NASA Grant Award to Tau Zero Foundation


NASA has awarded a $500,000 grant to the Tau Zero Foundation for a 3-year study titled “Interstellar Propulsion Review.” Unlike prior studies, which were based on a specific mission concept, this study is an overall comparison between the different motivations, challenges, and approaches to interstellar flight. The work is split into three major 1-year phases:

1. Create an interstellar work breakdown structure (WBS) tailored to the divergent challenges and potentially disruptive prospects of interstellar flight in a manner that will allow for ‘level-playing-field’ comparisons. Prior mission and project information will be used to populate this first WBS.

2. Identify and work with subject matter experts to populate the WBS with their most recent reliable data.

3. Analyze uploaded data to identify (1) the most consequential knowledge gaps and (2) recommend research. Once all these phases are completed, the tools and methods are available to repeat the assessments as needed.

Your Inputs Sought

Tau Zero invites the participation of the broader interstellar community to affect this grant, with this call for papers for the next Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW). This call is in addition to the more general call for abstracts issued from the TVIW hosts, whose topics and conditions can be found here.

Seeding Infrastructure

Many interstellar mission concepts rely on substantial infrastructure in our solar system to build, power, and launch their vehicles. What is seldom addressed, however, is how to begin to build that infrastructure, incrementally and affordably. Abstracts are invited that address that gap, with an emphasis on defining the first infrastructure missions that (a) can be launched with existing spacecraft, (b) provide an immediate utility in space, and (c) are part of a larger plan to extend that capability. This encompasses power production and distribution, mining, construction material processing, in-space construction, and propellant harvesting and delivery.

Exoplanet Science Instruments

What scientific instruments should an interstellar probe carry to collect meaningful information about an exoplanet – information that cannot be obtained from Earth-based astronomy alone? How close would such a probe need to get to an exoplanet to collect this information and how much time will it take within that distance to collect enough data to reach meaningful conclusions? What volume of data would need to be communicated back to Earth? What are projected mass and power requirements for such instrumentation? Abstracts are sought that discuss these instrumentation requirements, characteristics, and the trade-offs between minimizing instrumentation and maximizing information. Papers can be as basic as compiling a list of existing, relevant instrumentation for baseline comparisons, all the way to projections of the minimal mass, power, and computational ability for basic observations. Abstracts are also welcome that discus trends in the abilities of Earth-based exoplanet science and how this affects the instrumentation requirements of interstellar probes.

Foundationally Consistent Baselines

Different mission/vehicle concepts often use different projected performances for common functions such as: (a) heat rejection, (b) energy storage, (c) power management and distribution (PMAD), (d) magnetic nozzles, (e) communication with Earth, (f) equipment longevity, (g) structural mass {if built in space}, and (h) guidance, navigation and control (GNC). Fair comparisons of mission-vehicle concepts are difficult when different values are used for such baseline technologies. Presentations are invited that can credibly delineate reasonable performance estimates for such common functionalities so that future mission-vehicle studies can use common baselines for comparison (e.g. efficiencies, specific masses, readiness levels, etc).

Consistent Comparison Measures

It is difficult to objectively compare different interstellar propulsion and power concepts that use different fundamental methods with method-specific performance measures (e.g. rocket specific impulse, laser pointing accuracy, etc). Abstracts are sought for suggested alternatives to compare both the abilities and resource requirements of diverse interstellar mission concepts – measures that are consistent across all modalities (perhaps in terms of energy, power, mass, mission time, etc.).

Humanities – Interstellar Prerequisite of a Mature Humanity

The energy levels required for interstellar flight are large enough to have the potential to become weapons of mass destruction. Hence, a key prerequisite for achieving interstellar flight is not technical, but societal. Human civilization must mature to where it can wield these energy levels for the greater good instead of on each other. Abstracts are invited that explore these issues in rigorous, academic depth, or suggest how to begin such studies.

Humanities – World Ships as a Crucible of Cultural Study

In addition to the physical life support that has to function reliably for centuries aboard world ships, the culture of the on-board colony will also require a sustainably peaceful governance system along with a culture where the individual citizens live meaningful lives. Abstracts are invited that explore these issues in rigorous, academic depth, or suggest how to begin such studies.

Breakthrough Propulsion Physics

In addition to propulsion and power concepts based on known physics, it is prudent to also consider the possibility that new physics discoveries will lead to breakthrough propulsion, such as faster-than-light transport or propellant-less space drives. Abstracts are sought that identify relevant open questions in physics and then how to further investigate those unknowns. The connection between the open question in physics and its propulsion or power relevance must be explicit. Note, this is not an invitation for new theories or speculations about propulsion devices. Instead, this is a call to identify credible lines of inquiry that might lead to testable, relevant hypotheses. This invitation includes seeking experimental proposals for testing critical relevant questions in physics.

About the Workshop

The TVIW is a scientific and educational association that promotes interstellar exploration, travel, and communications. The TVIW provides an opportunity for relaxed sharing of ideas in directions that will stimulate and encourage interstellar exploration including propulsion, communications, and research. The ‘Workshop’ theme suggests that the direction should go beyond that of a ‘conference’. Attendees are encouraged not only to present intellectual concepts but to develop these concepts to suggest projects, collaboration, active research and mission planning. It should be a time for engaging discussions, thought provoking ideas, and boundless optimism contemplating a future that may one day be within the reach of humanity. Though the TVIW concept was intended to be regional (viz., the American Southeast), it is now, in fact, an internationally recognized event.

Presentation and Publication Requirements

Abstracts should describe content that can be introduced in a 20 minute presentation, followed by 5 minutes for Q&A. Though not a firm requirement, it is desirable that the author prepare a manuscript suitable for submission to a peer-reviewed journal (such as the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society for general papers). The workshop organizers plan to video and stream the presentations, and share the presentation charts with participants.

Submission Requirements

Submit 1-2 page PDF including the following information (file size cannot exceed 3 MB):

– Title

– Presenting author & affiliation.

– Coauthors and respective affiliations.

– Abstract text between 300 to 500 words in length

– Outline for the body of the report

– Cite at least 3 references upon which the work is based

– Cite the most recent publication by the presenting author that relates to the invited topics.

Where to Submit

The Tau Zero specific interests are in addition to a more general call for papers from TVIW. If you are submitting an abstract for the more general coverage of the TVIW, then visit this page. For the Tau Zero specific topics of interest, email your PDF to: for submissions.

