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A Prize for ‘Black Sky Thinking’


If you can get your head around the idea that architecture can ‘grow’ by using the tools of synthetic biology and ‘smart’ chemistry, you’ll see that what goes on inside a starship may be radically different from anything we’ve imagined before. Rachel Armstrong has done outstanding research in the area of sustainable solutions for both natural and engineered environments, and works daily on design issues raised by new materials. It’s not surprising to find Dr. Armstrong involved with Project Persephone, the attempt by Icarus Interstellar to model environments aboard a long-duration starship that might spend centuries or more getting to its destination.

Image: Sustainability savant Rachel Armstrong, whose work involves ‘living architecture’ that makes it possible for buildings to be constructed with some of the attributes of biological systems. Credit: Icarus Interstellar.

When Richard Obousy reported in these pages last March about developments at Icarus, he noted the challenges posed by a ship like this:

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.

Of course, these are problems with direct relevance today where urban infrastructures in the era of the mega-city can quickly become outdated. The challenge in both cases is to come up with environmental solutions that can not only last but grow organically with our needs. That obviously takes us out of the realm of traditional architecture, or at least melds it with new disciplines. And it’s just that cross-disciplinary reach that Armstrong is reaching for through the Black Sky Thinking Prize, which will be awarded to an individual who tackles interstellar issues with the same willingness to supercede conventional ideas that Armstrong values so strongly.

In a just published article, Armstrong explains the kind of innovation the prize will honor:

While traditional modes of innovation rely on individuals to develop novel objects around which markets and customers are built, where the product is ‘pushed’ into use – the Black Sky Thinking Prize seeks a different kind of innovation, which is inspired by a pioneering vision that invites others to help its realisation. The Black Sky Thinking Prize therefore encourages ‘pull’, as well as ‘push’ innovation, to unite and motivate communities of interstellar researchers and explorers, to realise a shared goal. This approach to generating novelty is not only crucial for our exploration of the worlds beyond our own but may also help navigate the substantial challenges that we face here on earth, where established frameworks persuade us to constrain our thinking within the limits of incremental innovation which benefits a few, rather than the many.

The plan is for the Black Sky Thinking Prize to be awarded biennially at the Starship Congress organized by Icarus Interstellar, an event that debuts next week in Dallas. The competition begins in 2014 with a judging panel that Armstrong describes as “international experts, visionaries and mouldbreakers” now in the process of being appointed. Winners will present their ideas at the Starship Congress as well as receiving a monetary grant. More on this as it develops, but it’s worth noting here that the prize will favor conceptual breakthroughs that could influence the evolution of interstellar studies over near-term technologies.


Encouraging futurists with grants and an audience keeps new ideas in the mix, always a welcome development considering how hard it is for people to move past their preconceptions. It’s tricky for any worldview to imagine its successors,but people like Intel’s Brian David Johnson put a great deal of time into the effort. I think of Johnson with regard to the Black Sky Thinking Prize because the writer/engineer is tasked by Intel with looking about ten years out to imagine the kind of future the devices that are in the concept stage today will emerge into as products.

As Icarus Interstellar is doing with Black Sky, Intel has been encouraging such thinking for several years through its own Tomorrow Project, which involves working scientists as well as science fiction writers and a cross-disciplinary audience that participates in conversations about these matters worldwide. A current hot topic is how cloud computing, driven by chips that will soon shrink to sizes small enough to be installed on everything from clothing to kitchenware, will aggregate information to provide services whose shape we have yet to define.

The Tomorrow Project’s The Future – Powered by Fiction competition solicits science fiction, essays, comics and videos from people of ages 13-25 all over the world, with ten winners to receive cash prizes and have their work published online. Winners will be announced by the end of this year. As with Armstrong’s Black Sky Thinking Prize, Johnson’s goal is to develop humanized visions of a future that uses intelligent technology to produce sustainable lifestyles. I’m all for prizes like these that set a high bar and encourage broad participation, for the solutions to intractable issues can emerge disruptively and from unexpected quarters.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • projectstudio August 6, 2013, 11:05

    Hi Paul, love the site and the articles, I’ve been addicted to daily reading for some time now! But I want to comment that the idea of a ‘Black Sky’ thinking with its emphasis on Pull – people problems in search of a solution – is very different from Intel’s ‘cloud computing, driven by chips that will soon shrink to sizes small enough to be installed on everything from clothing to kitchenware, will aggregate information to provide services ***whose shape we have yet to define***’ which is pure Push – a solution looking for a profitable problem. Whether Intel’s project relates to RFID or nano-technologies, it is an attempt to market new technological capabilities and find a return on that investment – inventing services where there is no current demand.

