Building the Bowl of Heaven

Because his new novel Shipstar had just reached the top of my reading stack, and because I had been writing about Shkadov Thrusters last week, I asked Gregory Benford if he could provide a deeper explanation of how these enormous structures might work. Greg had already noted in an email to me that a Shkadov Thruster is inherently unstable, and earlier discussions of the idea on Centauri Dreams had raised doubts about the acceleration possible from such a device. However, I’ve referred to what Benford and Larry Niven have created as a ‘modified’ Shkadov Thruster, and I was anxious to hear their thinking on what might be possible. Greg, an award-winning science fiction author and physicist, here offers his insights into — and reservations about — a propulsion scheme capable of moving stars.

by Gregory Benford


Physicist Leonid Shkadov first described in 1987 a stellar propulsion system made by putting an enormous mirror in a static, fixed position near a star. To stay there it had to balance gravitational attraction towards and light pressure away from the star, exactly—or else it would either fall into or away from the star. Since the radiation pressure of the star would be asymmetrical, i.e. more radiation is being emitted in one direction as compared to another, the excess radiation pressure acts as net thrust, so tiny that the Sun would, after a million years, have speed of 20 m/s, and have moved 0.03 light years—far less than its orbital speed around the galaxy, ~100 km/sec.

Surely we can do better, I thought back in the early 2000s. So I mentioned some ideas to Larry Niven, and eventually we wrote two novels about a different sort of stellar thruster — Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar. Here’s an explanation from the Afterword to Shipstar:

We think of such engines as Smart Objects–statically unstable but dynamically stable, as we are when we walk. We fall forward on one leg, then catch ourselves with the other. That takes a lot of fast signal processing and coordination. (We’re the only large animal without a tail that’s mastered this. Two legs are dangerous without a big brain or a stabilizing tail.) There’ve been several Big Dumb Objects in sf, but as far as I know, no smart ones. Our Big Smart Object is larger than Ringworld and is going somewhere, using an entire star as its engine.

Our Bowl is a shell more than a hundred million miles across, held to a star by gravity and some electrodynamic forces. The star produces a long jet of hot gas, which is magnetically confined so well it spears through a hole at the crown of the cup-shaped shell. This jet propels the entire system forward – literally, a star turned into the engine of a “ship” that is the shell, the Bowl. On the shell’s inner face, a sprawling civilization dwells. The novel’s structure doesn’t resemble Larry’s Ringworld much because the big problem is dealing with the natives.

The virtue of any Big Object, whether Dumb or Smart, is energy and space. The collected solar energy is immense, and the living space lies beyond comprehension except in numerical terms. While we were planning this, my friend Freeman Dyson remarked, “I like to use a figure of demerit for habitats, namely the ratio R of total mass to the supply of available energy. The bigger R is, the poorer the habitat. If we calculate R for the Earth, using total incident sunlight as the available energy, the result is about 12 000 tons per Watt. If we calculate R for a cometary object with optical concentrators, travelling anywhere in the galaxy where a 0 magnitude star is visible, the result is 100 tons per Watt. A cometary object, almost anywhere in the galaxy, is 120 times better than planet Earth as a home for life. The basic problem with planets is that they have too little area and too much mass. Life needs area, not only to collect incident energy but also to dispose of waste heat. In the long run, life will spread to the places where mass can be used most efficiently, far away from planets, to comet clouds or to dust clouds not too far from a friendly star. If the friendly star happens to be our Sun, we have a chance to detect any wandering life-form that may have settled here.”

This insight helped me think through the Bowl, which has an R of about 10-10!


Image: Artwork by Don Davis, as are all the images in this essay.


Shdakov thrusters aren’t stable. They are not statites, Bob Forward’s invention, because they’re not in orbit. Push them, as the actual photon thrust will do, and they’ll fall outward, doomed. So how to build something that harvests a star’s energy to move it and can be stabilized?

I worried this subject, and thought back to the work my brother Jim and I had done on speeding up sails by desorption of a “paint” we could put onto a sail surface, to be blown off by a beam of microwave power striking it. This worked in experiments we did at JPL under a NASA grant, with high efficiency. Basically, throwing mass overboard is better than reflecting sunlight, because photons have very little momentum. The ratio of a photon’s momentum to that of a particle moving at speed V is

(V/c)(2Ep )/EM

where Ep is the photon energy and EM the kinetic energy of the mass M. So if those two energies are the same, the photon has a small fraction of the mass’s momentum, V/c.

