One of the pleasures of conferences like the recent Huntsville gathering is the chance to meet up with old friends. Richard Obousy and I had been talking about his offering a review of Icarus Interstellar’s recent work for some time, and Huntsville gave us the chance to firm up the idea. The article below is the result, an examination of the Icarus team’s current structure and planning as they continue with the Project Icarus starship design and look toward other interstellar possibilities. The president and senior scientist for Icarus, Richard is a familiar face on Centauri Dreams. He did his doctoral work at Baylor University, studying the possibility that dark energy could be an artifact of Casimir energy in extra dimensions. He’s now engaged in planning the Icarus conference this summer, about which more shortly.

By Richard Obousy


Having served as President of Icarus Interstellar for 18 months now, I’ve been privileged to be knee deep in the evolving face of this exciting organization. I’ve been promising Paul an article since last September and I’ve realized that much of my procrastination has been founded on not quite knowing how and where to start.

Perhaps the easiest place to begin is to discuss very broadly our organizational structure, and to then talk about some of the elements of that structure to bring clarity to our activities. Icarus Interstellar is a 501(c)(3) US tax exempt non-profit organization with a mission statement to launch an interstellar probe by 2100. While this is certainly a bold objective, especially considering the arguably slow pace of current space exploration activities, I believe it’s important that we set our objectives high. Setting a date gives us something tangible and measurable to aim for, and we’re ever aware that the clock is ticking.

Icarus Interstellar is organized around four Committees, which serve as ‘bins’, for lack of a more endearing term, for certain projects and programs. In my mind, the nucleus of the organization is the Research Committee, which houses several exciting projects which I’ll summarize briefly here.

Project Icarus, Fusion Starship Engineering Study

Project Icarus is an engineering challenge and designer capability exercise to design an unmanned fusion based, interstellar starship capable of exploring a star system within 15 light-years. The total mission duration is limited to a maximum of 100 years from launch. This study started in September 2009 and is being conducted by an international team of volunteer physicists, engineers, and other suitably qualified people.

Research areas are divided into modules encompassing all of the spacecraft systems and problem scope, ranging from Astronomical Target, Primary Propulsion, Power Systems, Science, Communications, Computing, Vehicle Risk and Repair, Technological Maturity and Design Certification. The project is structured into a number of phases and follows a goal directed pathway outlined in the Project Icarus Project Program Document.

Project Icarus has a rotating Project Leader (PL), with the first PL being Kelvin Long, the Project’s Founder. Next, I served as PL, followed by Dr. Andreas Tziolas , Pat Galea and currently Rob Swinney. Project Icarus is responsible for approximately 2/3 of the organization’s 33 peer reviewed papers.

Some fascinating work is coming out of Project Icarus, and we’re pleased to be working with a team at Rutgers university, led by Dr. Haym Benaroya, who are performing thermal and vibration modeling (and ultimately experimentation) of the Daedalus reaction chamber, to help provide insights for Project Icarus. In addition, we have a team at the University of Huntsville, Alabama, who have access to powerful codes and are performing simulations of magnetic nozzles. Milos Stanic recently presented his, and partner Richard Hatcher’s, work at the International Astronomical Congress last year.

Project Forward, Beamed Propulsion Starship Study

Project Forward, led by Dr. Jim Benford, is a parallel study performed by members of Icarus Interstellar and affiliated organizations with expertise in the field of beamed propulsion. The study involves:

1) Analyzing past concepts to see if they are off-optimal, in terms of the recent cost-optimized model, so can be improved. Then quantify such improved sail system concepts.

2) Exploring properties of materials that are being used for solar sails or have been suggested for beam-powered sails to determine their practicality. In particular, studying their properties in several domains of EM (microwave, millimeter wave, laser) to find out what accelerations they are limited to due to heating in the beam.

3) Quantifying an alternate use of sails-deceleration of sail probes from a fusion-powered starship as it approaches stellar systems.

Project Hyperion, Human Interstellar Flight Study

Most studies of interstellar craft focus on vessels that are unmanned. This is because the task of starship construction is considered sufficiently challenging without the additional complexity of creating an environment where humans could survive for decades or even centuries.

Project Hyperion, led by Andreas Hein, tackles this specific challenge head on is performing a preliminary study that defines concepts for a crewed interstellar starship. Major areas of study include propulsion, environmental control, life support, social studies related to crewed multi-decadal/multi-century missions, habitat studies, communications, psychology of deep spaceflight, mission objectives, and the ethics of sending humans to the stars.

Like with all complex system developments, a major challenge is to merge the results from the domain-specific sub studies into a coherent system design. This is being accomplished by using up-to-date systems engineering approaches like concurrent engineering and model-based systems engineering.

Project Persephone, Living Architectures for Worldships

Project Persephone, led by TED Fellow Dr. Rachel Armstrong is considering the application of living technologies such a protocells and programmable smart chemistries, in the context of habitable starship architecture that can respond and evolve according to the needs of its inhabitants.

