by Marc Millis

A number of things have been happening recently with the Tau Zero Foundation, but most of them have been behind the scenes. Marc Millis, founding architect of the TZF and former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, now goes public with his thoughts on recent activities and where the Foundation is heading.

To the fans and contributors of Tau Zero, thanks for your help and suggestions. It’s time to talk about recent progress and next-steps. One major news item is that I took an early retirement from NASA, in February 2010, so that I could devote more time to Tau Zero. As much as I tried, I could not do both. I had to make the hard choice between following NASA or leaving that full-salary day-job to make advances via the more flexible Tau Zero Foundation. Now that I’m free of prior restrictions, we are restructuring how we operate and will be eventually shifting to a “Membership” format with regular newsletters.

During the first week in November, I met with several Tau Zero practitioners to discuss various points of view on how best to make progress. Also, the Tau Zero public website has been transferred to other service providers for necessary updates to that information.

Operations and Priorities

One observation is that there are apparently misconceptions about our priorities and how we operate. In retrospect that is understandable since we have been operating, so far, on an opportunistic basis – relying on the self-initiated work of our Practitioners. Examples include; Project Icarus, FOCAL mission studies, the Living (Statistical) Drake Equation, Frontiers of Propulsion Science, publications from other practitioners, Faces From Earth, and the long-running Centauri Dreams news forum.

The time has now come to be more deliberate as we move forward. Ideally, we want to cover all the technologies and implications related to the ultimate goal of reaching other habitable worlds, and we want to do that in a manner where you can count on the accuracy of our information (which is why we include reference citations so that you can check any questionable assertions). This span includes understanding ‘what’s out there,’ examining all the options for ‘how to get there,’ and being sure to tie this all to its ‘relevance to humanity.’

One of the most hotly debated items is how best to get out there. To be explicit, Tau Zero covers the full span of options, from the seemingly simple solar sails to the seemingly impossible faster-than-light travel. For each option within that span, there are different levels of readiness and performance, and accordingly different types of work. One consistent finding – which is nonetheless contentious amongst our readership – is that there is no single “best” choice of propulsion. We have also found that individuals tend to have a favorite within that span, but our interests cover the full span. So, rather than prematurely arguing over which engine is best, we intend to give you reliable, traceable information about the status and next-steps for all those options.

So far we’ve been providing this service mostly through Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams news forum, and by corralling a suite of practitioners who can keep us up to date. Many of these practitioners have voluntarily begun projects to make progress on specific topics. As we move forward, we will have to solicit additional funding to better cover these possibilities. We are also considering options on how our readership – you – can influence which options get more attention.

Ongoing Projects

With that said and with the changes to come, here now is a short reflection on our progress to date. Considering that this resulted from volunteer work with only modest financial contributions (for conference travel and operating expenses), this bodes well for our future productivity.

    Led by Kelvin Long and Richard Obousy, Project Icarus is a sequel to the renowned 1978 Project Daedalus study of the British Interplanetary Society for a fusion-based interstellar probe. This is a joint collaboration with the British Interplanetary Society. The first year of the 5-year study has commenced right on schedule and several papers were presented at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress in Prague to spread the news and get valuable feedback from the astronautical community. As this study progresses it will deliver realistic estimates for what such technology could accomplish along with estimates of what other milestones would be needed to make it happen. Examples of those intermediate steps include the business case for mining Helium-3 from the atmosphere of Uranus, and the communication network for deep space exploration. By reaching beyond near-term horizons, such work sets the stage for the next wave of advancements to follow.
    Rather than wait until interstellar probes are fully viable, much can be learned by traveling to intermediate destinations offering challenges much closer to home. This includes studying the FOCAL mission to confirm the physics and use of the gravitational lensing of our own Sun beyond 550 AU. The champion of this idea, Claudio Maccone, recently published a book called Deep Space Flight and Communications about such ambitions and also presented his progress at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress.
    Marc Millis and Eric Davis compiled and edited the assessments from 18 different lead authors to produce the first-ever scholarly book about non-propellant space drives, gravity control, and faster than light physics. Published as a technical volume within the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Frontiers of Propulsion Science is a 739 page reference that describes past approaches, critical issues, and identifies next-step research approaches. This work was also presented at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress.
    Claudio Maccone has taken the Drake Equation and advanced it to a statistical format so that the implications of its uncertainties can be understood. He recently extended this method to the Fermi Paradox, and then to estimates of the distance to the nearest potentially habitable planets (88+/- 39 light years). Papers on all of these have been presented and this work will continue to be refined.
    Faces from Earth provides information and organizes events to educate the public about space and astronomy and to promote deep space missions, aiming to compile messages to put on board future spacecraft. The organizers hope to offer an exciting educational opportunity for students of every age: Project One Kg Message is about designing and building a time capsule of roughly 1 kg content, which could possibly fly on board a future deep space mission; the E.T. are You out there? campaigns are designed to introduce the notions of possible extraterrestial life and METI to secondary school students; Mosaic Earth builds Earth images like the famous Blue Marble, as a mosaic composition – from portraits of people participating in the project, in the belief that sending a message to E.T. is a deeply human endeavour.

Practitioner Publications

Here is a just a partial list of recent books from Tau Zero Practitioners, with more in progress:

Matloff, Johnson, and Bangs (2007) Living Off the Land in Space: Green Roads to the Cosmos. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Vulpetti, Johnson, and Matloff (2008) Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel. Springer.

Millis & Davis (eds.) (2009) Frontiers of Propulsion Science. Vol. 227 of Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Maccone (2009) Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. Springer Praxis.

Johnson, Matloff, and Bangs (2009) Paradise Regained: The Regreening of Earth. Springer.

In closing, I am pleased to share this progress with you and look forward to being able to escalate these efforts. If you want to see more progress, please consider donating:

Donate to Tau Zero, where all these activities are covered.

Donate directly to Project Icarus, if you are a fan of that work.

Donate directly to Faces from Earth.