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Alpha Centauri Prize Announced

As we approach Starship Congress in Dallas, the Institute for Interstellar Studies has announced the creation of the Alpha Centauri Prize Awards, the first of which will be the ‘Progenitor Award,’ to be bestowed at this year’s Starship Congress on August 18. The winner will receive a certificate and $500 cash award donated by Icarus Interstellar, the organization behind the Dallas meetings. The winner is to be chosen from among those presenting at the Starship Congress.

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The Dallas gathering that convenes this Thursday will be the third major interstellar conference so far this year, following conclaves in Huntsville (Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop), San Diego (Starship Century) and preceding September’s 100 Year Starship Symposium. In addition, a conference on The Philosophy of the Starship was held by I4IS in London in May. In that suddenly quickened climate for interstellar studies the judges for the Alpha Centauri Prize Progenitor Award are being asked to make their selections based on originality, direct relevance to interstellar flight, and the potential of the work to be viable both technologically and economically in this century.

Addendum: Kelvin Long writes to tell me that another Starship Century conference will take place in London this October, along with a conference on Project Icarus. More on these when I have further information.

The Progenitor Award is the first of what is to become a series of awards in deep space design. Subsequent awards are, according to an email from I4IS executive director Kelvin Long, to be launched over the next two years. The intent is to provide incentives for design work of relevance to interstellar flight. A recent post on the Institute for Interstellar Studies website offers this:

We will set technical standards for physicists, engineers, biologists and scientists to reach for, harnessing the skills of old, and building the skills of new. We will foster and encourage pathways to new design concepts which solve old problems, and generate insights into new ones…

As explained in the I4IS post, the larger motivation is to adopt the lessons learned in the Ansari X-Prize competition to spur innovation and create technical developments in interstellar research. Here the future competitions become ambitious indeed, encompassing design studies by international teams of 6-10 designers, with each team submitting a final report to a judging panel after a development time of one year, and recurrent competitions taking place every two to three years. The plan is to drive design work in a host of projected technologies:

The Alpha Centauri Prize would be an international competition that has the function of incentivizing research, contributing technical knowledge, developing designer capability whilst inspiring the public towards the vision of interstellar flight. It is one of the best ways to advance the prospects for interstellar travel, and to have separate design studies, which could be derived, iterated and improved. Over time, the concept would be worked upon by future generations and ultimately lead to a direct design blue print for an interstellar probe after several decades of running. Like the BIS/Icarus Interstellar Project Icarus and the soon to be announced I4IS Project Dragonfly, it is the hope that other teams around the world would be assembled to work on specific proposals investigated historically such as NERVA, Starwisp, Vista, Longshot, AIMStar, Orion or one of the many others.

Long and Icarus Interstellar’s Richard Obousy created Project Icarus in 2009 as both a continuation and redefinition of the 1970s era Project Daedalus. The competition foreseen in the Alpha Centauri Prize, unlike Icarus, does not focus on a single propulsion system but considers all options from solar sails to antimatter, eschewing redesigns of historical work to create what the site describes as ‘new and innovative design concepts.’ I4IS envisions competitions taking place every two to three years to increase the technological readiness of different propulsion schemes, with eventual cash prizes in the $10,000 to $100,000 range:

After running the competition for two decades we may find that what may emerge is not a single choice for going to the stars in the coming centuries, but instead a realization that it is a combination of approaches with highly optimized engineering designs that will be the way to go. This may suggest hybrid propulsion schemes and could for example be along the lines of a fusion-based drive with anti-proton catalyzed reactions but using a nuclear electric engine for supplementary power and perhaps a solar sail and MagSail for solar system escape or upon arrival. From the two decades of research will develop reliable engineering studies, practical progress of the technology and several clear front runner designs to focus initially divergent research options towards the proper investment into the clear front runner designs by a process of gradual down select.

Competitions have proven their worth in aviation and aerospace (think Lindbergh and Burt Rutan), but in those cases we were dealing with existing or near-term technology and building hardware. What I4IS intends with the Alpha Centauri Prize is to turn the same principles to work at design studies that will surely out-run present-day engineering. It’s an idea that worked with the volunteer teams that have designed Daedalus and are now designing Project Icarus. With government funding all but non-existent on most of these concepts, it’s heartening to think that philanthropic alternatives can be found to push studies across the spectrum of propulsion options. A torrent of research papers would be a welcome outcome of such competitions.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley August 12, 2013, 10:14

    We already award this prize under other names – Nebula, Hugo, etc. And those prizes have more value too.

    Interstellar flight is too far away to be suitable for a competition. It would be like early C20th aviation prizes for orbital flight or transcontinental stratospheric flight with 400 passengers. Aviation prizes were about demonstrating real hardware achieving goals that were stepping stones.

    We need space prizes to demonstrate useful goals as a path to interstellar flight. Suitable ones might include closed system life support for various periods, various propulsion systems (each with its own class, like yachting, power boats, racing cars). I’d certainly like to see sail technology prizes, both robotic and manned, to demonstrate capability from cis-lunar objectives all the way to the outer planets, achieving speed, distance and payload delivery.

