≡ Menu

Icarus Eyes Interstellar Symposium

The Project Icarus team has founded a non-profit research organization called Icarus Interstellar, its goal being to ‘foster research into those necessary technologies which can make interstellar research a reality’ through the study of such topics as fusion, nanotechnology, advanced power sources and other critical drivers for interstellar flight. We’ve tracked Icarus here from the beginning, when it emerged as an ambitious attempt to update and re-think the original Project Daedalus starship design of the 1970s. Taking fusion as its propulsion mechanism, the Icarus team now seeks to analyze and design a probe in terms of recent advances in numerous fields.

How do you go about designing a starship? Something this speculative, which must of necessity rely on extrapolations of where technology is going, happens outside the normal 9-5 workday. Centauri Dreams readers know that the Icarus team is composed of volunteers, most of whom work and exchange ideas over the Internet — only a few have actually been in the same room together. But all this is about to change. The team is now launching a fundraiser with the goal of supporting students and researchers in traveling to the DARPA/NASA 100-Year Starship Symposium, which will be held from September 30 through October 2 in Orlando, FL.

The team’s Web page supporting this effort is here, and the video below, assembled by current project leader Andreas Tziolas, offers background information. It’s especially noteworthy that Icarus now includes an active student designer program that focuses on training future generations in interstellar spacecraft design. Any funds raised through the new site will flow first to student designers who may lack the financial ability to travel to Orlando for the event.

Watching the Icarus effort grow has been inspirational –the project is now up to 35 researchers who have dedicated thousands of hours to studying the scientific constraints on a spacecraft that must attain speeds far beyond anything we have ever flown. The challenge is to design a craft that could explore a solar system within 15 light years of Earth, which involves speeds of at least 10 percent of the speed of light. We can contrast that with the current state of the art. Voyager 1, as I write this, is some 17,630,411,456 kilometers from the Sun, making about 17 kilometers per second. At that rate, 77,000 years would pass before it could cover the distance to the Alpha Centauri stars. A flyby at 10 percent of lightspeed would take less than fifty years.

Conceived as a joint venture of the Tau Zero Foundation and the British Interplanetary Society, Project Icarus has managed six conference appearances as well as 60 reports and publications in the 18 months it has been in existence, a tribute to the entire team, but especially to its first three leaders, Kelvin Long, Richard Obousy and Andreas Tziolas. If you’re not familiar with the nuts and bolts of the Icarus effort, the breakdown of its 20 research modules is available online. We now look toward Orlando and the 100 Year Starship Symposium, where Icarus team members, Tau Zero practitioners and others in the interstellar community will soon gather.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • destop August 9, 2011, 7:54

    I am always impressed by how the team is dedicated to this project. This is not their job, they earn nothing but the satisfaction to progress step by step towards an ambitious and motivating goal. I like the spirit of this project at the border between hacking (in a positive sense) and engineering and I thank you to share almost each detail of it in a very open way. We will support you.

  • Giuseppe August 9, 2011, 12:21

    I just watched the video above with all the design concepts very well modeled and rendered. A question arises about the main structural concept presented: a long spine that separates the hazardous radiation area near the engines, from the crew/payload area (like Discovery in ‘2001’). A long beam that works in a compression way. Surely you would know the Pellegrino’s concept http://www.charlespellegrino.com/propulsion.htm where the struct is pulled rather than pushed, it works in pure traction (as VentureStar in ‘Avatar’). This may lead to a lighter design. What do you think about? Are there in that concept drawbacks that convinced Icarus team to do not use it? Thanks.

  • Paul Gilster August 9, 2011, 12:31

    Giuseppe, the Icarus team has not finalized the external design — the video represents various possibilities but all of this is still under study.

    For those of you not familiar with the Pellegrino concept, here’s a snippet:

    The engine is simply a magnetic coil, which generates a magnetic field, against which particles from the matter-antimatter reaction zone are bounced. The magnetic field (and hence the coil), is propelled forward by the bounce. The coil then pulls the rest of the ship along on a string, much as a motorboat pulls a water skier. A pulling rather than a pushing engine eliminates most of the structural girders that would not only, by their mere existence, add unwarranted mass, but would multiply that mass many times over by their need for shields and cooling equipment, and by added fuel to push the added fuel . . . leading to a chain reaction of design complications. . .and to an engine that burns hotter, but which cannot afford to push the giant to even a significant fraction of lightspeed. By contrast to what has traditionally become known as the large, slow-moving ‘space ark’ approach to interstellar flight, Valkyrie becomes a low mass speedboat.