This project has direct relevance to the challenges of the 21-century where our megacities & urban environments will grow at astonishing rates. Yet the building industry, utilities and energy companies necessarily lag behind the physical demands of a growing city and where inflexible infrastructures become inadequate or inappropriate then urban decay sets in with crime, homelessness, waste & resource management issues, traffic congestion etc. A habitable long duration starship will need evolvable environments that not only use resources efficiently but can respond quickly to the needs of populations and bypass the current necessary time lags that are implicit in the current system – in identifying critical upgrades and then activating industrial supply and procurement chains – which are already playing catch-up by the time they are realized.

Project Bifrost. Emerging Nuclear Space Technologies Project

The Icarus NST Program led by Tabitha Smith has the long-term goals of tangible NST deliverables such as (1) The creation of RTGs, (2) Creation of Nuclear Engines (Thermal and/or Electric) and (3) Partnership with the US Government for Pulsed Nuclear Propulsion use for Starship.

The Helius Experiment, Experimental Starship Systems Research

The Helius Experiment, led by Rob Swinney, has the objective of conducting small scale experimental research on systems integral to the development of interstellar spacecraft. Some specific objectives are to develop engineering designs and small scale pulsed propulsion prototypes, optical systems used in beamed propulsion, radiators and other heat rejection methods simulating the rejection of megawatt power systems to be used for interstellar travel.

Project Tin Tin, Interstellar NanoSat Research and Development

Tin Tin, led by Dr. Andreas Tziolas, is conducting design, research and experimental studies relating to the use of nanosats for interstellar exploration, including modular interstellar systems testing. Project Tin Tin is a collaborative effort between the Kickstart program, Team Phoenicia, The British Interplanetary Society and Icarus Interstellar.

Small satellite technologies developed in response to the NASA Centennial Challenge and Google Lunar X-Prize have sent space mission research teams around the world back to the drawing board. One of the conclusions of a tangent study was the viability of an interstellar nanosat mission, which is currently under design as Icarus Interstellar’s first interstellar mission.

The TinTin baseline will consist of KickSat, CubeSat frames modified to include cameras (IR/spectrometer), a deep space science (dust, gas analyzer, magnetometer, etc) and deep space communication package.

X-Physics Propulsion & Power Project (XP4)

XP4, led by myself, is a group organized to explore deep future propulsion and energy generation concepts including, but not limited to, the manipulation of spacetime (warp drive/wormhole metrics) and the exploration of the quantum vacuum as a possible energy source.

Longshot II, Student Research Project

Longshot II, led by students Divya Shankar and Tiffany Frierson is a revisit of the 1987 Project Longshot unmanned interstellar probe mission conducted by NASA sponsored summer graduate students. Our Icarus Interstellar student designers are currently revisiting the project, correcting mistakes, incorporating omissions and updating the technology to the current state of the art.

Broader Activities

These ten project form the core of Icarus Interstellar. As a 100% volunteer organization we rely on the initiative and dedication of unpaid members so the productivity of the group typically rises and falls in relation to how busy people’s ‘days jobs’ are keeping them. With that said, I’ve been thrilled with the progress that each of these projects is making and amazed at just how much measurable work comes from a relatively small core of dedicated enthusiasts.

Another key committee within the organization is the Public Outreach Committee, which covers anything and everything relating to how Icarus Interstellar interacts with the world at large. This includes the development of our website with ongoing help from Student Designer Tiffany Frierson and Director Robert Freeland, the growth of our public blog, the creation of articles specifically written for high traffic media outlets – we’ve had a long and positive relationship with Discovery Space News for a number of years now for example. We’ve also dabbled in “interstellar art” and I’ve been working with a local Texas based artist in the creation of pieces specifically intended to be inspirational, with a strong interstellar theme.

The Public Outreach Committee is also responsible for the creation of video interviews with team members. These have been conducted by Hailey Bright and Sheila Kanani, who both conduct 5-15 minute interviews, quizzing team members as to their research and their role within the organization. I feel that these are important as they help to put a face to the names and allow people who are interested in our activities a glimpse at those of us involved directly in the programs.

I personally feel strongly about Icarus Interstellar placing strong emphasis on outreach. I taught physics for nearly seven years while working on my PhD, then at a local community college for a year after I finished graduate school. While I was often amazed at how bright some of my students were, I was also stunned at the general ignorance regarding the typical student’s understanding of our place in the universe, and a lack of awareness of how advanced we are (or not) technologically in the context of interstellar flight. The impression I received is that many students consider spaceflight routine and easy, when in fact it is far from it. I also found the distinction between science fiction and science fact blurred, in all too many students’ minds. Thus, I believe it important that we articulate the vision that many of us share relating to humanities exploration of the stars, and that we reliably convey the vast and undeniable challenges associated with this sort of endeavor.


Image: An artist’s conception of a possible Icarus design. Credit: Adrian Mann.