Due Dates

10-May-2017 Submission deadline for TZF Paper Abstracts

31-May-2017 Accepted TZF papers announced

30-Jun-2017 Last day for early registration

30-Sep-2017 Deadline for electronic submittal of all final presentation materials

4-Oct-2017 TVIW 2017 begins

Selections Process

Tau Zero reserves the right to reject any abstract it deems as out of scope or not satisfactorily substantive. It is expected, as a minimum, that abstracts:

– Address the requested topics

– Adhere to the submission requirements

– Reflect that the presentation will be based on sound, credible information instead of speculative or subjective assertions.

Questions can be directed to:

About Tau Zero

Tau Zero is a 501(c) non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating progress toward the scientific breakthroughs required to support interstellar flight. The Foundation’s efforts, driven by the experts most capable of addressing the formidable challenges of interstellar flight, include fundamental scientific research, encouraging and supporting academic involvement in sciences related to its goals, empowering youth in this quest, forging collaborations for cross-fertilization, and engaging governmental and industry support on a global scale.

Tau Zero’s motto is “Ad Astra Incrementis” – to the stars in ever-expanding steps.

PG Note: To prevent redundancy, I’ve closed comments on this post so that comments can flow to Tau Zero at the address above.


Tau Zero: The Steps Ahead

by Marc Millis

Recently I asked you, our readership, what you want from an interstellar organization, given the emergence of Kelvin Long’s Interstellar Institute and the pending symposium of the 100 Year Starship Organization. How to sort out which organization does what? I suspect that the 100YSS will start inviting memberships (fee-based) at their Sept 13-16 symposium. Unfortunately, we will not be able to launch our new Tau Zero website until after that, in October, at which time we will finally be able to take on members (yes, it has been a long arduous process). Then you can see exactly what we have accomplished beyond our continuing Centauri Dreams news forum. I have no idea if Icarus Interstellar or the others will invite memberships around that time too. All of us have been open for donations for some time.

To put the available support into context, I did a little hunting to estimate the total funds that have been contributed to all of our uniquely interstellar organizations (does not include the British Interplanetary Society, Planetary Society, etc.). To date, and if my hunting is reliable, the combined contributions to all our organizations total less than $100k. This, of course, does not include the $500k from DARPA to Mae Jemison’s 100 Year Starship organization. Thus, short of having a substantial increase in funding, there is not much to go around for one organization, let alone a handfull of them.


I compiled and edited your answers about what you want from an interstellar organization, plus some subsequent discussions for your contemplation and feedback. I did include the answers posted from other organizations, where they listed the services they are offering. I did not include ‘motherhood’ statements which are more about subjective consequences (e.g. “bold & inspiring”) than actionable work.

(1) Promotion and Fund Raising. The distinctions between “promotional” and “enabling,” functions, and “a driver for interstellar flight,” were raised, with the further suggestion that different organizations take on different functions. The suggestion included a recommendation that Tau Zero pursue only the “enabling” functions.

(2) Information: A common theme from the majority of answers, was to have easy access to the most relevant and reliable information. This includes:

— Free (or at least low-cost) journal of interstellar issues and progress (peer-reviewed), the one, go-to, source of emerging information. This includes more than just spacecraft ideas. It should also cover societal implications and the effects of ancillary developments (such as extended human life spans, hibernation, artificial intelligence, and trans-humanism, energy prowess, extinction hazard probabilities, etc.).

— Anthologies that compile the best papers of the past (again covering the full span of relevant topics).

— Detailed books on the key technology options, at a level of detail where the assertions from various studies can be checked against reliable information.

(3) Guiding Scenarios: To provide some context for “how do we get from today to the era of star flight?,” create hypothetical scenarios of the events (technical and societal) that would eventually lead to interstellar missions. There is more than one scenario to create:

— Extrapolating the present rate of progress (technical and societal) till the first mission. Note: Three different studies estimate 2-centuries in this scenario.

— Responding to an impending threat to humanity’s survival.

— Possible technological progress if money and societal support were not limits.

— Implications from the discovery of propulsion physics breakthroughs.

(4) Making Progress: When it comes to making progress (given the information, above, is available), the following statements were made:

— Staged progress where approaches at different levels of technical maturity are treated differently. Where technological progress is nearing implementation, conduct detailed system-level analyses that could lead to implementation plans. For items needing laboratory verification, perform experiments. Items whose feasibility is still uncertain should be treated as basic research, but where it is desired to present some sort of estimate of their viability.

— Want to see “concrete achievements,” not just plans.

— Want “well led projects,” not just visionaries (I’m not sure exactly what is meant here, since I can interpret the statement in more than one way).

— Educational opportunities (many variations on this possible).

— Conducting Mission-Vehicle Studies [The prime activity of Icarus Interstellar]

— Funding individual proposals with clear selection criteria.

(5) Institutes: Both Mae Jemison, of the 100 Year Starship organization, and Kelvin Long each want their own interstellar Institutes. How will they determine who to involve, and how will they get those people to relocate to their central institute? How many people would this involve? How much will it cost? Would its higher costs pull resources away from all the other activities to become the only activity? What services will these institutions offer for the rest of us (those who are not in the institute)?

(6) Symposia and Workshops: Although this was not mentioned in the comments, it has been discussed before. What I would like to hear from our readership is: How frequently do you want them? What do you want to get out of such events? Do you want presentations to be pre-filtered to ensure quality, or do you want full openness? Is it worth having symposia if no potential sponsors are in the audience? How much of a registration fee are you willing to pay?

(7) Inclusivity and Participation: The notion of letting a broad audience participate is a recurring theme. The challenge includes finding worthy tasks for the various skill levels of our audience, and then gleaning the progress made.


The following estimates are based on my experiences at NASA and on lessons learned in the course of creating the Tau Zero Foundation. Your mileage might vary. I’m providing these estimates to give you and idea of the relative difficulty of these tasks, and so you will know how much funding any organization will need before being able to offer such services.

(1) Promotion and Fund Raising. For nonprofit organization, a common advice is to allocate 20% of your total funds to fundraising. In other words, if the organization needs $80k to perform its duties, you need $20k just to raise $100k of funding. I have only started to learn about nonprofit fundraising since 2010, and still have a lot to learn. Prior to that, my NASA affiliation made it illegal for me to raise funds actively for Tau Zero.

