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Notes & Queries 11/17/09

Focus on FOCAL

I’m just back from a weekend in Texas, meeting with Hal Puthoff and Eric Davis at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin and spending a great deal of time with Claudio Maccone, who flew in from Italy and goes on from Texas to a presentation at the SETI Institute. Our subject was largely FOCAL, the ambitious mission Maccone has championed to develop a spacecraft that can be sent to the Sun’s gravitational lens at 550 AU and beyond. Because gravity-focused radiation remains along the focal axis beyond 550 AU, such a spacecraft would continue making high-quality observations in various wavelengths long beyond this distance.

We live in an era of tight budgets and, to put it bluntly, lack of vision. Although FOCAL requires only near-term advances in technology and would represent the most ambitious undertaking ever attempted in space, the problem will be to find the funding to make it happen. A second issue is to develop a critical mass of scholarship in support of FOCAL to demonstrate the practicality and utility of the mission. Maccone’s books and papers have made an impressive contribution in this regard, but in coming weeks I’ll be discussing upcoming opportunities for others to make the case for FOCAL and turn a remarkable concept into an actual mission design.

Project Icarus in the News


Those of you who are members of the British Interplanetary Society will have access to Spaceflight, a monthly magazine the Society publishes to cover space developments. The December issue features Stephen Ashworth’s look at Project Icarus, introducing the project to BIS members and noting that the new design will take about five years to produce, with a final report scheduled to appear in 2014. The original Project Daedalus report is a classic, the only detailed study of a starship ever produced. Ashworth runs through the details of the September 30 meeting at BIS headquarters, and goes on to conclude:

…the baton has been passed to Project Icarus, and to a new generation of engineers and visionaries.

In this age of public pessimism about the problems of the environment, population growth and energy, with widespread doubts about whether industrial civilization itself is sustainable, and even the space agencies not daring to think long-term, it will take all the hard work of the Icarus team to refocus our future vision on the stars and thus reawaken public confidence in the boundless possibilities open to humanity.

Good luck, Icarus!

Quasars and the Celestial Grid

The International Astronomical Union’s new reference frame for celestial positions will be adopted by astronomers on January 1. Much as latitude and longitude can mark positions on Earth, the new references — 295 quasars — will denote positions in the sky. Improving the precision of this reference frame is the rationale behind linking thirty-five radio telescopes on seven continents to observe 243 of these quasars.

That event will occur in a 24-hour window starting on November 18 and ending the next day. The idea here is to make the grid ever more precise, a useful outcome for astronomers who routinely study objects in a wide range of wavelengths and need to overlay different images for detailed investigation. Quasars are ideal for calibrating such a grid because they’re readily observable and so distant as to appear motionless. And what a challenge for very long baseline interferometry, a technique long used for research but never deployed through so many telescopes. More in this news release.

Vatican Gathering Impressive

The recent five-day conference in Vatican City studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life was a high-grade affair. Thirty scientists attended the conference in a repeat of a 2005 gathering called by the Vatican to address similar issues. Meanwhile, the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome continues to generate excellent research. “The questions of life’s origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration,” says Gabriel Funes, director of the observatory, in this AP story.

I’m looking at the program for this meeting, seeing major names in astrobiology in abundance, including Jonathan Lunine (University of Arizona), Franck Selsis (University of Bordeaux), James Kasting (Penn State) and Eric Gaidos (University of Hawaii). Sara Seager (MIT) and David Charbonneau (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) were there, and so were Jill Tarter and Paul Davies. Outstanding company indeed.

The AP story quotes Fr. Funes as saying, “If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound.” Indeed.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tulse November 17, 2009, 16:55

    The FOCAL mission concept seems to me to be one of the most exciting proposals out there. I’m curious, though, as to what technological breakthroughs it would actually require. Could existing ion drives get such a craft into position in a reasonable about of time (two decades or less)? Are existing radioisotope thermoelectric generators sufficient for such a mission? Are breakthroughs in optics needed, or stationkeeping, or again, is existing tech sufficient? I suppose my question is whether new technology is needed to make such a mission possible, or just to make it more practical/cheaper.