So don’t use photons. Use a jet of the mass brought out from the star by forcing it to eject a jet—straight through the center of the Bowl. Jets must be confined by magnetic fields, or else they spray outward like a firehose. Get the magnetic fields from where the reflecting band of mirrors on the Bowl focuses it—on the nearest part of the star. Create a jet from that reflected energy. Make the jet push the star away. Use the jet’s magnetic fields to entwine with fields built into the Bowl itself. Let the jet hug the Bowl toward the star. Only by shaping the magnetic fields of star and jet can we move the Bowl, with constant attention to momentum and stability.

Stable, if you manage it. Who does that? How?


Larry Niven and I started building the Bowl in our minds:

The local centrifugal gravity avoids entirely the piling up of mass to get a grip on objects, and just uses rotary mechanics. So of course, that shifts the engineering problem to the Bowl structural demands.

Big human built objects, whether pyramids, cathedrals, or skyscrapers, can always be criticized as criminal wastes of a civilization’s resources, particularly when they seem tacky or tasteless. But not if they extend living spaces and semi-natural habitat. This idea goes back to Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker: “Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated, and rifled of their prodigious stores of sub-atomic energy.”

Our smart Bowl craft is also going somewhere, not just sitting around, waiting for visitors like Ringworld–and its tenders live aboard.

We started with the obvious: Where are they going, and why?
Answering that question generated the entire frame of the two novels. That’s the fun of smart objects – they don’t just awe, they intrigue.

My grandfather used to say, as we headed out into the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimping run, A boat is just looking for a place to sink.

So heading out to design a new, shiny Big Smart Object, I said, An artificial world is just looking for a seam to pop.

You’re living just meters away from a high vacuum that’s moving fast, because of the Bowl’s spin (to supply centrifugal gravity). That makes it easy to launch ships, since they have the rotational velocity with respect to the Bowl or Ringworld… but that also means high seam-popping stresses have to be compensated. Living creatures on the sunny side will want to tinker, try new things…

“Y’know Fred, I think I can fix this plumbing problem with just a drill-through right here. Uh—oops!”

The vacuum can suck you right through. Suddenly you’re moving off on a tangent at a thousand kilometers a second—far larger than the 50 km/sec needed to escape the star. This makes exploring passing nearby stars on flyby missions easy.

But that easy exit is a hazard, indeed. To live on a Big Smart Object, you’d better be pretty smart yourself.


Mechanical Engineering

Very smart, it turns out.

As we explained in Shipstar:

We supposed the founders made its understory frame with something like scrith–a Ringworld term, greyish translucent material with strength on the order of the nuclear binding energy, stuff from the same level of physics as held Ringworld from flying apart. This stuff is the only outright physical miracle needed to make Ringworld or the Bowl work mechanically. Rendering Ringworld stable is a simple problem—just counteract small sidewise nudges. Making the Bowl work in dynamic terms is far harder; the big problem is the jet and its magnetic fields. This was Benford’s department, since he published many research papers in Astrophysical Journal in the like on jets from the accretion disks around black holes, some of which are far bigger than galaxies. But who manages the jet? And how, since it’s larger than worlds? This is how you get plot moves from the underlying physics.

One way to think of the strength needed to hold the Bowl together is by envisioning what would hold up a tower a hundred thousand kilometers high on Earth. The tallest building we now have is the 829.8 m (2,722 ft) tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. So for Ringworld or for the Bowl we’re imagining a scrith-like substance 100,000 times stronger than the best steel and carbon composites can do now. Even under static conditions, though, buildings have a tendency to buckle under varying stresses. Really bad weather can blow over very strong buildings. So this is mega-engineering by master engineers indeed. Neutron stars can cope with such stresses, we know, and smart aliens or even ordinary humans might do well too. So: let engineers at Caltech (where Larry was an undergraduate) or Georgia Tech (where Benford nearly went) or MIT (where Benford did a sabbatical) take a crack at it, then wait a century or two—who knows what they might invent? This is a premise and still better, a promise—the essence of modern science fiction.

Our own inner solar system contains enough usable material for a classic Dyson sphere. The planets and vast cold swarms of ice and rock, like our Kuiper Belt and Oort Clouds—all that, orbiting around another star, can plausibly give enough mass to build the Bowl. For alien minds, this could be a beckoning temptation. Put it together from freely orbiting sub-structures, stuck it into bigger masses, use molecular glues. Then stabilizes such sheet masses into plates that can get nudged inward. This lets the builders lock them together into a shell–for example, from spherical triangles. The work of generations, even for beings with very long lifespans. We humans have done such, as seen in Chartres cathedral, the Great Wall, and much else.



Still: Who did this? Maybe the Bowl was first made for just living beneath constant sunshine. Think of it as an interstellar Florida, warm and mild, with a fantastic night sky. Which keeps moving, over time.