(2) Information: With our network of practitioners, this is the primary function that Tau Zero has been doing, so our estimates here are fairly accurate:

Centauri Dreams news forum: This is virtually a full-time job for one person [Paul Gilster], plus it relies on several knowledgeable volunteers to scout for meaningful source material. On this I must share that I am impressed with how much information Paul can process and how frequently he can write. I’m not sure what it would take to provide this service if starting over from scratch.

Social Network Presence: Here are some of the social networks that Tau Zero has been able to keep up, due to the continuing volunteer services of Larry Klaes. This does not require a full-time position, but it is definitely a serious commitment. My thanks to Larry for helping spread our news via these other organizations:

Interstellar Travel (Tau Zero Fan Page)

Icarus Interstellar

Project Hyperion (an Icarus Interstellar project)

Passionate Universe

Space-Time Travel

Paul Gilster also maintains a Twitter presence as @centauri_dreams.

Interstellar Journal (free or at least low-cost) (peer-reviewed): Right now, we’ve been relying mostly on the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society since it already exists and has the staff to perform the required functions. If you have access to a university library which carries this journal, you can visit and read articles without having to pay the annual subscription.

To create a new journal would require at least one full-time editor/manager, a staff of part-time help to process submissions through review, revisions, and properly formatted and copyright manuscripts (and maintain the website), and a network of willing & able reviewers who do not have conflicts of interest about what they are reviewing. A rough dollar estimate to provide such a ‘free’ and quality journal would be about $200k annually.

In my personal experience, the hardest part about doing this (even with ample volunteers) is to find qualified reviewers without conflicts of interest. The interstellar community is still relatively small, and although there are many enthusiasts, most of those are not fully qualified. The number of qualified reviewers is small enough that most already know each others’ works and often have conflicts of interest. A double-blind review might solve the conflict of interest problem, but again, since the community is small, it is pretty easy to guess whose paper you are reviewing. Other qualified reviewers could be drawn in from related fields, but we would probably have to offer a small honoraria to get them to review papers that are not within their fields of interest.

Anthologies that compile the best papers of the past (again covering the full span of relevant topics). As much as I like this idea and would like to see it happen, the challenge again is finding the people who are qualified and impartial that will, indeed, pick the “best” papers, not just their favorite papers. Right now, this is happening only when individuals in our community have enough passion, time, and material to work from. I applaud those who have done, or are attempting such work.

Detailed books on the key technology options: To assemble a book at this level is a 2-3 year endeavor requiring at least ½ time lead editor, plus a team of authors who can write the detailed chapters spanning the topic. Since this function can fall within the scope of a researcher’s day job, there is a possibility of getting such books written with only minor funding.

The difficulty we have found is to find enough willing experts to write impartial and instructive material amidst the more common advocacy papers. Also, I am encountering difficulty when discussing books with publishers since many seem to be waiting for the electronic rights issues to be resolved first… or so that is what I’m hearing.

Library of open technical problems that need to be solved: I like this idea so much that we’ve already been working into on our new Tau Zero website. The challenge here is distilling the key issues from all the literature, and then categorizing them so that it is easy for a newcomer to find what they are looking for. Right now, we have a backlog of notes and references that will still take hours of labor to go through, convert, and post into our list. This is something suitable for volunteers at the skill level of undergraduate students.

Library of reference missions: I like this idea too, and know that Icarus Interstellar is creating these. What I do not know yet – and this gets back to the journal and review challenges -is the level of fidelity and impartiality of those mission/vehicle reports. Historically, before Icarus, there was a tendency in our community to devise mission and vehicle studies to promote a preconceived solution, rather than conducting a requirements-driven, system-level study that is not biased by a favorite power or propulsion option. Such biases are just human nature and are quite common in many fields — Freeman Dyson calls this the ‘Problem of Premature Choice.’ A mitigating strategy to this “premature choice” phenomenon, absent of a team of unbiased, qualified reviewers, is to (1) take all of these studies with a healthy dose of skepticism, and (2) focus on the weakest link of their system to identify what problems still need to be solved (It is common in prior studies to skimp on the assessment of realistic heat rejection and realistic magnetic nozzles). In other words, convert their weakest links into key, next-step tasks… and make progress on those tasks.

(3) Guiding Scenarios: I really like this idea. I will find a way, when we can, to work this into Tau Zero’s activities. This was not already a part of our plans. Off the cuff, I would imagine needing some discussions amongst of our sci-fi authors to kick around possibilities, and then volunteers to distill those discussions into hypothetical scenarios. Each scenario will likely require the same level of effort as a journal paper, but with less rigor, since it is only a prediction. Another option is to run a contest to invite scenarios from our readership. The challenge in that case would be to assemble the review team, support staff, and lead. Provided we had a lead, I consider this a feasible low-cost, mostly volunteer effort. Again, considering that these scenarios will be attempts to predict the future, they should be taken as possibilities, rather than definitive plans.

(4) Making Progress: This is the other area where I’ve aimed Tau Zero to support. Right now, absent of funding to support research, all the progress being made is from our community, where those individuals take on the work themselves to make progress in their area of specialty. At Tau Zero we have been able to forge collaborations to avoid redundancy and to fill niches so that these individual works will have more impact overall. Considering the number of non-redundant and relevant publications that have been forthcoming (technical, science-fiction, journalistic, and artistic), I think our community is doing well. I would like to think that Tau Zero has boosted this, but there is no way to measure it. For example, I have no idea if David Brin’s new novel, Existence, (science-fiction that touches on many issues raised by Tau Zero), was influenced by Tau Zero. Brin is in our network or practitioners, but I’ve not discussed this with him.

When it comes to progress, the other tactic Tau Zero promotes (in addition to the cited collaboration, above), is to focus on the next-step detailed questions instead of advocating a particular solution. This is where Tau Zero differs from others in the community. Several others want to promote their solution and get that solution funded at levels sufficient to launch missions. This includes solar sails, beamed energy sails, nuclear rockets, and nuclear fusion rockets. It is my personal and professional opinion that (1) There is not yet enough prospective funding to support this strategy (requires at least 10’s of millions for any real implementation progress), and (2) It is premature to down select to ‘the’ solution until after we have a more accurate definition of the problem, requirements, and promising technical options.

Regarding educational opportunities, we are collaborating with the Ohio Aerospace Institute to set up graduate student projects, where the student, university, and Tau Zero collaborate to purse a grant for that student to work on a challenge within Tau Zero’s interest. More on this as it develops. To really pull this off would require $500k annually, but we are first seeing what we can do on crumbs.