    On the other hand, developing ***humanized visions of a future that uses intelligent technology to produce sustainable lifestyles*** suggests a more organic process like the oyster’s response to an irritating grain of sand, generating the solution of a pearl.

    Both concepts can draw on the emergent behaviour of microsystems following their programmed rules. The difference is in the input to the application and whether that input accurately represents a sense of broad-based human needs or the narrow intentionalities of a corporate entity. There is a role, I think, for simulation systems that can test emergent behaviour in the lab before releasing our nanobots to the wild, but if genetically modified foods are any indication the barn door will be open before we are aware of it.


  • Rob Flores August 6, 2013, 11:48

    Considering that a colonization target must be IMO extremely selective
    to give the colony a good chance of sucess, for various reasons that Earth II is likely 250Ly-350Ly away (your mileage may vary on your restrictions, with the caveat that it is better to look for an close to ideal candidate rather than the closest barely suitable one).
    I see no evidence that we will get around the energy requirement problem for accelerating a large ship(1,000,000Mt?) to significant “C” speeds. There are 2 strategies as to the design of your ship. A one time trip, Limited endurance craft that get’s to the destination supports the colony for a few hundred years before becoming inoperative. This is the limited cost version of the attempt.
    On the other hand if you are making essentially a seedship, capabable of
    making many stops and colony initiations you will certainly need a different
    class of ship. One of the candidate ways of doing this is with biological non
    sentient objects. Otherwise can you rely on machines to last 10^6 years?
    Not that biological systems can’t break down, (cancer), but you can layer back up process to keep everything going, (the body can use 3 types of fuel)
    Now yes you can evolve your ship to meet the needs of your colonists but
    Unless you got a perfect idea of what this evolution / mutation will do, it
    would be best to pick a stable biological design, one with tested capacities.

    What I don’t know if it is better to keep colonists in limited existence onboard ship in orbit while terraforming (o2 via blue green algae + soil creation limited to a few locations) or let them prance around in respirators and live in caves for a few thousand years)

  • Paul W August 6, 2013, 13:57

    The illustration is a thing of beauty! Spinning through deep space, providing “gravity” for the inhabitants. Motoring along through the cosmos for centuries with the promise of a New Earth at the end of the long journey.
    That is the idea?
    Perhaps the ship can become an end in itself, a permanent home.
    Otherwise, let’s say, with highly advanced telescopes at the lunar south pole, a “blue and white marble” planet is found orbiting a pretty yellow G star. The planet has large oceans and green land masses, 1.002 earth mass, perfect! Spectroscopic analysis shows that all the chemistry is right, we are on our way a couple of hundred light years to a new home!
    Except that upon arrival, centuries later, the perfect world is, for reasons that could not have been anticipated, not habitable by humans…
    Oh great, what is plan B? Well, there is another tempting planet, but it’s another 300 light years. Back to deep space.
    Generation ships are a huge investment and a huge risk. They are one way missions, unsupported by earth with no back-up. The only reason the Pilgrims made it (most of them died) was because more ships arrived the next year.
    Earth would have to be facing grave peril (certainly a possibility) for these ships to make sense. Otherwise, at sub light speeds, we might as well send the generation probe, a bunch of them, first and just wait centuries for the report.
    I am all for the advancement of the technology. The day very well may come when this course is the only course.
    Meanwhile, I am hoping Mr. Millis and his brothers in arms find another way.

  • Paul Gilster August 6, 2013, 14:45

    projectstudio writes:

    On the other hand, developing ***humanized visions of a future that uses intelligent technology to produce sustainable lifestyles*** suggests a more organic process like the oyster’s response to an irritating grain of sand, generating the solution of a pearl.

    A good point, and nicely put!

  • Michael Spencer August 7, 2013, 13:39


    When I was in grad school (Master of Landscape Architecture), we were presented with a seemingly trivial project. LSU is arranged about a rectangular space called the ‘quadrangle’. The project: find spaces for sitting, for a shaded fountain, and for walkways.

    Seems easy, right? It is, if you are willing to accept the fact that people will walk from building to building, across the quad, in the most convenient way. But what if we stipulate that walk ways must be designed that will carry all of the traffic, leaving no traffic for unpaved areas.

    Is there even a solution for this problem? Sure. Pave the entire space! Or, build a walk from every door to every door.

    Some recommended a simple approach: simply watch where people walk, and then pave the most-used pathways. In the end, this is the only solution that works, the only solution that doesn’t constrain the user in any way. Some felt it’s a design ‘cop-out’. After all, shouldn’t we know where people want to walk?

