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.