If there were enough funding to sponsor targeted research, here is how Tau Zero would handle it. In prior estimates, we concluded that a reasonable annual budget to sponsor a research solicitations would be $6M:

— Convene a team of sponsors and practitioners to devise and agree on selection criteria.

— Invite proposals for short-duration tasks (1-3yrs duration) and rank them per the selection criteria just devised.

— To the limit of available funding, select a suite of divergent options from the top-scoring set. By “divergent” I mean that different approaches are supported (diversified portfolio) rather than having all the research cover the same approach.

— Host a symposium to review the findings when that research is done, and refine the next solicitation based on the lessons learned from the prior findings and symposium.

— Repeat that process until enough viable technology has accrued to make interstellar missions possible within the constraints of society’s available support.

(5) Institutes: It has been my experience from watching the creation and fate of other institutes that institutes do more to serve their founders than to serve the community. Regardless, this function still faces the challenges of being able to recruit and successfully manage a fitting team. Rough cost estimates for this sort of approach – absent of the actual research – is about $1-2M annually. Typically, the ‘faculty’ of such institutes are then required to seek additional grants from other sources for the actual topic progress.

Furthermore, it is my professional opinion that the skill set to answer the challenges of interstellar flight are still too fledgling to merge into one institute. Star flight is more than just the vehicle and propulsion. It includes the societal factors, and consideration of a number of specialties that are still emerging, such as synthetic biology, transhumanism, and the pending ‘singularity’ of artificial intelligence. It is because of this widespread and fledgling nature that Tau Zero is pursuing the graduate project idea that is open to all universities.

(6) Symposia and Workshops: This is a necessary function to regularly inform the community of progress, provide opportunities for face-to-face interactions, and invite new participants. Given how long it takes to create new content, It is my professional opinion that symposia should be spread 2 to 3 years apart. The actual costs of hosting a symposium can vary dramatically based on sponsorships, registration fees, and attendance. As a minimum, it requires the full time labor of 2 people for at least a year to assemble a meaningful event.

Due to the difficulty of finding that labor and the over-abundance of symposia and conferences at which interstellar work can be discussed, Tau Zero has no plans to conduct workshops. Instead, we will participate in others’ events as able.

(7) Inclusivity and Participation: The challenge includes finding worthy tasks for the various skill levels of our audience. The discussion forum in Centauri dreams gives our readership the opportunity to participate in discussions. These discussions are moderated to filter out inappropriate comments. The next level of participation is volunteer help. I already have more offers for volunteer help than I can manage. It requires a lot of work to create, assign, and then utilize volunteer tasks. If any of you are willing to manage our Tau Zero pool of volunteers ( ≈ 4-dozen) and are willing to do this as a volunteer for a while, please let me know. This is a job that requires people skills, not engineering or science.


To refresh your memory, my cohorts and I founded Tau Zero to find and forge collaborations amongst genuine pioneers and then share that progress broadly via Centauri Dreams and other publications. Rather than advocating specific vehicles, technologies, or missions, we want to find and encourage progress over the span of options. We also want to make sure we have a realistic set of requirements and constrains (i.e. understanding the problem) before devising ‘the’ solution. Our progress is largely based on the work of our network of practitioners; scientists, engineers, educators, writers, and artists, who work on these topics on their own, but collaborate via Tau Zero to avoid duplication of effort and to find the needed skill mix. In the near future we will debut our new “Discovery Log” – a repository of facts related to interstellar flight, covering these categories:

– Humanity’s Journey

– Destinations

– Getting there.

The services we offer will be articulated in that new website, along with the opportunity to become “members” whose fees grant members access to exclusive information and discounts on Foundation merchandise.

There have been some overtures between some of the organizations to collaborate, to at least avoid redundancy. To help all of these organizations serve you, please add your comments in the discussions. Are these activities what you really want? Which of these do you want first, and most? Which do you think will result in the most progress considering the limited funding? Offer suggestions for where to get the funds and support to your most desired functions.

Ad Astra Incrementis,

Marc Millis


Customer Feedback from the Discussions

Marc Millis August 10, 2012 at 13:43
“Who do ya call?” Dear readers, Are getting confused as to who is doing what and why there is a proliferation of interstellar flight groups?
– British Interplanetary Society
– Tau Zero Foundation w/ Centauri Dreams
– Peregrinus Interstellar
– Icarus Interstellar
– 100 Year Starship Organization, and now..
– Institute for Interstellar Studies.
Rather than advocate our own, I want to take this opportunity to ask YOU, our readership: What do YOU want an interstellar organization to do? And when answering, keep in mind that none of these groups has “serious” money. The bulk of work is till subsidized by volunteered labors of love.

Tell us, all of us, Where are your preferences? What services do you need?

Bob Steinke August 10, 2012 at 15:14
I think one valuable thing that interstellar organizations could do is build up a library of reference mission designs and open technical problems.
Beyond that, if there is any preliminary experimental work that is within their capabilities like the Planetary Society’s work on solar sails.

Interstellar Bill August 10, 2012 at 20:46
We need advanced, graduate-level textbooks on each propulsion option
1. Laser sail
2. Advanced Ion
3. Nuclear Electricity for Space (every non-fusion method from radio isotopes to full scale fission reactors
4. Fusion
We also need anthologies of already-published, specialized interstellar papers. Both IEEE and BIS could alone do great anthologies.
A textbook with one chapter each on these is far too introductory for the dear readers of this blog.

Greg August 10, 2012 at 23:47
“What do YOU want an interstellar organization to do? And when answering, keep in mind that none of these groups has “serious” money. ”
Excellent question Marc, personally I would like to see a staged approach analysis to possible interstellar propulsion solutions. I think if a site could show a stage 1 analysis of possible technologies as well as theoretical physics giving its likelihood between a 1 and 10, 1 being next to impossible 10 being highly likely. It would simply be a group of researchers giving their best guess or analysis of a technology/theory and if it would be feasible or not.
An example is this article on the Giant Casimir effect,
using meta-materials to possibly amplify the Casimir effect. Between 1 and 10 what is the likelihood this is a possibility and if this could be worth pursuing as a means for energy production or propulsion for interstellar travel.
Stage 2 could be a more detailed analysis of technologies. With stage 3 possibly moving to testing in a lab.
It would be nice to cut through the impossible stuff and speaking for myself, see what may get through.