At first the builders may have basked in the glow of their smaller sun, developing and colonizing the Bowl with ambitions to have a huge surface area with room for immense natural expanses. But then the Bowl natives began dreaming of colonizing the galaxy. They hit on the jet idea, and already had the Knothole as an exit for it. Building the mirror zone took a while, but then the jet allowed them to voyage. It didn’t work as well as they thought, and demanded control, which they did by using large magnetic fields.

The system had virtues for space flight, too. Once in space, you’re in free fall; the Bowl mass is fairly large but you exit on the outer hull at high velocity, so the faint attraction of the Bowl is no issue. Anyone can scoot around the solar system, and it’s cleared of all large masses. (The Bowl atmosphere serves to burn any meteorites that punch through the monolayer.)

The key idea is that a big fraction of the Bowl is mirrored, directing reflected sunlight onto a small spot on the star, the foot of the jet line. From this spot the enhanced sunlight excites a standing “flare” that makes a jet. This jet drives the star forward, pulling the Bowl with it through gravitation.

The jet passes through a Knothole at the “bottom” of the Bowl, out into space, as exhaust. Magnetic fields, entrained on the star surface, wrap around the outgoing jet plasma and confine it, so it does not flare out and paint the interior face of the Bowl — where a whole living ecology thrives, immensely larger than Earth’s area. So it’s a huge moving object, the largest we could envision, since we wanted to write a novel about something beyond Niven’s Ringworld.

For plausible stellar parameters, the jet can drive the system roughly a light year in a few centuries. Slow but inexorable, with steering a delicate problem, the Bowl glides through the interstellar reaches. The star acts as a shield, stopping random iceteroids that may lie in the Bowl’s path. There is friction from the interstellar plasma and dust density acting against the huge solar magnetosphere of the star, essentially a sphere 100 Astronomical Units in radius.

So the jet can be managed to adjust acceleration, if needed. If the jet becomes unstable, the most plausible destructive mode is the kink – a snarling knot in the flow that moves outward. This could lash sideways and hammer the zones near the Knothole with virulent plasma, a dense solar wind. The first mode of defense, if the jet seems to be developing a kink, would be to turn the mirrors aside, not illuminating the jet foot. But that might not be enough to prevent a destructive kink. This has happened in the past, we decided, and lives in Bowl legend.

The reflecting zone of mirrors is defined by an inner angle, ?, and the outer angle, ?. Reflecting sunlight back onto the star, focused to a point, then generates a jet which blows off. This carries most of what would be the star’s solar wind, trapped in magnetic fields and heading straight along the system axis. The incoming reflected sunlight also heats the star, which struggles to find an equilibrium. The net opening angle, ? minus ?, then defines how much the star heats up. We set ? = 30 degrees, and ? = 5 degrees, so the mirrors subtend that 25 degree band in the Bowl. The Bowl rim can be 45 degrees, or larger.

The K2 star we gave the Bowl is now running in a warmer regime, heated by the mirrors, thus making its spectrum nearer that of Sol. This explains how the star can have a spectral class somewhat different from that predicted by its mass. It looks oddly colored, more yellow than its mass would indicate.

For that matter, that little sun used to be a little bigger. It’s been blowing off a jet for many millions of years. Still, it should last a long time. The Bowl could circle the galaxy itself several times.

The atmosphere is quite deep, more than 200 km. This soaks up solar wind and cosmic rays and makes the Bowl toasty through greenhouse effect. Also, the pressure is higher than Earth normal by about 50%, depending on location in the Bowl. It is also a reservoir to absorb the occasional big, unintended hit to the ecology. Compress Earth’s entire atmosphere down to the density of water and it would only be 30 feet deep. Everything we’re dumping into our air goes into just 30 feet of compressed nitrogen and oxygen, then. The Bowl has much more, over a hundred yards deep in equivalent water. Too much carbon dioxide? It gets more diluted.

This deeper atmosphere explains why in low-grav areas surprisingly large things can fly–big aliens and even humans. We humans Earthside enjoy a partial pressure of 0.21 bars of oxygen, and we can do quite nicely in a two-bar atmosphere of almost pure oxygen (but be careful about fire). The Bowl has a bit less than we like: 0.18 bar, but the higher pressure compensates. This depresses fire risk, someone figures out later.

Starting out, we wrote a background history of where the Builders came from, which we didn’t insert into the novel. It lays out a version of what made the Builders do all this.


Is this plausible?

Not really. It demands the scrith, for example, which nobody knows how to make.

And the Bowl is a vast accident waiting to happen. You can’t just say Don’t blame me, it’s nonlinear. Somebody has to manage that jet forever. The natives get to take part in slow-motion starflight, but they’re always in danger. Their society must keep this from being obvious, or they’d all go crazy.