    And the answer, of course, is no. Our future spaceship will certainly have very creative starting conditions. In the end, though, it’s the users who will determine the necessary spatial design, and they will do it based on what we do every day: living ordinary life. It’s a huge challenge to the spaceship designer, with no possible technology existing today that would mimic a blank slate.

    In some ways I suppose the American experiment- landing colonists on a foreign shore and simply allowing them to work it out (broadly speaking) is the clearest model.

  • Astronist August 8, 2013, 6:06

    An excellent initiative from Rachel Armstrong, and it will be interesting to see what new ideas it may stimulate.

    @ Paul W: no, that is not the idea at all. In order for a manned starship to “motor” along for centuries (it is more likely to cruise in free fall for centuries), the people aboard will necessarily have to be living in a mobile space colony, and this will have to have already become an acceptable permanent multi-generational lifestyle. Therefore, when they arrive, they will naturally turn to the sort of asteroidal resources or small moons from which their ship was built originally, which offer vastly more room for growth than a planetary surface, and which are likely to be found orbiting all main-sequence stars. “Earth 2.0” will in any case by definition already be occupied by a native ecosphere, which the new arrivals will find very much more valuable as an object of careful, non-invasive scientific study.

    @ Rob Flores: a plausible ship will mass less than the 1,000,000 Megatonnes which you suggest! The Icarus project writes the word “tonnes” out in full for clarity, and I suggest that this is best practice. (The qualifier “metric” may be added, but is not required, as 1 tonne with that spelling is by definition 1000 kg, as opposed to an imperial or long ton = 2240 lb = 1016 kg, or to a US or short ton = 2000 lb = 907 kg.)

    Oxford, UK

  • Rob Flores August 8, 2013, 13:11


    Very well I wil bring down my figure to under 50,000 Metric Tons.
    But this type of seed ship carries only genetic material robot nannies
    and can build infrastructure from nanotech assemblers.

    1,000,000 metric tons was for some thousands of colonists in hibernation, and only awake for a small fraction of their lifetimes.
    By the way, The Battlecruiser Hood displaced 40,000 tons, This “heavy seedship” is equivalent to 25 of those ships. For an eons
    long duration and endurance I would consider it a reasonable size.

    Funny you should mention Icarus, I envision that very fast probes
    could be sent do surveys of solar systems. But the type I have in mind
    weigh a few dozen kilograms can be made relatively inexpesively, a fleet of them is sent to targeted stars.

  • Paul W August 8, 2013, 13:20

    Ha, ok Stephen, I should have said, what, drifting along?

    I think that the kind of engineering currently being thought about will be very helpful for living in space within the solar system. Which was probably what the article had in mind, and what is depicted in the nice illustration.

    As far as interstellar travel? Well, theorists say it IS plausible to colonize the galaxy at sub light speeds. Very plausible. After all, if there is NO faster way found after many decades of consideration and research, should we just give up? Of course not. Humans might very well have to be retooled to live beyond the world evolution designed us for.

    The most important thing is to keep taking baby steps forward. Right now, for me, that is represented by SSTO designs by Reaction Engines.

  • Astronist August 9, 2013, 16:32

    @ Rob Flores: sorry to be a nit-picker, but in science precision is vital. You suggested a mass of 1,000,000 Mt, but in international units 1 Mt = 1,000,000 tonnes (= 1,000,000,000 kg), therefore your suggested mass reads as 1,000,000,000,000 tonnes. Clearly, a passenger-carrying vehicle would probably need to have a mass up in the millions of tonnes. If you use the spelling “tonne”, then there is no need to say “metric”, since 1 tonne (pronounced the same as “ton”) is by definition 1000 kg.

    @ Paul W: absolutely agree with you re Reaction Engines. Get the frequency of flights up and the traffic levels up, and the costs per flight or per kg to orbit will fall and the reliability increase, as the growth of air travel over the past century has shown. When we can access orbit routinely and economically, that will be a giant step towards an interstellar-capable civilisation.

    Oxford, UK

  • Astronist August 11, 2013, 17:56

    More nit-picking: why does the poster for the Black Sky Thinking Prize feature a blue sky?


  • Aleksandar Volta February 3, 2014, 15:11

    @Rob Flores

    A Gaian planet of ~1 Earth mass, ~1 Earth density, ~ 1 Atmospheric pressures, with nitrogen dominated, 21% (± 2%) oxygen content in the atmosphere may lurk a lot closer to home than 250 light years distance.

    A couple (or even few) may emerge in just 4.3 light years away, soon.