Jean-Pierre Le Rouzic August 11, 2012 at 6:22
To contribute with my own answer to Marc’s question: What I wait from an organization is any concrete achievement, even if small. Like Bob Steinke, I found Planetary society’s solar sail design and launch attempts to have lots of merits. If someone wants to search (as Paul proves daily) there are valuable scientific papers, but for every good paper there are tons of s**t papers, often using arcane physics concepts to propose what is basically perpetual movement machines. There are already many students that are interested by interstellar concepts (f.e. see what F. Loup did). What we need is not visionaries, there are already some very impressive people and it’s good to talk about them, but we now need project leaders with common sense and attention to details and engineers. We need people able to understand that to build interstellar probes, we have to demonstrate concepts validity and how it could be useful by some aspect to humanity in short term.

Marc: What you can do without money is set a call for realistic interstellar proposals with positive impact on today’s life, with a team of volunteers to select a few very interested works with clear selection criterion. You don’t need to propose a price to recruit volunteers and contributors, many organisations only propose fame and it works (IEEE/Arthur B. Guise Medal (fire protection engineers)). Some even do not propose fame (scouts).

Astronist August 11, 2012 at 10:10
Marc Millis wrote: “What do YOU want an interstellar organization to do?”
To my mind, possibly the most urgent task is to develop and publicise a scenario in which we actually get to do interstellar travel, starting from the present day. Why urgent? Imagine that we start discussing interstellar travel with a member of the large majority of people who are not, for whatever reason, excited by the prospect. What will be on their minds? Overpopulation: we must reduce the world’s population. Climate change: we must give up an energy-intensive lifestyle (see Tom Murphy’s “Do the Math” blog for a diet of pessimism on this point, thus directly contradicting any chance of a starfaring future, given the enormous energy demands of interstellar travel). World hunger: we must abandon spaceflight and spend the money on feeding the poor instead. Militarism: we must abandon spaceflight because all it’s doing is spreading evil American militarism and greedy anti-human capitalism into space (the position of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, and of its sociologist supporters who came to talk at the BIS a couple of years ago).

In other words, I detect a general mood of antipathy towards the value system of growth and progress, which would basically shut down space technology and economic growth if it could, and impose a competing value system based on values of being contented with what one already has and renouncing the accumulation of more material possessions, as well as halting progress towards such things as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotech.

Clearly, the market is on our side: people generally place a higher value on their comfort and on having the latest gadget than on ideology, particularly self-effacing ideology, and the market is great at driving forward economic and technological progress. But I still think we would be well advised to put at the heart of our message to the broader world a reasoned explanation of why growth and progress are still good, why their benefits outweigh their risks, why climate change, peak oil and nanotech are not about to destroy us, and why the interstellar enterprise is not merely a juvenile-minded hobby that we happen to want to indulge in at everyone else’s cost, but the logical result of the growth of civilisation in a way which benefits everybody.
Oxford, UK

Kelvin F. Long August 11, 2012 at 12:54
Marc Millis wrote:
“…Rather than advocate our own, I want to take this opportunity to ask YOU, our readership: What do YOU want an interstellar organization to do? ”

My top five answers:

1. Demonstrate both theoretical and experimental progress towards the long term vision, utilizing rigorous scientific techniques, across the spectrum of options, producing tangible benefits and real technologies.

2. Demonstrate inspired leadership, good mangement and governance in an open, transparent and responsible way.

3. Initiate bold and exciting projects and programs which inspire the world, swell our numbers, and produce more reliable studies.

4. Work together, co-operatively and co-ordinatively, for common purpose, shared ambitions and increased national and international impact, in a way that rises above politics and human behaviours.

5. Break down barriers to participation, knowledge, and belief in the seemingly impossible, by the creation and facilitation of opportunity through education and outreach, using positive-optimistic motivation.

Kelvin F. Long

Jack Crawford August 11, 2012 at 15:51
At this early juncture I think Tau Zero needs to differentiate between being a promoter, an enabler, and a driver of interstellar flight. Of these three things I think acting as an enabler is the easiest to do on a tight budget because it can be done by volunteers as a labor of love while research and public awareness cost money. As an enabler, Tau Zero’s role is to act as a compiler and distributor of knowledge. By acting as a venue for the exchange of information, such as a a free peer reviewed online journal, the Tau Zero Foundation can be a safe haven for scholarly writing, review papers, and general education.

Currently, the literature for interstellar studies is greatly scattered which makes finding and following the literature trail difficult. This impedes research. Review papers can address this and another problem: the academic pay wall to information. Think of the audacity of having to pay $80 for a 10 page paper on the subject you are interested in only to find the paper doesn’t deliver what the abstract says was in the paper. This is our enemy: inaccessible and poor quality information. Help from academia is not coming any time soon so the burden for progressing interstellar studies is on the citizen scientist and engineer, but someone has to give them the tools to succeed. Tau Zero can do this. Important but obscure information can be compiled and rewritten for public consumption. Code for common numerical calculations can be made freely available. Scholarly articles can be held to a higher standard. Proper education articles aimed at the armchair enthusiast can also be written. All you need are volunteers to write and some editors.

~ Jack Crawford

spaceman August 12, 2012 at 3:08
The aforementioned interstellar organizations will- certainly in a more realistic manner than does the film industry- definitely go along way as it pertains to keeping the grand goal of crossing the light years alive. Assuredly, new ideas will originate from these groups and existing ideas will be further refined as technology advances.

As a lover of puzzles, I would like to see the interstellar dream presented as the ultimate puzzle- a puzzle that combines several branches of science both natural and social. So geniuses put down your NYTimes Saturday crossword, which of you has what it takes to crack this one? What could be more challenging and exciting, more important in terms of ensuring human species survival than solving this intricate conundrum of epic proportions?

But it’s like what a friendly fellow at a recent singles party said to me: “When I was your age I used to think that if I waited around it would all fall into place. The right woman would just enter my life…but that’s unlikely. You have to get out there and do the hard work of finding her.”

How true. I can and do imagine her. I think about the pros and cons of getting involved with her, but at the end of the day I know the imagining will only get me so far. He’s right, I have to get out there more and test the waters. Same is the case with interstellar societies…they are a great resource for thinking about, for example, which candidate propulsion systems might work best as well as other aspects of deep spaceflight. Imaginative interstellar groups are crucially important in terms of developing ideas on how it might be possible to effectively span the immense interstellar gulf, but eventually they—like me, will have to get out there and test/implement the ideas in the real world.

