Ideas on interstellar propulsion are legion, from fusion drives to antimatter engines, beamed lightsails and deep space ramjets, not to mention Orion-class fusion-bomb devices. We’re starting to experiment with sails, though beaming energy to a space sail is still an unrealized, though near-term, project. But given the sheer range of concepts out there and the fact that almost all are at the earliest stages of research, how do we prioritize our work so as to move toward a true interstellar capability? Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project and founder of the Tau Zero Foundation, has been delving into the question in new work for NASA. In the essay below, Marc describes a developing methodology for making decisions and allocating resources wisely.

by Marc G Millis

In February 2017, NASA awarded a grant to the Tau Zero Foundation to compare propulsion options for interstellar flight. To be clear, this is not about picking a mission and its technology – a common misconception – but rather about identifying which research paths might have the most leverage for increasing NASA’s ability to travel farther, faster, and with more capability.

The first report was completed in June 2018 and is now available on the NASA Technical Report Server, entitled “Breakthrough Propulsion Study: Assessing Interstellar Flight Challenges and Prospects.” (4MB file at:

This report is about how to compare the diverse propulsion options in an equitable, revealing manner. Future plans include creating a database of the key aspects and issues of those options. Thereafter comparisons can be run to determine which of their research paths might be the most impactive and under what circumstances.

This study does not address technologies that are on the verge of fruition, like those being considered for a probe to reach 1000 AU with a 50 year flight time. Instead, this study is about the advancements needed to reach exoplanets, where the nearest is 270 times farther (Proxima Centauri b). These more ambitious concepts span different operating principles and levels of technological maturity, and their original mission assumptions are so different that equitable comparisons have been impossible.

Furthermore, all of these concepts require significant additional research before their performance predictions are ready for traditional trade studies. Right now their values are more akin to goals than specifications.

To make fair comparisons that are consistent with the varied and provisional information, the following tactics are used: (1) all propulsion concepts will be compared to the same mission profiles in addition to their original mission context; (2) the performance of the disparate propulsion methods will be quantified using common, fundamental measures; (3) the analysis methods will be consistent with fidelity of the data; and (4) the figures of merit by which concepts will be judged will finally be explicit.

Regarding the figures of merit – this was one of the least specified details of prior interstellar studies. It is easy to understand why there are so many differing opinions about which concept is “best” when there are no common criteria with which to measure goodness. The criteria now include quantifiable factors spanning: (1) the value of the mission, (2) the time to complete the mission, and (3) the cost of the mission.

The value of a mission includes subjective criteria and objective values. The intent is to allow the subjective factors to be variables so that the user can see how their interests affect which technologies appear more valuable. One of those subjective judgments is the importance of the destination. For example, some might think that Proxima Centauri b is less interesting than the ‘Oumuamua object. Another subjective factor is motive. The prior dominant – and often implicit – figure of merit was “who can get there first.” While that has merit, it can only happen once. The full suite of motives continue beyond that first event, including gathering science about the destinations, accelerating technological progress, and ultimately, ensuring the survival of humanity.

Examples of the objective factors include: (1) time within range of target; (2) closeness to target (better data fidelity); and (3) the amount of data acquired. A mission that gets closer to the destination, stays there longer, and sends back more data, is more valuable. Virtually all mission concepts have been limited to fly-by’s. Table 1 shows how long a probe would be within different ranges for different fly-by speeds. To shift attention toward improving capabilities, the added value (and difficulty) of slowing at the destination – and even entering orbit – will now be part of the comparisons.

Table 1: Time on target for different fly by speeds and instrumentation ranges

Quantifying the time to complete a mission involves more than just travel time. Now, instead of the completion point being when the probe arrives, it is defined as when its data arrive back at Earth. This shift is because the time needed to send the data back has a greater impact than often realized. For example, even though Breakthrough StarShot aims to get there the quickest, in just 22 years, that comes at the expense of making the spacecraft so small that it takes an additional 20 years to finish transmitting the data. Hence, the time from launch to data return is about a half century, comparable to other concepts (46 yrs = 22 trip + 4 signal + 20 to transmit data). The tradeoffs of using a larger payload with a faster data rate, but longer transit time, will be considered.

Regarding the total time to complete the mission, the beginning point is now. The analysis includes considerations for the remaining research and the subsequent work to design and build the mission hardware. Further, the mission hardware, now by definition, includes its infrastructure. While the 1000 AU precursor missions do not need new infrastructure, most everything beyond that will.

Recall that the laser lightsail concepts of Robert Forward required a 26 TW laser, firing through a 1,000 km diameter Fresnel lens placed beyond Saturn (around 10 AU), aimed at a 1,000 km diameter sail with a mass of 800 Tonnes. Project Daedalus envisioned needing 50,000 tonnes of helium 3 mined from the atmospheres of the gas giant planets. This not only requires the infrastructure for mining those propellants, but also processing and transporting that propellant to the assembly area of the spacecraft. Even the more modest Earth-based infrastructure of StarShot is beyond precedent. StarShot will require one million synchronized 100 kW lasers spread over an area of 1 km2 to get it up to the required 100 GW.