Our goal in writing the two novels, and perhaps stories to follow, was to show how strange an alien mindset could be, by giving it a real, physical presence, in the Bowl. Also, we wanted to see what it felt like to think of where humanity itself might go, given time, purpose, and the true essential, imagination.

© 2014 by Gregory Benford


Stars as Stellar Engines

I’ve always loved the idea of an O’Neill space habitat because of the possibility of engineering a huge environment to specification. That notion translates well to worldship ideas — a multi-generational journey would certainly be easier to take in an environment that mimicked, say, a Polynesian island, than aboard something more akin to a giant metal barracks. But best of all is to take your environment with you, which is why the thought of moving entire stars and planets to another location has such appeal when we’re talking on an intergalactic scale.

Adam Crowl reminded us of the possibilities on Monday:

In theory a tight white-dwarf/planet pair can be flung out of the Galactic Core at ~0.05c, which would mean a 2 billion year journey across every 100 million light-years. A white-dwarf habitable zone is good for 8 billion years or so, enough to cross ~400 million light-years. It’d be a ‘starship’ in truth on the Grandest Scale.

Back in November of 1973, Stanley Schmidt’s The Sins of the Fathers began as a three-part serial in Analog, then under the editorship of Ben Bova, who had taken over after the death of John Campbell in 1971. Schmidt would go on to become Analog‘s editor himself in 1978, only retiring recently, so that his own tenure at the magazine matched Campbell’s long run. The Sins of the Fathers would be published as a paperback in 1976 with a cover by the brilliant SF artist Richard Powers. Lifeboat Earth would continue the journey in the Berkeley paperback of 1978.


Schmidt’s plan was to make an intergalactic crossing to M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, with the help of alien technologies. The plot involves an explosion in the core of the galaxy on such a scale that planets will be rendered uninhabitable throughout the Milky Way. Fortunately, an alien race called the Kyrra has arrived to help, equipping the Earth with what Schmidt called an ‘induced annihilation’ drive that converts matter to energy without the need for antimatter. With this gigantic rocket nozzle mounted at the South Pole, the Earth is nudged out of its orbit, at which point the Kyrra’s FTL technology (Schmidt calls this the Rao-Chang drive) cuts in.

Of course, the effects of maneuvering the planet in this way are substantial. Schmidt explained them in an article called “How to Move Planet Earth,” which ran in the May, 1976 issue of Analog, after the serialization of his novel was complete. Here’s a bit of this:

Perhaps the most immediately striking of these [effects] is to change the effective ‘up-down’ direction. To a person standing on what had been a level plain (or floor or ocean), the appearance and feel of this is exactly as if the Earth were tilting under his feet. All over the Earth, the ground appears to slope downward to the south. The amount of tilt, and the strength of the effective field, vary with latitude… One of the first globally important consequences of this effective tilting will be a tendency for the oceans and most of the atmosphere to flow ‘downhill’ and concentrate (to such extent as they aren’t blasted or blown away) at and near the South Pole.

And so on. Schmidt works through all the consequences in the article, which recounts his valiant attempt, having plugged in magical alien technologies, to work out their physical effects according to known physics. Surely he was smiling when he wrote: “But these things — the Rao-Chang, induced annihilation, and exhaustless conversion process, together with their logical implications — are the only really new physics I have assumed.” I love that ‘only’! In any case, the journey is a nightmare, with the alien technologies consuming what Earth resources they haven’t already destroyed in the propulsion process, so that by the time our battered world gets to M31, the few survivors must get off the planet and onto another one.

Robert Metzger, who for years wrote the science column in the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin, wrote a novel called Cusp (Ace, 2005) in which the Sun erupts with a massive, propulsive jet and begins a journey of its own, with the Earth suddenly encircled by enormous ring-like structures that help propel it along with the parent star. Here we’re in the company of quantum supercomputers (the ‘CUSP’ of the title) and technologies evolving into the Singularity so often speculated about in science fiction and elsewhere. Needless to say, the physical effects of moving the planet and star are as acute as they are in Schmidt’s novel.

In Bowl of Heaven (Tor, 2012), Gregory Benford and Larry Niven looked at ways to move an entire star to travel the galaxy — the sequel, ShipStar is just out (Tor, 2014), and nearing the top of my stack. Imagine half of a Dyson sphere curved around a star whose energies flow into a propulsive plasma jet that moves the entire structure on its journey. Here the notion of living space may remind you of Niven’s Ringworld, that vast structure completely encircling a star, though not enclosing it. The difference is that in the ShipStar scenario, most of the ‘bowl’ is made up of mirrors, with living space just on the rim.

