next even bigger mountain to climb. Even those who are motivated strictly by the study of social science, psychology, and the spirituality of human and presunably ETI psychology, and not so much by the hard sciences, will be thrilled at the opportuinity to study the next new ETI species or race we discover. Even after we have advanced to the extent that we may, if we are lucky enough to survive, to the point of a 10 EXP 15 year old civilization, there will always be that new horizon to cross in terms of exploring ever further out into a universe which may infact be infinite is spatial extent.

    The mere fact that ever larger explored domains will provide ever greater living space for humanity will certainly resonate with those of traditional faith based belief systems who believe that the fostering of an ever larger growth of the human population is a charitable act of propagating the human race and increasing the number of human persons that have the opportuinity to exist. As a typical middle aged guy, the idea of eventually a google (10 EXP 100) beautiful female somatotypes, genotypes, and personalities is quite appealing. The huge set of unique human personalities that can come into being would delight any anthropologist, social scientist, historian, or existentialist spiritual psychologist.

    But I suppose that the main reason to continue our ever expanding frontier, for me personally as a space head science geek, and interstellar pioneer wannabe, as well as for the many of the like minded rest of us who post on Tau Zero Centauri Dreams is the lure and mystery of the unknown. In some deep and fundamental way, we all yearn to travel ever further out from our ancient ancestral caves. We are all open to the infinite and since we are fundamentally an exploratory and curious species, that seeks ever new horizons, such will provide more than enough motivation to travel ever further from our craddle of Earth.



  • Ronald March 11, 2009, 4:57

    @James, I fully endorse your last paragraph, very beautifully said.
    However, with regard to your second paragraph, I do not think that the mere expansion of human numbers and human exploitation of resources is or should ever be a goal in itself. Rather, the perpetuation and expansion of humankind as a species, intelligence and civilization, plus the spreading of life to lifeless planets, I see a goals (beside the lure of discovery that you also mention).

  • James M. Essig March 11, 2009, 13:26

    Hi Ronald;

    You make some very good points. If we are meant to be or desire to be stewards of planet Earth, then by corollary, we should also be wise stewards of any extrasolar planets we colonize and terraform. You make an excellent point regarding the ethics of humanities respect for the integrity of the natural order of creation.

    Since for the past 10 years, I have been envolved in inventive subject matter regarding humanitarian, disaster relief, and outdoor low mass camping and survival gear, I should live up to my ideal more and promote ethical and sustainable resource management and a reverential respect for all life forms and species.

    Thanks for your perspective.



  • thomas schluender March 15, 2009, 12:01

    James, I would like to see your further elaboration of your views on the appropriate human role in the larger world. It seems as if it might be a well nuanced idea. Life has had a profound influence on Earth’s environment, serving our needs well. We are part of that. It has been said that asteriods and comets that have come close to the sun are not in their pristine condition. Heavy atoms, stars, galaxies and black holes are among the things, occurring after the beginning, which have effected the evolution of the Universe. It is just about time for life, deliverred by intelligent means to take it’s place as one of the feedback loops in the evolution of the universe. “Life will find a way”. The idea is terraforming as a glorified gardenning with the nature of each place and the future in mind.

  • Ronald March 16, 2009, 12:36


    “Life will find a way””; I just love that expression by Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park.

    “The idea is terraforming as a glorified gardenning with the nature of each place and the future in mind”.
    Couldn’t agree more. The two main rationales/justifications, that I can see for space colonization and terraforming are: human survival/risk-spreading and the spreading of (adapted forms of) earthly life.

  • James M. Essig March 17, 2009, 9:27

    Hi thomas schluender;

    Thanks for the enquiry.

    I see human and any rational ETI lifeforms as a way to evolve the universe into a higher form of being or reality. Organizing the material contents of the universe including any aninal life on other planets is indeed simmilar to tending a garden or a natural zoological park.

    Also, the idea of not interferring to much with the animal life allready present on planets with animal life where no rational ETI beings exist on the planet appeals to me because it gives the opportuinity for new rational intellegent life forms to evolve. With no attempt to promote religion here nor to convert anyone to Catholicism, but from a purely sociological perspective, I will mention that allowing a means whereby the diversity of intellegent life forms can evolve that do not already exist matches well with my personal prolife belief systems. But for me, this mainly concerns lifeforms that are what I will refer to as transition lifeforms which are simmilar in advancement to the hominids or prehistoric humans that have existed for the past few million years before the last ice age. For species like Neandertals or Cromagnon for instance, I could not ethically adivise use force to control them or subdue them. Although these species lacked modern technological sophistication that we modern human have, there is overwhelming palentological evidence that such hominid species where intellegent and had emerging developinent of complex psychodynamic personality structures such as those associated with burying of their dead etc.

    However, I am not opposed at all with using the mineral and vegitable resources of the universe to enhance, spread, and promote human civilization.