While predicting these durations in the absolute sense is dubious (predicting what year concept A might be ready), it is easier to make relative predictions (if concept A will be ready before B) by applying the same predictive models to all concepts. For example, the infrastructure rates are considered proportional to the mass and energy required for the mission – where a smaller and less energetic probe is assumed to be ready sooner than a larger, energy-intensive probe.

The most difficult duration to estimate, even when relaxed to relative instead of absolute comparisons, is the pace of research. Provisional comparative methods have been outlined, but this is an area needing further attention. The reason that this must be included – even if difficult – is because the timescales for interstellar flight are comparable to breakthrough advancements.

The fastest mission concepts (from launch to data return) are 5 decades, even for StarShot (not including research and infrastructure). Compare this to the 7 decades it took to advance from the rocket equation to having astronauts on the moon (1903-1969), or the 6 decades to go from the discovery of radioactivity to having a nuclear power plant tied to the grid (1890-1950).

So, do you pursue a lesser technology that can be ready sooner, a revolutionary technology that will take longer, or both? For example, what if technology A is estimated to need just 10 more years of research, but 25 years to build its infrastructure, while option B is estimated to take 25 more years of research, but will require no infrastructure. In that case, if all other factors are equal, option B is quicker.

To measure the cost of missions, a more fundamental currency than dollars is used – energy. Energy is the most fundamental commodity of all physical transactions, and one whose values are not affected by debatable economic models. Again, this is anchoring the comparisons in relative, rather than the more difficult, absolute terms. The energy cost includes the aforementioned infrastructure creation plus the energy required for propulsion.

Comparing the divergent propulsion methods requires converting their method-specific measures to common factors. Laser-sail performance is typically stated in terms of beam power, beam divergence, etc. Rocket performance in terms of thrust, specific impulse, etc. And warp drives in terms of stress-energy-tensors, bubble thickness, etc. All these type-specific terms can be converted to the more fundamental and common measures of energy, mass, and time.

To make these conversions, the propulsion options are divided into 4 analysis groups, where the distinction is if power is received from an external source or internally, and if their reaction mass is onboard or external. Further, as a measure of propulsion efficiency (or in NASA parlance, “bang for buck”) the ratio of the kinetic energy imparted to the payload, to the total energy consumed by the propulsion method, can be compared.

The other reason that energy is used as the anchoring measure is that it is a dominant factor with interstellar flight. Naively, the greatest challenge is thought to be speed. The gap between the achieved speeds of chemical rockets and the target goal of 10% lightspeed is a factor of 400. But, increasing speed by a factor of 400 requires a minimum of 160,000 times more energy. That minimum only covers the kinetic energy of the payload, not the added energy for propulsion and inefficiencies. Hence, energy is a bigger deal than speed.

For an example, consider the 1-gram StarShot spacecraft traveling at 20% lightspeed. Just its kinetic energy is approximately 2 TJ. When calculating the propulsive energy in terms of the laser power and beam duration, (100 GW for minutes) the required energy spans 18 to 66 TJ, for just a 1-gram probe. For comparison, the energy for a suite of 1,000 probes is roughly the same as 1-4 years of the total energy consumption of New York City (NYC @ 500 MW).

Delivering more energy faster requires more power. By launching only 1 gm at a time, StarShot keeps the power requirement at 100 GW. If they launched the full suite of 1000 grams at once, that would require 1000 times more power (100 TW). Power is relevant to another under-addressed issue – the challenge of getting rid of excess heat. Hypothetically, if that 100 GW system has a 50% efficiency, that leaves 50 GW of heat to radiate. On Earth, with atmosphere and convection, that’s relatively easy. If it were a space-based laser, however, that gets far more dicey. To run fair comparisons, it is desired that each concept uses the same performance assumptions for their radiators.

Knowing how to compare the options is one thing. The other need is knowing which problems to solve. In the general sense, the entire span of interstellar challenges have been distilled into this “top 10” list. It is too soon to rank these until after running some test cases:

  • Communication – Reasonable data rates with minimum power and mass.
  • Navigation – Aiming well from the start and acquiring the target upon arrival, with minimum power and mass. (The ratio of the distance traversed to a ½ AU closest approach is about a million).
  • Maneuvering upon reaching the destination (at least attitude control to aim the science instruments, if not the added benefit of braking).
  • Instrumentation – Measure what cannot be determined by astronomy, with minimum power and mass.
  • High density and long-term energy storage for powering the probe after decades in flight, with minimum mass.
  • Long duration and fully autonomous spacecraft operations (includes surviving the environment).
  • Propulsion that can achieve 400 times the speed of chemical rockets.
  • Energy production at least 160,000 times chemical rockets and the power capacity to enable that high-speed propulsion.
  • Highly efficient energy conversion to minimize waste heat from that much power.
  • Infrastructure creation in affordable, durable increments.

While those are the general challenges common to all interstellar missions, each propulsion option will have its own make-break issues and associated research goals. At this stage, none of the ideas are ready for mission trade studies. All require further research, but which of those research paths might be the most impactive, and under what circumstances? It is important to repeat that this study is not about picking “one solution” for a mission. Instead, it is a process for continually making the most impactive advances that will not only enable that first mission, but the continually improving missions after that.

Ad astra incrementis.