I see the ShipStar model as a modified Shkadov thruster, a way of moving entire stars that the physicist Leonid Shkadov first described in 1987. In both cases, we’re talking about what can be called ‘stellar engines’ that use the resources of the star itself to create their propulsion. Would such a vast structure be detectible by another civilization? As with Dyson spheres, the size of the objects makes it feasible to consider picking them up in exoplanet transit data. Scottish physicist Duncan Forgan has considered the transit signature of a Shkadov thruster. As with the work of Richard Carrigan, the man whose searches for Dyson spheres have helped to define ‘interstellar archaeology,’ the Shkadov thruster could play a role in future SETI searches.

As is true of all such searches, we have to determine whether what we are seeing is fully explicable in terms of natural phenomena or whether there is a case to be made for technology, and I would rate the chances of our finding a Shkadov thruster quite low. But searching for artifacts in our existing astronomical databases is clearly a worthwhile idea. Certainly a civilization that had the power to move a star might find it a livable way to embark upon journeys lasting millennia. In such ways, a trip to another galaxy is not inconceivable even if tens of thousands of generations might live and die along the way. The key question: What compelling reasons might drive such a journey?

What I haven’t had the chance to get to today are astronomer Fritz Zwicky’s ideas on moving stars, an omission I’ll try to rectify next week. The Forgan paper mentioned above is “On the Possibility of Detecting Class A Stellar Engines Using Exoplanet Transit Curves,” accepted for publication in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (preprint). Leonid Shkadov’s paper on Shkadov thrusters is “Possibility of controlling solar system motion in the galaxy,” 38th Congress of IAF,” October 10-17, 1987, Brighton, UK, paper IAA-87-613.


Intergalactic Travel via Hypervelocity Stars

We’ve been looking at not just interstellar but intergalactic crossings in the past few days, something of an homage to Carl Sagan, whose enthusiasm for continuous acceleration at 1 g and relativistic time dilation was immense in the years shortly after Robert Bussard’s key paper on interstellar ramjets. Without a working ramjet and largely unaided by time dilation, we’re faced with millions of years of flight time to reach M31. What to do?

In a recent paper, discussed here by Adam Crowl on Monday, Robin Spivey ponders ‘autonomous probes that spawn life upon arrival’ as a way of reaching the Virgo cluster, which he wants to do for reasons Adam explained in his post. He’s also counting on continuous acceleration at 1 g for these small ‘seed ships,’ but other than mentioning antimatter, he doesn’t explore how this would be done, and we’ve seen the results Sagan and Iosif S. Shklovskii came up with for antimatter when they worked out the equations.

Let’s assume that the ‘slow boat’ solution is the only practical way to proceed. Here I think Adam’s suggestion that we take our environment with us rather than building a worldship is sensible, flinging a small star and planet out of the galactic core toward the destination. Ray Villard pondered the same question back in 2010 in an online piece called The Great Escape: Intergalactic Travel is Possible. He points to the four million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way as the only conceivable way to impart the needed kinetic energy to a star.

Here’s how Villard describes the mechanism:

The theory is that a star could be slingshot out of a binary star system if the stellar duo swung close to the central black hole. The hole’s gravitational tidal forces would break apart the pair’s gravitational embrace.

The companion star orbiting in the direction of the black hole would pick up momentum and plunge toward the black hole. In accordance with Newton’s third law of motion — action-reaction — the other binary companion would go whizzing off with the same velocity but opposite direction away from the black hole.

In just a few thousand years the star would ascend out of the galactic plane and hurtle deep into intergalactic space. The persistent tug of our Milky Way’s dark matter halo would slow it down but the star would never fall back into the Galaxy.


Image: Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have recorded a massive star moving at more than 2.6 million kilometres per hour (1160 km/sec). Credit: ESO.

We do in fact know about a number of such hypervelocity stars, some of which may be moving fast enough to exceed galactic escape velocity. Consider this: Ordinary stars in the Milky Way have velocities in the range of 100 kilometers per second, while some hypervelocity stars near galactic center show velocities of ten times that, closing on 1000 km/sec. Meanwhile, a team led by Tilmann Piffl (Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics, Potsdam) that has been working with high-velocity stars has calculated escape velocity for objects in the vicinity of our own Solar System. The team uses data from the Radial Velocity Experiment (RAVE) survey.

The result: We would need 537 kilometers per second to get our payload fast enough to escape the galaxy. That’s a high speed, of course, but in terms of small craft, it’s not a lot higher than some studies have shown a solar sail could reach using an extremely tight ‘Sundiver’ maneuver to let itself be whipped out of the Solar System. Piffl’s team has catalogued hypervelocity stars moving at 300 km/sec, and we also know of unbound hypervelocity stars (although it’s a tricky call because of uncertainties about the mass distribution of the galaxy). Even some neutron stars are fast-movers: RX J0822-4300 was measured to move at 1500 km/sec in 2007.