Another active area for Icarus Interstellar is the Fund Development Committee, led by Director Bill Cress. This committee explores ways in which we can generate funds to help the organization grow. Sadly, the field of interstellar flight is not the most resource rich of communities, so we are left to our own devices to figure out how to actually generate money. This is important for a range of things, starting at simple administrative matters like website hosting and basic accounting extending up to reimbursing team members for representing Icarus Interstellar at conferences. While the volunteer work from our team members is astounding, I’m not convinced that a 100% volunteer effort is sustainable for long periods. I’m also not convinced that relying on governments, or philanthropic organizations to generate resources for this endeavor is reliable, so I believe that it’s important nurture an entrepreneurial spirit in Icarus Interstellar.

One example of a recent program that has proved successful is the Icarus Interstellar Affinity Card Program pioneered by Director Robert Freeland. In this program, US based individuals can sign up for a special credit card with starship designs on the front of the card created by the interstellar art luminary Adrian Mann. Icarus Interstellar receives a 1-2% cash donation from Capital One Bank on everything spent on these cards, so given enough people that sign up for this program, a small but constant revenue stream is generated for the organization. I personally signed up for one of these cards the day the program went live, and make all my day to day purchases on it, paying it off in full at the end of the month. This is one of many examples where our community can embrace entrepreneurship to help move us forward to our common goal.

Lastly, we have the Educational Committee chaired by Vice President Andreas Tziolas. This committee focuses on all aspects relating to educating the next generation of starship engineers. Andreas has also been working on his “Starflight Academy” concept, detailing a series of technical courses that could be taught at university level. The hope is that if we can either launch this ourselves — or through a university as an affiliated program — then we can help garner interest in the field of ‘Interstellar Research” as a tangible subject that can be studied at an advanced level. Andreas’s ideas can be read about in the latest issue of JBIS (Vol 65, No 9/10) with his paper titled “Starflight Academy: Education in Interstellar Engineering”.

Icarus Interstellar is still a young organization, not quite two years old (though our flagship Project Icarus is two years older). In this short time we’ve gathered a lot of momentum, and are garnering interest from all corners of the globe. I frequently receive emails from people interested in getting involved with our efforts. I think that the biggest challenge we face over the coming months, and beyond, is to figure out how to best organize and direct the efforts of volunteers who wish to contribute. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to task people with non-traditional backgrounds in a way that’s valuable both to them, and to the interstellar community. While there’s plenty of work to be done on the science and the engineering front, I think it’s important we learn how to welcome the interests of people who come from more varied backgrounds.

For example, some months ago I started working with a bright chap named Steve Summerford. Steve comes from an Urban Planning background, something you wouldn’t typically associated with starship engineering. However, I thought that there would be fantastic potential tasking Steve with work relating to designing interstellar colonies, and exploring facets of planning Worldships – huge and slow moving interstellar vessels designed to take many generations to reach their target. After just a few months work, Steve came up with a wonderful paper titled “Colonized Interstellar Vessel: Conceptual Master Planning“, with publication accepted for JBIS. He also adapted this paper into a popular science article called “What Would an Interstellar ‘Worldship’ Look Like?” which was published on Discovery Space News. The research proposes a new type of worldship design, which adds to the current worldship portfolio of the O’Neill cylinder, the Bernal Sphere, and the Stanford Torus. This type of research demonstrates that non-traditional “interstellar disciplines” – in this case Urban Planning, has much of substance to offer the community.

Another case of working with non-traditional disciplines is the example of Josh Reiger, a young man in his early 20s from San Antonio Texas. Joshua is a construction worker, with a strong passion for interstellar research and astronomy. While most may have simply ignored his email, or found an excuse not to engage with him, I felt that there had to be something that someone with a lot of passion could direct their efforts. After several back and forth emails I decided to get Joshua working on a wiki-style ‘how to’ guide for amateur astronomers interested in learning how to detect signatures of exoplanets. While this is no easy task, there is no reason why a well organized global team of volunteers cannot pool their resources and participate in this fascinating venture. Josh’s work is “in progress” however he’s already created for the Icarus blog a fairly extensive first pass which can be read on the article “Exoplanet Detection and the Amateur Astronomer“.

While I think it’s important to emphasize that most of the work performed by the Icarus Interstellar team to date does follow a typical physics/engineering theme, as can be seen from our publications page, I think these last two examples showcase my own personal ambition to find a way to galvanize as large a cross section of the planet as possible to help us move toward becoming an interstellar species. And, while we’re some way off, I believe that everyone can play a role, no matter how big or small. It’s just up to people like you and I, who read Centauri Dreams, to figure out creative ways to engage with the rest of the world.

This article is really just a glimpse at our multifaceted organization. I’m tempted to write more, but am cognizant of just how long this article is getting. Please drop me an email at if you’re interested in helping Icarus Interstellar in some way, shape, or form or would just like to learn more about us.