Ric August 13, 2012 at 4:10
Seems to me that the Interstellar Institute already exists: Zero Tau. So why not slightly expand the scope of the Zero Tau website and merge the Intersteller Institute topics into it?

Adam Crowl August 13, 2012 at 7:29
An interstellar organisation with the aim of achieving interstellar flight needs to look at the many propulsion suggestions made over time and the broader pre-conditions needed to make the various scenarios happen. For example, what kind of society can make a large multi-stage fusion-propelled probe happen? What economic pathway will make that feasible? And how will it transform life for the rest of humanity?

Or what would lead to huge multi-terawatt lasers able to push sail-craft to half the speed of light? Would powering such devices lead to abundant solar-power systems for human-kind?

Being able to live in space for decades at a time would have implications for recycling and food-processing in a multitude of ways, surely a vital concern on a crowded Earth. By promoting development of minaturised industry, food-production, medical facilities and scientific equipment – all applicable to humans thriving in other star-systems – then we’d be sparking unimaginable leaps forward for everyday life on Earth.

Kick-starting the economic infrastructure needed to develop the solar-system will be another area for the interstellar organisation. For example, Philip Metzger (and his NASA colleagues) have some interesting proposals for boot-strapping space-industry via the Moon’s resources.
Well worth exploring further the whole idea of teleoperated, semi-self-replicating remote facilities on the Moon.

What we need to do is get away from the vision of the one-shot effort. Interstellar involves everyone and could well transform the world.


Musings on Imperfection (and an Update)

by Marc Millis

It occurred to me, after I wrote the post on impartiality and read the resulting comments , that a few other perspectives need to be shared. These encompass the necessity of inspiring visions, playfulness, complimentary contrasts, and tolerance for imperfection. And following that, I realized it was about time for another status update on Tau Zero.

Perfectionism is a neurosis that runs in my family. My dad had it. I have it. My wife and her mom had it. And now my daughters are dealing with it. I see it in many colleagues too. Perfectionism is when striving for ultimate quality exceeds striving for utility. It occurs most when we succumb to rhetoric about ‘excellence’ instead of utility and creativity. At NASA, the term “gold brick” was used to describe this.

I mention this because I’ve been making those same mistakes again while trying to convert Tau Zero from a volunteer, donation-based network into a fully functioning nonprofit corporation. Many of you have noticed the lack of updates on our public Tau Zero web pages ( We have also not yet succeeded in bringing in sufficient funds to implement our next-step plans. While some of this is due to external circumstances and my learning curve of transitioning from a government worker into an entrepreneur, some of these shortcomings are due to my own perfectionism. I’ve been focusing too much on getting our next-steps “just right” to the point where I have not gotten things done. My apologies to our supporters. With this posting, changes are underway.

While lamenting on our shortcomings, I took comfort in seeing that Tau Zero is not alone in dealing with such issues. The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society has fallen about a year behind schedule and is still catching up. SETI failed to plan for operational funds for their telescope array, even though they succeeded in getting funds to build the array. The Planetary Society did not succeed at launching their first solar sail mission. And then there is Congress’, the President’s, and NASA’s failing to devise a sustainable space program. This also brings back memories from NASA of meetings where more resources were spent trying to eliminate waste than the amount being wasted (comparing labor cost of those meetings to the topic’s dollars).

Such striving for increased efficiency is more prudent and attainable when producing the same product, over and over (Cola?), than it is in these other types of organizations where each are attempting something that has never been done before. Pioneering work and perfectionism are not a healthy combination.

Bottom line, such imperfections are common. I’ll even go so far as to assert that they are an unavoidable consequence of human endeavors, especially those that are charting new ground. That said, it is a part of our human condition that I am still trying to accept in myself. And with that, I appreciate your patience as I bring Tau Zero into a new, more active era.

Where Tau Zero is Today

Here now is a list of activities of Tau Zero and their status.

(1) GRADUATE STUDENT PROJECTS: One of the recent set of comments on Centauri Dreams was about whether to create an “Interstellar Institute.” Since Tau Zero is not yet bringing in the degree of resources needed to create an institute, and because such an entity might not be the most effective way to spur wide-spread progress, an intermediate, alternative tactic is being implemented. Rather than creating one institute, we are looking to encourage graduate students everywhere to take on some of the unsolved, next-step issues of star flight as their thesis and dissertation topics (covering, “What’s out there?” “How to get there?” and “What does this mean for humanity?”). The first such thesis is already underway, at the USAF Institute of Technology.

Finding interested students is easy. Defining suitable thesis topics to consider and then getting my practitioners lined up to help get the students started, is challenging. Establishing working relations with the universities (their advisor must agree to the thesis topic) is even harder. I’ve started establishing working relations with other universities so that we can jointly apply for grants both for the student and to help pay for the services of our assisting practitioners. It is slow going, but things look promising. I feel this tactic will spur greater progress and broaden opportunities overall and for less cost and effort than creating a Interstellar Institute. I know a lot of students have asked about this. Bear with me as we work through the gory details of making it happen.

(2) MEMBERSHIPS: We are preparing to shift Tau Zero from a ‘Donation-only’ forum to one with annual memberships (est $55). This is to help both with revenue generation and to spur a more productively interactive community. Preparations are underway to: Set up the automatic database required for such actions, include volunteer coordination with that information, and create member benefits (newsletter, free downloads of practitioner presentations, and discounts on Tau Zero emblazoned merchandise).

(3) TAU ZERO STORE: In part to offer member goodies, and for revenue generation, and because we’ve been asked over and over again to offer t-shirts, mugs, and patches, we are setting up a store and designing products. We are also working to prepare “special reports” for sale that translate the journal papers that our practitioners publish into more accessible and readable documents for the non-specialist (this is NOT easy).

(4) REVAMPING TZF WEB: The glitch that blocked editing-access to our public website has been fixed, but creating new content is taking longer than expected. Producing content is easy. Producing digestible, meaningful content that is well organized is harder. We have created a private workspace where our practitioners can jointly prepare content in a wiki-style manner for later posting.

(5) ADVANCING THE STATE OF ART: Many of our practitioners keep making progress on interstellar challenges in their day jobs and on their own time. When they publish, Paul Gilster writes about their work, here, on Centauri Dreams. Related to that, we are asking several of the chapter authors from Frontiers of Propulsion Science to submit Centauri Dreams articles about those chapters and any follow-on work. This includes me writing about space drives.