Not all hypervelocity stars come from encounters with the black hole at galactic center. In work described at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January, Kelly Holley-Bockelmann and grad student Lauren Palladino found what may be a new class of hypervelocity stars moving with sufficient speed to escape the galaxy (see Stars at Galactic Escape Velocity). Says Holley-Bockelmann:

“It’s very hard to kick a star out of the galaxy. The most commonly accepted mechanism for doing so involves interacting with the supermassive black hole at the galactic core. That means when you trace the star back to its birthplace, it comes from the center of our galaxy. None of these hypervelocity stars come from the center, which implies that there is an unexpected new class of hypervelocity star, one with a different ejection mechanism.”

As we learn more about what creates hypervelocity stars, can we imagine far future technologies that might help us exploit them? If so, an intergalactic journey opens up. A civilization that somehow harnessed a hypervelocity star for such a journey — or one that arose on a planetary system that had been already flung into intergalactic space — would experience eons in the space between the galaxies, periods that dwarf the lifetime of human civilizations. Villard speculates about the astronomers of such a civilization trying to discover their place in the universe as their ‘worldship’ exited the Milky Way, globular clusters peppering the sky, the galaxy’s spiral arms winding out from a nucleus looking like ‘a fuzzy headlamp.’

Inevitably larger telescopes would yield a view of the universe that revealed myriad other pinwheel structures. Spectroscopy would show they are racing away too. Still the aliens literally wouldn’t know if they’re coming or going. A long-lived civilization’s science archive would note the shrinking and dimming of the Milky Way over geologic time. They might conclude that the eerie pinwheel is speeding away from them. And without a cosmological or stellar framework, they would have no idea of cosmic evolution. They would not even be able to calibrate the vast distance to the Galaxy.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that a civilization might knowingly set out on a hypervelocity star system, its futuristic powers vast enough to shape the encounter between the star and the galactic black hole so as to direct its journey to the proper destination. Any culture that did this would knowingly be splitting into different evolutionary lines given the immensity of the distances and time involved, leaving behind its own species to grow into another over the course of millions of years. Whether and why any species might choose to make this kind of a journey is an exercise left to the reader, and to the imagination of science fiction writers.

We’ve seen stars manipulated for a variety of purposes in science fiction, as a matter of fact. Tomorrow I’ll wrap up this week of speculations on intergalactic travel with a look at some of the methods that have been employed to move stars around, and the possible SETI implications that arise from all this.

The Piffl paper is “The RAVE survey: the Galactic escape speed and the mass of the Milky Way,” submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics (preprint). The Palladino paper is “Hypervelocity Star Candidates in the SEGUE G and K Dwarf Sample,” The Astrophysical Journal Vol. 780, No. 1 (2014), with abstract and preprint available.


Sagan’s Andromeda Crossing

When Carl Sagan and Iosif S. Shklovskii discussed travel to another galaxy in Intelligent Life in the Universe (Holden-Day, 1966), they considered the problem from the standpoint of the technologies then under discussion by theorists like Robert Forward and Robert Bussard. As I mentioned yesterday, the authors found hibernation interesting, drawing on the ideas of the Swedish biologist Carl-Göran Hedén, with whom Sagan was then in contact. But it was time dilation that took center stage in their book, and that required stunning velocities. To reach M31, the Andromeda galaxy, in a human lifetime would require a velocity of 0.99999 c.

Behind the relativistic spacecraft on Earth, millions of years would have passed, but the same crew that departed would reach their destination. Here is Sagan discussing the matter. And a brief note: Sagan’s practice was to interleave his own material with that of Shklovskii, so that while the names of both authors are on the title page, it’s easy enough to extract who wrote what because Sagan’s material is marked paragraph by paragraph where it is inserted. So these are Sagan’s thoughts on time dilation, from the perspective of those left behind on Earth:

Of course, there is no time dilation on the home planet. The elapsed time in years there approximately equals the distance of the destination in light years plus twice the time required to reach relativistic velocities. This time, at an acceleration of about 1 g, is close to one year. For distances beyond about 10 light years, the elapsed time on the home planet in years roughly equals the distance of the destination in light years.


Now things get interesting, because a spacecraft moving with a constant acceleration of 1 g needs just a year to be traveling close to the speed of light. But Einstein’s special relativity reminds us that continuing to accelerate would not take the craft faster than the speed of light, but only closer and closer to it. As that process continues, time dilation gets more and more extreme. Sagan continues:

Thus, for a round-trip with a several-year stopover to the nearest stars, the elapsed time on Earth would be a few decades; to Deneb, a few centuries; to the Vela cloud complex, a few millennia; to the Galactic center, a few tens of thousands of years; to M31, the great galaxy in Andromeda, a few million years; to the Virgo cluster of galaxies, a few tens of millions of years; and to the immensely distant Coma cluster of galaxies, a few hundreds of millions of years. Nevertheless, each of these enormous journeys could be performed within the lifetimes of a human crew, because of time dilation on board the spacecraft.

