Today we get into the heart of this interstellar conference, with multiple sessions on propulsion via solar and electric sail, as well as looks at specific mission concepts and robotic applications in deep space. I spent a good part of our bus ride back from Bard castle yesterday talking to Pekka Janhunen, creator of the electric sail concept, about its possible interstellar applications. Pekka does not believe this system, based on electric tethers riding the solar wind, could muster the velocity to go interstellar, but he does see it as a viable candidate for braking into a destination system, and just as important, exploring it. I’m anxious to get the latest on his work and also to look at fusion alternatives, which Claudio Maccone will present now that we’ve learned that Claudio Bruno can’t make it here.
As I get ready for the day to start, I’ll drop in here some notes from the first day. These are no more than a skeletal outline — I’ll use the conference proceedings when I get back to take a close look at some of these presentations, but I don’t want to rush through any complex arguments out of a need to get a post up.
Image: The opening session. That’s conference organizer Giancarlo Genta at the left, then (left to right) J.-M. Content, Guido Cossard (assessore of cultural affairs in Aosta) and Giovanni Vulpetti at far right.
Our opening session of the Aosta conference — technically, the Sixth IAA Symposium on Realistic Near-term Advanced Scientific Space Missions — got off to a late start, as so many meetings do, at the Aosta town hall on Monday. The keynote was a genial overview of the International Academy of Astronautics by its secretary general, J.-M. Content, who walked us through the major events that had shaped the organization. My session on ‘Interstellar Flight and the Public Imagination’ followed after a coffee break and we were off. Marco Bernasconi (MCB Consultants) followed me, which was fortuitous because we discussed many themes in common. Dr. Bernasconi has been working on human motivations for deep space travel for some time now and has developed an interesting libertarian perspective on the issue.
A short lunch at the hotel allowed us to get back on schedule in the conference rooms on the lower level, where Les Johnson (NASA MSFC) discussed NanoSail-D. Interesting to learn that there is no NanoSail-A, B or C — the ‘D’ stands for drag, and refers to the fact that in order to get the attempted launch funded, the Marshall Space Flight Center team had to sell the sail on the basis of its drag properties, useful in deorbiting satellites. That launch, of course, failed, another sail attempt wrecked not by the sail technology itself but by booster problems. Remember, a second NanoSail-D is still on the shelf in Huntsville. When will it fly?
Roman Kezerashvili (New York City College of Technology) talked about solar sails in the context of non-Keplerian orbits, but what I remember most about the afternoon was Kezerashvili’s impassioned defense of nuclear technology as the propulsion choice for the next step in space exploration. Giancarlo Genta, the organizer of the Aosta conference, spoke in his talk about the ‘nuclear renaissance’ in terms not only of the space program but also of the power industry. I want to get back to both the Genta and Kezerashvili talks later when I can go through their papers in detail. A second part of Kezerashvili’s argument will be presented on Thursday.
Image: Giancarlo Genta (Politecnico di Torino) answers a question during the afternoon session.
My erstwhile opponent in the interstellar bet, Tibor Pacher, made a pitch for unconventional thinking in presenting interstellar issues — these included a discussion not only of how we are using the Long Bets site to provoke discussion and commentary, but also of his own ‘Crazy Ideas’ section on the peregrinus-interstellar site and broader uses of social networking to get the public involved. Tibor made a huge and telling point when he looked around the room and asked: “Where are the young people?” Indeed, he himself was one of the youngest in the room and, as he told the crowd, he was almost 50. Here we were in Aosta discussing some of the cutting-edge technologies that might one day get us to the stars, and where were the students you would expect to find, the young intellects anxious to push that agenda? Tibor hopes his methods will help to remedy the lack, and so do I.
Image: Tibor Pacher (on the left) and I had paused to take in the view from Bard Castle when Claudio Maccone took this picture.
We also had an interesting talk on the psychological aspects of long-term flight from Nick Kanas (University of California at San Francisco), who brought his psychiatric credentials to bear in discussing how crews on long missions aboard Mir and the ISS have fared. All in all, a fine first day, capped by a banquet in the hotel dining room which was, as all our meals here have been, excellent. Giancarlo Genta turns out to be one of the great dinner companions in addition to being a crack symposium organizer. I’ll long remember our conversation about the history of the Aosta region. And Tuesday’s travels — we had a sightseeing day rather than any scientific sessions — were capped with a stop by his just completed summer home high above the valley, a glorious view of snow capped peaks dominating the sky, followed by a traditional Aosta dinner at a nearby restaurant. I’ll post some pictures of this in a day or two.