(6) NETWORKING: Although Tau Zero has an abundant collection of space propulsion and power professionals, we are weak in areas of the humanities, and colony ship technology. I hope to meet more people in these disciplines at the 100-Year Starship Symposium. We are also weak regarding simple administrative support, but have recently made some headway there.

Here now is our current list of practitioners. For Tau Zero purposes, the word practitioner has a specific meaning. Practitioners of TZF work together to support the primary mission to pursue advances beyond the focus of other space organizations, using the challenge of interstellar flight as the driver for revolutionary progress. It is desired that practitioners follow their own instincts and make progress in their respective disciplines. When more than one practitioner shares the same interest/discipline, we urge collaboration to avoid duplication of effort. Better still, we suggest pooling of resources to make more of an impact.

ALSO – here is the opportunity to mix disciplines. For example, to convey complex sci-tech to the public in a responsible manner (factual, non-sensationalist, and absent hype or disdain), the journalists and artists on this list are willing to help the scientists and engineers. Reciprocally, the journalists want better content for their work and can call upon the scientists and engineers here for trustworthy content. Eventually, the suite of practitioners will cover the full gamut of topics pertinent to starflight, yet at present we are underrepresented in many key disciplines, such as colony ship requirements / technologies, the humanities, finance).

Tau Zero Practitioners

  • Karen Anderson: Humanities, science fiction community networking (widow of Poul Anderson, author of Tau Zero)
  • Dana Andrews: Technology, system level engineering and trend analysis
  • Greg Bear: Humanities, science fiction writer
  • James Benford: Technology, power beaming
  • David Brin: Humanities, science fiction writer, provocateur
  • Jean-Luc Cambier: Physics
  • Brice N. Cassenti: Mathematics and engineering
  • Adam Crowl: Mathematics and engineering
  • Eric W. Davis: Physics with specialties in FTL, general relativity and the quantum vacuum
  • Walter de Brouwer: Board member, fundraising, networking
  • Kathryn Denning: Humanities, anthropology
  • Robert H. Frisbee: Technology, comparative assessments
  • Pat Galea: Project Icarus IT support
  • Paul Gilster: Board member, Lead Journalist, and humanities, public education
  • George Hathaway: Experimentalist
  • Steven D. Howe: Technology, nuclear propulsion & power
  • Jonathan Hujsak: Admin assistance, lead IT for Tau Zero
  • Gerald P. Jackson: Physics, antimatter & nuclear
  • Les Johnson: Technology, sails and advanced propulsion, and humanities, writing books for public education
  • Jordin Kare: Technology, system level analyst
  • Larry Klaes: Humanities, journalism & social networking (TZF Facebook fan site maintenance)
  • Geoff Landis: Physics, and humanities, science fiction author
  • Michael R. LaPointe: Technology and physics, specialty in electromagnetics
  • Tim Lawrence: Liaison & assistance, USAF networking
  • Kelvin Long: Project Icarus founder, liaison British Interplanetary Society
  • Claudio Maccone: Mathematics (specialty in transforms & statistics), and project on statistical Fermi-Drake estimations as well as FOCAL mission studies
  • Jordan Maclay : Physics, specialty in quantum vacuum and Casimir experiments
  • Geoff Marcy: Astronomy, specialty in exoplanet hunt
  • Gregory Matloff: Technology, specialty in interstellar probes, and humanities, writing books for public education
  • William V. Meyer: Physics, experimental, small scale
  • Marc G. Millis: Board, founder and Executive Director, and physics, specialty in space drives
  • Frank P. Nagorney: Board, legal issues
  • Robert J. Noble: Technology, secondary propulsion
  • Richard Obousy: Project Icarus, physics
  • Tibor Pacher: Humanities, social networking, Faces from Earth project
  • Bob Romanofsky: Technology, specialty in sensors
  • Aldo Spadoni: Humanities, technology, art and documentaries
  • Alexandre Szames: Humanities, Lead Artist for Tau Zero, history, journalism
  • Martin Tajmar: Physics and advanced propulsion
  • Andreas Tziolas: Project Icarus, physics
  • Edward Zampino: Physics and mathematics

(7) FUND RAISING: The first solicitations to seek philanthropical support went out in 2010 and lessons were learned in that process. Changes are being applied now for future solicitations. I am new to this process and the learning curve is an uphill struggle.

(8) ETC: And lastly, we are responding to all the unexpected things that have come up, like the 100 Year Starship study, the reemergence of NIAC, various conferences, etc. More news on all these things will follow.

Stay with us — we plan to be here for the long haul.


Status Report on the Tau Zero Foundation

by Marc Millis

A number of things have been happening recently with the Tau Zero Foundation, but most of them have been behind the scenes. Marc Millis, founding architect of the TZF and former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, now goes public with his thoughts on recent activities and where the Foundation is heading.

To the fans and contributors of Tau Zero, thanks for your help and suggestions. It’s time to talk about recent progress and next-steps. One major news item is that I took an early retirement from NASA, in February 2010, so that I could devote more time to Tau Zero. As much as I tried, I could not do both. I had to make the hard choice between following NASA or leaving that full-salary day-job to make advances via the more flexible Tau Zero Foundation. Now that I’m free of prior restrictions, we are restructuring how we operate and will be eventually shifting to a “Membership” format with regular newsletters.

During the first week in November, I met with several Tau Zero practitioners to discuss various points of view on how best to make progress. Also, the Tau Zero public website has been transferred to other service providers for necessary updates to that information.

Operations and Priorities

One observation is that there are apparently misconceptions about our priorities and how we operate. In retrospect that is understandable since we have been operating, so far, on an opportunistic basis – relying on the self-initiated work of our Practitioners. Examples include; Project Icarus, FOCAL mission studies, the Living (Statistical) Drake Equation, Frontiers of Propulsion Science, publications from other practitioners, Faces From Earth, and the long-running Centauri Dreams news forum.

The time has now come to be more deliberate as we move forward. Ideally, we want to cover all the technologies and implications related to the ultimate goal of reaching other habitable worlds, and we want to do that in a manner where you can count on the accuracy of our information (which is why we include reference citations so that you can check any questionable assertions). This span includes understanding ‘what’s out there,’ examining all the options for ‘how to get there,’ and being sure to tie this all to its ‘relevance to humanity.’