When I was first getting involved in interstellar studies and talking to as many people as I could track down with experience in the field, I had a phone conversation with Gerald Nordley, whose work I was familiar with in places like Analog. I remember an off-the-cuff remark Nordley made, that it would make sense for the first human expedition to Alpha Centauri to be conducted at .86 the speed of light. Why that number? Because if you can reach .86 c, the time compression factor is two. Your crew experiences half the amount of time that those left behind will experience. And that makes for an Alpha Centauri crossing of about three years, on the order of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the Earth.

Of course, this is all so highly theoretical that it beggars description. How do you get velocities like that? We saw yesterday that while Carl Sagan had a deep interest in the work of Robert Bussard on interstellar ramjets (he described the ‘elegance in its conception,’ cited the fact that it violated no physical principles, and thought a Bussard ramjet could be built within a century), later studies have revealed serious flaws in the concept. In the archives here are a number of articles exploring ‘fixes’ to the original Bussard idea, and in coming months I’ll reprise these possibilities. Sagan also explored antimatter solutions but saw problems in manufacture and containment.

But even if we could somehow manufacture antimatter in sufficient quantities and contain it safely, the equations were merciless. Remember, we’re trying to reach 0.99999 c to make this Andromeda crossing. Even assuming complete conversion of the mass of the fuel into energy, with all energy released utilized for thrust (an ideal unlikely to be achieved), the total mass of the fuel would have to be 200,000 times greater than the mass of the remainder of the spacecraft. As Sagan dryly wrote: “…an interstellar space vehicle powered by anti-matter and requiring a mass ratio of 200,000 does not seem to be an elegant solution to this problem.”

In Martyn Fogg’s paper “The Feasibility of Intergalactic Colonisation and its Relevance to SETI” (citation below), having looked at the problems of the Bussard ramjet and pondered human life suspension, the author considers worldships as a non-relativistic way to reach another galaxy. Here the difficulties are likewise immense, with one concept (by Robert Page Burruss) involving a worldship a thousand miles wide carrying up to 50 billion people, to be sent on the ultimate generational voyage, one lasting hundreds of thousands of generations. As science author Adrian Berry notes, this is five times the past age of the human species.

Sagan didn’t like the mass ratio of his Andromeda ship, but Burruss came up with 500 billion tons of antimatter and an acceleration period of 50,000 years to make this work. And you can forget about relativistic efforts even with all that antimatter. This is a craft that would reach about 40 percent of the speed of light, so that relativistic time dilation is slight. Berry also notes that there is no provision in this design for artificial gravity generated by spinning the ship, making it an open question how evolution would treat a human population that evolved over a period of millions of years in weightless conditions. Fogg calls the Burruss ship “too ‘heroic’ to be taken seriously.” He also states:

…because of the great length of time involved in an intergalactic voyage the problem of creating a closed ecosystem capable of supporting a viable population is far greater. The only self-contained ecosystem we have knowledge of that remains habitable over a time scale of millions of years is the Earth’s biosphere. Life flourishes under conditions maintained by atmospheric, chemical, geological and biological feedback loops, driven ultimately by sunlight and the internal heat of the Earth. A galaxy ship carrying a fully and continuously functioning ecosystem might thus have to be the size of a small planet and capable of carrying a powerful long term energy source.

Which gets us to the most interesting part of the above description: A worldship the size of a small planet carrying its own long-term energy source sounds much like what Adam Crowl described on Monday, a small star and planet pair that can be flung out of the galactic core. Tomorrow I want to look at this idea — the adjustment of the trajectories of the stars themselves to migrate outward — as a non-relativistic solution to galaxy-spanning distances.

The Burrus paper is “Intergalactic Travel: The Long Voyage from Home,” Futurist 21 (1987), 29-33. And here again is the Fogg citation: “The Feasibility of Intergalactic Colonisation and its Relevance to SETI,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 41 (1988), pp. 491-496.


Deep Time: Targeting Another Galaxy

Interstellar flight isn’t about possibility as much as it is about time. We know we can launch a payload to another star if we’re willing to burn up enough millennia — about seventy — to get there in the form of a Voyager-style flyby. That’s with today’s technology, and we can extrapolate how the time frame can be shortened with improved materials and propulsion techniques. So as Robert Forward always pointed out, it’s not that interstellar flight is impossible — it’s that it’s very difficult, and our expectations of the kinds of missions possible have to adapt to that fact.

