You never know when a new interstellar propulsion concept is going to pop up. Some of us have been kicking around fusion runway ideas, motivated by Netflix’s streaming presentation of the Liu Cixin novel The Three Body Problem. There Earth is faced with invasion from an extraterrestrial civilization, but with centuries to solve the problem because it will take that long for the fleet to arrive. Faced with the need to get as much information as possible about the invaders, scientists desperately search for a way to get human technology up to 1.2 percent of lightspeed to intercept the fleet.

Image: 20 different examples of periodic solutions to the three body problem. Credit: Perosello/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

So how would you do that with technology not much more advanced than today’s? The Netflix show’s solution is ingenious, though confusing for those who assume that the Netflix ‘3 Body Problem’ is based solely on the first of the Cixin novels. Actually it edges into the rest of the trilogy, which includes 2008’s The Dark Forest and 2010’s Death’s End. The whole sequence is known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and I had to dig into not just The Three Body Problem but The Dark Forest to find much discussion of any kind of propulsion.

Now we’re in a dark wood indeed. For in The Dark Forest (the title is an allusion to the Fermi paradox, usually linked with concerns over METI), the idea of a precursor scouting of the alien invasion fleet does not appear, nor does it appear in the first novel. What we do get is a lot of confusing discussion, such as this:

“If controlled nuclear fusion is achieved, spacecraft research will begin immediately. Doctor, you know about the two current research forks: media-propelled spacecraft and non-media radiation-drive spacecraft. Two opposing factions have formed around these two directions of research: the aerospace faction advocates research into media-propelled spacecraft, while the space force is pushing radiation-drive spacecraft… The fusion people and I are in favor of the radiation drive. For my part, I feel that it’s the only plan that enables interstellar cosmic voyages.”

The book’s many references to a ‘radiation drive’ seem to be referring to antimatter. What Cixin calls ‘media-propelled spacecraft’ is opaque to me, and I’d welcome reader comments on what it represents. Then there is a ‘curvature drive’ that appears in the final volume of the trilogy, but let’s leave that out of the discussion today. Perhaps it’s a kind of Alcubierre concept, but in any case I want to focus on fusion runways and sails for now, because the Netflix eight-part video presents the idea of sending a relatively small payload toward the invasion fleet using a form of nuclear pulse propulsion.

Here the presentation is accurate if rudimentary but the idea is fascinating. Because I don’t find this in the novels, I am wondering about where, along the route to production, the show acquired a technology made famous originally by Project Orion, with its sequence of nuclear explosions visualized as occurring behind a spacecraft’s huge shock absorbers. Wonderfully, the idea opens up to multiple interstellar propulsion ideas in the literature, including Johndale Solem’s Medusa concept and various fusion runway notions that emerged decades ago, one by my friend Al Jackson and Daniel Whitmire, another by Jordin Kare, who christened his concept the ‘Bussard buzz bomb.’

So we’ve got a lot to talk about. And out of the blue Adam Crowl wrote to remind me of something Martyn Fogg pointed out in 2017, when I wrote about Medusa then. Here’s Martyn’s comment:

Suppose these Solem sails were to have a small hole in their centre, they could be steered accurately, and that nuclear propulsion charges could be lined up perfectly in space, perhaps by laser guidance. Then one might imagine an ‘Interstellar Solem Sail Runway’ which would impart a jolt of pulse propulsion each time its sail overtook each charge, thereby accelerating the outgoing ship as a whole up to interstellar cruse velocity. The vessel would only need fuel to decelerate at the target system: a considerable reduction in the mass it would need to carry.

Talk about prescient! Because this is what shows up on the Netflix series.

I’m slammed for time this morning and have way too many ideas floating around as well as tabs open in various screens, so I’m going to break here and pick up this discussion next week, when I want to get into the details of fusion runways, and then I want to relate all this to Solem’s Medusa work by way of illustrating not only how ingenious all these ideas are, but how striking the design in the screen version of the Three Body Problem turns out to be. The designs we’ll be discussing are some of the most innovative that have come out of the interstellar effort thus far.