    Also, presuming we could send such a scope out, what would the target(s) be? Is the best the eponymous star system of the blog, or are there perhaps more likely candidates? And I presume that a craft would generally not be able to target more than one system, since moving it to observe a different point would require a fair bit of travel — is this correct?

  • Administrator November 17, 2009, 17:10

    Tulse, good questions. Re targets, the Centauri stars become candidates if we do find interesting planets there, and the current word on that is within 3-5 years max we should have an answer. But consider this as well: No matter where you send FOCAL, once you get to 763 AU (this distance dictated by the wavelength you’d be working at), you get a look at the Cosmic Microwave Background that would be a thousand times better than what we can achieve today. Imagine how cosmologists would react to that view. The Gliese 581 system might also be an interesting possibility.

    On technology, the big issue would be propulsion, and there are many questions there, from nuclear/electric to solar sail, etc. We have to see where VASIMR may take us, of course. From what Claudio has told me, optics do not present a huge problem, but we really need mission studies to help arrive at the appropriate technologies. Communications may be optimized if we use the KLT methods Claudio has long championed, but that would also mean a much beefed up computer (probably not an issue at all given that this mission will take quite some time to design, much less to build). More on this soon, because we’re hoping to get a session put together at the next IAC to cover such issues.

  • Eniac November 17, 2009, 19:51

    I think FOCAL is a really breathtaking idea. It is doable, and it will revolutionize the practice of astronomy. Once we have tasted the power of “The Lens”, we will want to keep a steady stream of probes going out there observing everything from planets to the Big Bang itself.

    One very interesting aspect of getting htere is the flight path. We would want to do multiple flybys between the gas giants and the sun, firing the engines (and perhaps unfurling sails?) each time to take advantage of the propulsion amplification provided by the gravity well. As each mission will go to a different direction, at different times, astrodynamicists will be plenty busy…

    We would want high ISP, and we need plenty of propellant left after we are there to keep the telescope steady and perhaps repoint it occasionally, within a narrow field of view. Nuclear electric propulsion is the only realistic alternative, I think, but realistic it is.

    The craft itself I envision to be six parallel strands of tether in a hexagonal arrangement. They are spinning slowly around the focal axis and are held taut by the two rod shaped nuclear reactors, glowing white hot. The reactors use thermionic emission to generate electricity and very high temperature to minimize cooling issues (paradoxically). The reactors are situated at the ends of the tether, so the rest of the craft can be efficiently shielded by a small shield (Perhaps one reactor will do, but oh the ugly lack of symmetry…) . In the center is the propulsion unit, and along the tethers are movable detectors, many and of all kinds. The tethers could be several kilometers long and by their rotation would continuously scan a circular image area, with fuel expended only to keep the center exactly on the focal line.

    In optical wavelengths, we would use detectors that are small telescopes, sufficient to resolve the Einstein ring from the solar disk. That greatly reduces interference from sunlight, and possibly enables us to computationally deal with the unfavorable point spread function, using the intensity profile observed around the ring to disambiguate light from slightly off-axis sources.

  • Peter November 17, 2009, 21:37

    I for one would appreciate it if you could fill us in on any other issues covered during your meeting with Hal Puthoff and Eric Davis.

  • ljk November 17, 2009, 21:59

    I hope the BIS and the Vatican will be releasing online the papers relevant
    to the stories posted here soon.

    I am glad to see that there are people who are not allowing the current
    problems of the world to bring down the higher points of being a
    civilized society. This is said not to ignore or dismiss the problems
    our society is facing (done by us, please note), but rather to show
    that if all we focus on is mere survival, then we will never improve
    and eventually our species will stagnate and become extinct.

    The intelligences we do find out there some day will exist at all
    because they were able to overcome the difficulties that I presume
    most if not all developing intelligences face on the road to true
    civilization. Let’s keep planning to be around to be able to meet

    And if they don’t exist, well, then we got at least a whole galaxy to
    live and play in.