Intergalactic flight, though, is such an immense undertaking that I’ve rarely discussed it in these pages. Is there any conceivable technology that might make such a thing possible? Well, Carl Sagan and Iosif S. Shklovskii considered the situation in Intelligent Life in the Universe (Holden-Day, 1966), working with the opportunity for time dilation opened up by special relativity. Accelerate at 1 g continuously and time dilation helps you to reach nearby stars in just a few years as time is measured aboard your spacecraft.

The numbers get more and more mind-boggling as you continue to work the equations. With that same 1 g acceleration (and just how you achieve that is of course the grand question), you can make it all the way to the center of the Milky Way in about 21 years — tens of thousands of years would have passed on Earth by the time you arrived at the galactic core. Or go for the ultimate journey: A voyage to the Andromeda galaxy. To reach M31 in a ship of this sort would take 28 years ship-time as you nudged ever closer, but never reached, the speed of light. As always, I point to Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero as the novelistic embodiment of Sagan and Shklovskii’s musings, as fresh today as when it ran in Galaxy in 1967.


Image: M31, the closest major galaxy to our own. Continuous acceleration at 1 g would allow a human crew to reach it, but what conceivable technology would allow such a craft to be built? Image credit & copyright: Lorenzo Comolli.

Yesterday Adam Crowl mentioned Martyn Fogg’s paper “The Feasibility of Intergalactic Colonisation and Its Relevance to SETI,” in the context of Robin Spivey’s ideas on galactic migration. Fogg runs through the possibilities for intergalactic journeys including constant 1 g acceleration of the kind Sagan and Shklovskii talk about. Robert Bussard had proposed in 1960 that this kind of acceleration could be achieved through a fusion-powered ramjet design that fed off the interstellar medium. It would be a tough engine to light but once you got the ship moving fast enough, a self-sustaining reaction seemed to be possible, and it’s more or less the concept that Anderson used in Tau Zero for his starship.

But Fogg nails the problem with the Bussard ramjet, or I should say, the problems, there being several intractable issues to be faced. Robert Zubrin and Dana Andrews have shown that as the ramjet accelerates, the vast electromagnetic ‘scoop’ being used to collect fusion fuel actually begins to act as a brake. See Starships: The Problem of Arrival for more. And as early as 1972, A. R. Martin had discussed structural limitations that would prevent such a ship from sustaining accelerations this close to the speed of light.

Surmount even these difficulties and you run into perhaps the biggest showstopper. Gas density between the galaxies is, in Fogg’s estimate, 10-5 lower than what the ramjet would encounter within a galaxy. Gaining enough fuel, then, would be the challenge, and as we’ve learned more about the interstellar medium, it seems clear that a ramjet would have problems even within the Milky Way depending on the local density of interstellar material. That leaves only David Froning’s suggestion of a ‘quantum ramjet’ using quantum fluctuations of the vacuum, an idea that would assumedly not be constrained by the Bussard ramjet’s fuel problems.

Is there any other way to save the idea of intergalactic travel close to c? Fogg doesn’t think so. From his paper:

…irrespective of the propulsion system used, hyper-relativistic intergalactic travel would be fundamentally limited. The velocity of the ship at midpoint would be so close to c that no interaction with intergalactic matter would be permitted. Dust grains would impact like cannon shells and hydrogen atoms would take on the characteristics of a lethal and penetrating form of cosmic radiation.Thus, leaving aside the feasibility of a “quantum drive”, the use of time dilation to significantly reduce elapsed intergalactic voyage times would not be practical unless a way could be found of preventing impacts from oncoming particles.

That’s a pretty good list of seemingly insurmountable problems, all generated by the fact that we’re trying to get the crew that set out from Earth all the way to its destination. Give up on that constraint and a number of other possibilities open up that make us weigh interstellar and intergalactic flight against our concepts of deep time and the lifetime of civilizations. Sagan and Shklovskii didn’t pin their entire argument on Bussard-style craft. They also explored the potential of human hibernation on journeys lasting thousands of years. But there are other possibilities, some of them discussed by Adam Crowl yesterday, that I want to explore tomorrow.

The Fogg paper is “The Feasibility of Intergalactic Colonisation and its Relevance to SETI,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 41 (1988), pp. 491-496 (available online). Robert Bussard’s ramjet paper is “Galactic Matter and Interstellar Spaceflight,” Astronautica Acta 6 (1960), pp. 179-194. Andrews and Zubrin’s paper on the Bussard ramjet and drag is “Magnetic Sails and Interstellar Travel,” International Astronautical Federation Paper IAF-88-5533 (Bangalore, India, October 1988), although I’ll also point you to Zubrin’s Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999). The Froning paper is “Propulsion requirements for a quantum interstelllar ramjet,”JBIS, 33, 265-270(1980).