  • Keith Cooper August 12, 2013, 16:23

    @ Alex

    “We already award this prize under other names – Nebula, Hugo, etc. And those prizes have more value too.”

    I admit I do find this comment puzzling. Research into interstellar propulsion and starship designs is why we’re here, isn’t it? After all that’s the business that I4Is, Tau Zero, Icarus Interstellar and others are in so it makes sense doesn’t it that we’d want to reward researchers in our field? The aim of the prize is to motivate researchers to think about actual, rigorous design studies, rather than hand-waving premises, but to also support the interstellar research community which has been severely lacking incentives. Contrast that to near-Earth space which already has sources of investment and competitions, such as the lunar X-prize. Dismissing it as science fiction seems a little condescending, particularly as the design studies that the competition is looking to award are ones that take the field forward with real science and engineering. And there’s nothing to say that real tests could not be carried out on interstellar design studies – I4Is’ Project Dragonfly intends to do just that using ChipSats. Small steps, yes, but for the interstellar community, potentially giant leaps.

  • James August 12, 2013, 16:47

    I really like prizes such as this and wish the govt/philanthropy/businesses would do more of it.

    Could you imagine a prize of $5 billion be established for the first person to orbit Mars, and another prize to establish the first colony on Mars.

    I’d have 2 to 3 dozen more prizes based upon creating a closed-loop life support, automatic repair system, shielding, and prizes that increase the speed at which we travel in space (sub-light speeds).

    An Ultra-prize of $1 trillion for reaching faster-than-light speeds or reaching another solar system.

  • coacervate August 12, 2013, 21:16

    Bravo! That last paragraph and Keith’s comment are spot on. Moreover, nothing focuses the mind like a goal and some competition. Exciting times indeed.

  • Alex Tolley August 12, 2013, 21:24

    @Keith.

    The winner will receive a certificate and $500 cash award
    $500 and a certificate is a prize value that equates with the work done? Even a “hand-waving” premise paper is going to cost more than that in time spent. Perhaps multiply it by 100 or 1000 to make sense.

    OK, so my comment about Hugos and Nebulas was a bit facetious. However I stand by my larger point – that we are so far away from doing interstellar travel that designs, however good on paper today, are likely to look as quaint as early C20th ideas for modern air travel look today. You may argue that the aviation prizes are more akin to near space prizes today, but I think that is a good thing. It spurs innovation in actual flight hardware that will provide real experience of what works and what doesn’t. And we need this path to develop the solar system economy that will be large and robust enough to take on the challenges of interstellar flight when the time comes. And when they do, my guess is that Daedalus and Icarus and the rest of our current ideas will look like those wood and fabric, multiple-winged, passenger planes.

    I’m all for motivating innovation, but the prizes need to be commensurate with the effort and they will need to be staged in such as way that each leads to the next innovation in some capability. But how you do that with paper designs I don’t get at all. I actually prefer the “Black Sky Thinking Prize” idea a few entries back. It doesn’t pretend to do anything but stimulate new ideas and approaches, which just may find some novel and clever approach, with a reward that seems more appropriate.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • bill August 13, 2013, 18:08

    Paul, I’m wondering if the Starship Congress in Dallas is going to be
    broadcast on the internet in real time or at least video taped
    for later viewing ?

  • Paul Gilster August 13, 2013, 22:38

    bill, I’m told it’s going to be live streaming:

    http://www.youtube.com/IcarusInterstellar

  • Sean M. Brooks August 14, 2013, 11:34

    Dear Mr. Tolley:

    You have touched on points which I think CENTAURI DREAMS needs to cover as well: relatively near term projects which will have ACTUAL, real world, physical, and engineering effects. That is, fascinating as many of the articles I’ve seen on CENTAURI are, why haven’t we seen more discussions about moving into the Solar System, colonizing and terraforming Venus, the Moon, Mars, etc.? More thought and discussion of how BEST to get off Earth in the first place. Because I believe the next step after a colonizing of the Solar System would be to reach for the stars.

    Here I have in mind Dr. Jerry Pournelle’s paper “The SSX Concept,” in which he discussed what he believes was the best means of BUILDING an actual, practical, and economically feasible reuseable space ship for going back and forth to Earth and the rest of the Solar System. As Pournelle argued, just having a practical means of doing so, despite Earth’s deep gravity well, means you are half way to ANYWHERE in the Solar System.

    Lastly, there is the serendipity effect. My view is that development of the resources and potentialities of the Solar System will have spin off effects hastening the development of a practical means of reaching for the stars. I’m reminded of what Poul Anderson said in his essay “Commentary” for his collection SPACE FOLK: “Look up. Space begins about fifty miles above your head. Yonder all the materials, energy, elbow room, and wonderful discoveries to make that our species can ever require. Whether or not we reach the stars (and we can eventually, with or without Einsteinian speed limits laid on us, if we really want to) the Solar System holds more than enough.”