  • george scaglione November 18, 2009, 15:07

    paul you are 100% correct.tragically we are living in a time of lack of vision,was saying as much to a couple of buddies of mine with whom i frequently correspond via e mail earlier.also i want to agree with peter above visavie his curiosity about what hal puthoff may have said! further more i have been watching the stories also as they regard the vaticans,for want of a better term,”space program”!all of it is imho highly promiseing and i hope i read more here soon.my best to one and all,your friend george scaglione

  • Administrator November 18, 2009, 15:20

    Peter writes:

    I for one would appreciate it if you could fill us in on any other issues covered during your meeting with Hal Puthoff and Eric Davis.

    FOCAL was the reason for my trip and Claudio and I spent a lot of time working on it. I was pleased to meet with both Hal and Eric, but while we talked about a number of issues, none of them were in depth like the FOCAL business.

  • andy November 18, 2009, 18:07

    I wonder how much the angle relative to the ecliptic plane would factor into the target selection. For example, the nearest known extrasolar planetary system, Epsilon Eridani, is located roughly 28 degrees below the ecliptic plane. Alpha Centauri is roughly 43 degrees below the plane. Since manoeuvres to change orbital planes are fairly expensive, this may be a consideration to bear in mind.

  • Eniac November 19, 2009, 12:20

    andy: If indeed the preferred flight path would involve a final flyby of the sun, any direction should be equally accessible and the ecliptic would matter little. You would dive towards the sun, probably after flying by one of the gas giants, and small changes in aim should allow large deviations from the ecliptic, easily.

    If I understand correctly, the final solar flyby is going to be mandatory to minimize the off-axis momentum that needs to be neutralized by propulsion before you can settle onto the target focal line, all of which recede radially from the sun. As a beneficial side effect, the “fryby” also provides an opportunity for gravitational amplification of propulsion and for the (temporary) use of solar power, whether by sail or photovoltaics.

    To get to the focal line in reasonable time, velocity has to be many hundreds of km/s, maybe a thousand. Nuclear electric propulsion should be up to the task, I think, but it will require long acceleration times, most of which will have to be on the way out without assistance from the sun and planets. I do not think RTGs provide enough power for propulsion, it will have to be fission reactors until fusion becomes practical.

  • James M. Essig November 19, 2009, 18:00

    Hi Paul;

    I think the Project Icarus emblem is outstanding. I keep coming back to this thread to have a view of it.

    I like to muze that humanity has harnessed the fundamental (or at least a fundamental) power of the cosmos as some general supposedly stated refering to the sucessful test of the hydrogen bomb. Now, I think Project Icarus can be a great motivator for profound but peacefull uses of the power of the hydrogen atom.

    I personally also like to muze that if the universe is literally infinite in 3-D spatial volume, then potentially unlimited power production rates are possible in the future temperal limits of infinity.

    We can imagine what sort of energy storage technologies and kinematical arrangements of spatial temporally distributed fusion fuel supplies could look like: perhaps million or billion solar mass rotating rings or a linear series of such rings wherein the fuel density would be close to that of a white dwarf and where rotational motion would keep the ring from gravitationally collapsing,; or perhaps some sort of ever growing fusion pellet runway or even a continuous fusion wick; or perhaps higher dimensional spatial deposition of fusion fuel and maybe even extraction of naturally occuring fusion fuel from higher Kaluza Klein like large hyperspatial dimensions , and the like.

    Regardless of the possible kinematical and topological arrangements of fusion fuel that might permit arbitrarilly high gamma factors for large manned space craft assuming that our species survives commensurately long times, Project Icarus can enable the general pop culture, space alien, science fiction oriented populace who often seems to ironically greatly fear the power of the atom to ponder in amazement the ultimate life and civilization enhancing power of fusion.

    Our first application of nuclear fusion for star travel will likely take the form of 0.1 C or perhaps 0.2 C space probes and manned expeditions, but such manned expeditions will be epic voyages like none that have occured before in the history of our civilization.

    I wish the best of progress for the Tau Zero BIS collaboration on Project Icarus.