  • Giuseppe August 9, 2011, 13:06

    Thank you Paul, the structural topics related to body subjected to acceleration (building with gravity here on earth or accelerating starship) lead to the classical architecture structural themes. I that sense the work of Buckminster Fuller is a great inspiration, he designed a lot of smart tensile structures, in collaboration with Kenneth Snelson he conied the term ‘Tensegrity’ for a new kind of structure where compression and traction were clearly separated as a ‘flow of traction with isolated compression beam’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tensegrity. That kind of struct seem born for space, I think space structures should be apparently thin and delicate (and very light), but really strong as Fuller’s structures. Not heavy, bulky and massive as Star Wars’s spaceships.. Anyway, as a designer I’m really involved in that topics, and maybe would nice to support the project!

  • Eniac August 9, 2011, 23:08

    There is one obvious drawback to the tension design: Radiation issues are bound to be much more serious behind the engine than in front of it.

    On Earth, compression structures are more common than tensional ones, but this is because most structures are above the ground. The amount of load carried per structural mass is less in tension than in compression, but not so much less that the effect could not be negated by the lesser distance and shielding afforded by being on the “quiet” side of the engine. I would submit that there is no answer to this question as long as we know next to nothing about what the engine will be like.

  • Andreas Tziolas August 10, 2011, 3:54

    Giuseppe, interesting both interesting suggestions – both of which we will discuss when its time to down-select. For Icarus there will be two down-select phases approximately 1 and 2 years from now.

    The pellegrino concept would need to be worked up for Icarus, the most sensitive part of which is delivering the science package to our destination star. The forward magnetic field is likely to leave debris in the form of charged particles behind which buts them in the path of the payload being dragged along. Perhaps some shielding would be sufficient to protect it – its an interesting concept, one we have not yet discussed – thank you.

    And transegrity has just the kind of physics and geometric elegance to it that gets some of our guys and girls to loose sleep over!

  • ljk August 10, 2011, 10:05

    If the Icarus team can actually figure out how to produce a sustained fusion reaction for propulsion, are they prepared for the fact that this might also apply to making real, working fusion reactors for energy to supply human civilization on Earth? The money, fame, etc. from such an accomplishment will definitely help in the actual building of a number of Icaruses!

    I am assuming here that the Icarus team really is thinking of how to build a fusion propulsion unit, not just saying that such a drive would be a really good idea for getting the probe to another star system in a human lifetime.

  • Andreas Tziolas August 10, 2011, 16:04

    Giuseppe, it occurred to me (and I’m just thinking out loud here) but how do you do course corrections with the Pellegrino concept? How do you steer at all?

    You would also need to maintain thrust to make sure the tension in the rope is always there, otherwise the on-board computers will have a “two-body problem with constraints” on their hands and wont be very pleased with you (assuming some base level AI with built in resentment capabilities :)

    The other problem would be powering the magnet. You would a lot of mass dedicated to radiators on both the magnet and payload/beam source side of the spacecraft. It would look like two butterflies tied together with a string…

    For interstellar you’re in for a long tug, so it doesn’t matter so much but you will still need to make some adjustments along the way. A system would be needed to winch in the magnet, perform any nav corrections and then redeploy. That way you could also turn around and decelerate – which I’m really hoping we’ll find a way to do.

  • Andreas Tziolas August 10, 2011, 16:19

    Ijk, a fusion propulsion engine need not be breakeven as a fusion for power station would. The rough idea is to find a way to generate enough initial (electrical) power to feed the beams (lasers, ion, electron, x-ray, x-fel) which would then ignite the fusion pellet. There are many flavors of fusion to choose from, many types of beam, pellet configurations, etc.

    Then you have the (magnetic) nozzle and engine structural materials, both of which are problems which haven’t been solved yet. We are not claiming we can solve these problems, but we do know we can lay out a realistic design and a technology fostering program that would get us there – sooner, rather than later. Thats what Icarus Interstellar would be all about.

    For us, the 100yss symposium in Orlando will be a turning point. It seems the DARPA/NASA Ames requirements for a 100 year long organization are precisely what Icarus is all about. But we are a young team and regardless of the many heavyweight scientists on Icarus and DARPA will need some convincing. The fundraiser is part of our strategy to bring as many of our designers down as we can – a show of force, if you will.

    Organizing 20 volunteers to travel from around the world is no small issue – it shows perfectly how serious we are about Icarus and interstellar exploration within our lifetimes.

  • Astronist August 10, 2011, 19:20

    “You can help make our childhood dreams reality” (1:37 on the video) — sorry, not good. Why should I care? I’d suggest more of an emphasis on how Icarus relates to solving real problems that the non-committed can relate to. As ljk says above, the question of controlled nuclear fusion for power generation on Earth is a key one. But further than that, we’re talking about channelling growth and progress in constructive rather than destructive directions, developing a Solar System economy which has enough wealth for all people to share, promoting a unifying vision of mankind’s place in the universe and our creative potential (read: highly paid jobs). Icarus and interstellar exploration is the reward for giving up military conflict (as Apollo was the reward for refraining from a hot superpower war in the 1960s) — see how that goes down. Icarus and the space infrastructure to support it as the peaceful, constructive alternative to global military conflict over dwindling resources.

    Oxford, UK

  • Andreas Tziolas August 11, 2011, 5:26


    “Since we were children, we have all dreamed of a human interstellar civilization” – intended to read this has been everyone’s dream – not just that of the Icarus group – apologies. This particular slide was a lean towards those less committed, passers by with interest in space exploration. The particular fund raiser is intended for broad public appeal.

    “A realistic technology fostering roadmap” (0:55) is relevant to your comment on the necessary spinoffs, be them technological or societal to be gleaned from a concerted interstellar exploration and research program.

    In fact, I agree 100% with you. More high level research, less war and overall more focus on technological-singularity-like efforts are the main reasons we are committed to this program.

  • Giuseppe August 11, 2011, 19:33

    Andreas, Eniac, Thank you , I think you touched the open issues to Pellegrino’s concept very clearly. I try to resume: 1) Steering. It was the first one I also met, thinking at the acceleration to deceleration transition phase, where the ship should perform a 180 deg pitch manoeuvre. Surely we must maintain tension in the structure. Difficult I know, but a very smart Reaction Control System may take care of that (feasible I think, a “crowd” of RCS agents that listen for tension values ad coordinate the effort together). 2)Radiations: as Eniac said they are stronger behind the engines rather than in front of it. This is a very delicate issue. Surely it depends from a lot of unknown parameters (of the engine), but anyway it’s obvious that it’s very efficient to create a ‘radiation free’ conical shadow with proper shielding material, when you are in front of the reactor. Not so easy when you have *around of you* also at least two exhaust plumes (presumably very radioactive) one for each side… I can’t find a solution for this (for ‘human’ payload). You would create distance between the engines, but this will add bulky mass, working like a bridge, that will vanish all the advantage of the tensile structure. Moreover the advantage of the tensile solution seems more suitable for strong accelerations (order of 1g) that I feel tremendous in term of energy consumption for a big starship (more acceptable for a ‘ship on chip’ ). For low accelerations (fractions of g, 0.1g, 0.01g; less load, lighter struct) i think the ‘traditional package’ in front of the engine should be better (for human payload in solar system). I feel Pellegrin’s concept perfect for interstellar low mass/high accelerations ship, with robotic payload, with less problems regarding radiation.

  • ljk August 12, 2011, 12:05

    Though I know just about anyone who is here in CD reading this does not need to think about or be reminded of the vast importance of a real starship, there will be plenty of members of the general public – even if these were good economic times – who will be asking “What’s in it for me right now?” regarding interstellar travel and space exploration overall.

    So while that may not be a major intent or goal for Icarus, practical applications related to the vast majority of folks who will remain on Earth from the ideas and inventions that come from trying to make this star probe a reality should at least be considered. I think this is actually a good idea anyway. Besides, one of the ultimate points of exploring the galaxy is to uplift humanity and helping them relate to what is going on is essential. Otherwise Icarus will look elitist and ivory tower, whether that is the intention or not.

    So what are the public educational plans for Icarus, in addition to the information Web site?

  • mike August 14, 2011, 18:45

    maybe the 100 yss is a lifeboat for the elite to bail out after they are done raping this planet.

    if i work in a factory making components for the 100 yss i want to be able to pay my taxes and drive a new car and retire with a fine pension and good medical insurance.

    HAH! fusion, makes me laugh. humanity sure got fission right. i noticed the radiation numbers coming out of japan are extremely long term deadly. let us not forget deep horizon and the gulf of mexico spill, another long term disaster. chernobyl and other engineering feats ….but this time it will be different! WE’RE ENGINEERS.

    what if we run out of oil before we can launch a 100 yss? what if the ecosystem collapses before we launch a 100 yss? how many famines must we endure before we launch a 100 yss?

    of course i dont mind folks talking about it. i want to talk about it. i wish DARPA would pay me $100,000 per year to talk about it.

    should social security be cut to fund a 100 yss?

    will the 100 yss have weapons on it?
    let’s talk about it.

  • Duncan Ivry August 15, 2011, 11:56

    In supporting what ljk said, let me remember, that in order to being able to build space ships — or generally doing sophisticated space exploration — we need a full-featured, modern industrial society with many interesting jobs in science, engineering, production, finance, administration etc.