One of the most hotly debated items is how best to get out there. To be explicit, Tau Zero covers the full span of options, from the seemingly simple solar sails to the seemingly impossible faster-than-light travel. For each option within that span, there are different levels of readiness and performance, and accordingly different types of work. One consistent finding – which is nonetheless contentious amongst our readership – is that there is no single “best” choice of propulsion. We have also found that individuals tend to have a favorite within that span, but our interests cover the full span. So, rather than prematurely arguing over which engine is best, we intend to give you reliable, traceable information about the status and next-steps for all those options.

So far we’ve been providing this service mostly through Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams news forum, and by corralling a suite of practitioners who can keep us up to date. Many of these practitioners have voluntarily begun projects to make progress on specific topics. As we move forward, we will have to solicit additional funding to better cover these possibilities. We are also considering options on how our readership – you – can influence which options get more attention.

Ongoing Projects

With that said and with the changes to come, here now is a short reflection on our progress to date. Considering that this resulted from volunteer work with only modest financial contributions (for conference travel and operating expenses), this bodes well for our future productivity.

    Led by Kelvin Long and Richard Obousy, Project Icarus is a sequel to the renowned 1978 Project Daedalus study of the British Interplanetary Society for a fusion-based interstellar probe. This is a joint collaboration with the British Interplanetary Society. The first year of the 5-year study has commenced right on schedule and several papers were presented at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress in Prague to spread the news and get valuable feedback from the astronautical community. As this study progresses it will deliver realistic estimates for what such technology could accomplish along with estimates of what other milestones would be needed to make it happen. Examples of those intermediate steps include the business case for mining Helium-3 from the atmosphere of Uranus, and the communication network for deep space exploration. By reaching beyond near-term horizons, such work sets the stage for the next wave of advancements to follow.
    Rather than wait until interstellar probes are fully viable, much can be learned by traveling to intermediate destinations offering challenges much closer to home. This includes studying the FOCAL mission to confirm the physics and use of the gravitational lensing of our own Sun beyond 550 AU. The champion of this idea, Claudio Maccone, recently published a book called Deep Space Flight and Communications about such ambitions and also presented his progress at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress.
    Marc Millis and Eric Davis compiled and edited the assessments from 18 different lead authors to produce the first-ever scholarly book about non-propellant space drives, gravity control, and faster than light physics. Published as a technical volume within the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Frontiers of Propulsion Science is a 739 page reference that describes past approaches, critical issues, and identifies next-step research approaches. This work was also presented at the 2010 International Astronautical Congress.
    Claudio Maccone has taken the Drake Equation and advanced it to a statistical format so that the implications of its uncertainties can be understood. He recently extended this method to the Fermi Paradox, and then to estimates of the distance to the nearest potentially habitable planets (88+/- 39 light years). Papers on all of these have been presented and this work will continue to be refined.
    Faces from Earth provides information and organizes events to educate the public about space and astronomy and to promote deep space missions, aiming to compile messages to put on board future spacecraft. The organizers hope to offer an exciting educational opportunity for students of every age: Project One Kg Message is about designing and building a time capsule of roughly 1 kg content, which could possibly fly on board a future deep space mission; the E.T. are You out there? campaigns are designed to introduce the notions of possible extraterrestial life and METI to secondary school students; Mosaic Earth builds Earth images like the famous Blue Marble, as a mosaic composition – from portraits of people participating in the project, in the belief that sending a message to E.T. is a deeply human endeavour.

Practitioner Publications

Here is a just a partial list of recent books from Tau Zero Practitioners, with more in progress:

Matloff, Johnson, and Bangs (2007) Living Off the Land in Space: Green Roads to the Cosmos. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Vulpetti, Johnson, and Matloff (2008) Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel. Springer.

Millis & Davis (eds.) (2009) Frontiers of Propulsion Science. Vol. 227 of Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Maccone (2009) Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. Springer Praxis.

Johnson, Matloff, and Bangs (2009) Paradise Regained: The Regreening of Earth. Springer.

In closing, I am pleased to share this progress with you and look forward to being able to escalate these efforts. If you want to see more progress, please consider donating:

Donate to Tau Zero, where all these activities are covered.

Donate directly to Project Icarus, if you are a fan of that work.

Donate directly to Faces from Earth.


Star Wars? Not at NASA

I had started today’s entry — on dark energy — only to be sidetracked by a short piece in that almost had me spewing my morning coffee all over my keyboard. Here’s a quote from the story, which focuses on a Star Wars convention in Florida held last weekend:

“‘Star Wars’ filmmakers and fans asked NASA representatives to develop a hyperdrive that can transport astronauts through space at light speed. And to make it snappy.”

In response, the story quotes NASA’s Joseph Tellado, a logistics manager for the International Space Station, who says this:

“We need better propulsion systems. Right now I’d say that would be the one invention that would really help us out a lot. It’d be great if our astronauts could go at hyperspeed…. I believe ‘Star Wars’ and NASA have a lot in common. We’re looking to the future. NASA is like the first stepping stone to ultimately get to that ‘Star Wars’ level.”

And the story adds this:

The inspiration works both ways, with NASA and “Star Wars” inspiring each other to stretch out and envision the future and then fill in details of what that future might look like.

NASA in the Hunt for Breakthroughs?

Astounding. Here’s why I burned my tongue on a cup of Sumatra Mandheling this morning: Despite what convention-goers may now believe, NASA has no involvement whatsoever in the kind of technologies these people are talking about. True, the agency once funded the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, run out of Glenn Research Center by Marc Millis. BPP’s charter was to investigate the kind of technologies that might one day lead to deep space and interstellar flight, among them so-called ‘warp drive’ and other possibilities. But the agency stopped funding BPP in 2002.

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts, not as ‘breakthrough’ oriented as BPP but a potent force for showcasing new ideas, was cut off from its funding in 2007. In short, the idea that NASA is conducting serious research on any aspect of advanced propulsion — I am talking here about the kind of concepts this convention glories in — is completely false. That work is now off the table. Marc Millis himself has left NASA and works on breakthrough concepts through the Tau Zero Foundation he founded, for which I toil on a daily basis in writing these posts. TZF has no NASA connection whatsoever and proceeds through private funding. The relevant links on the home page here give you the background on TZF.

So while I agree with NASA’s Joseph Tellado that hyperspeed is a desirable outcome, it should be added that it’s not one that NASA is engaged in studying. This is not to say that potential near-term technologies like solar sails may not be revived within the agency — the NASA solar sail is up to a Technological Readiness Level of 6 and a demonstrator sail like NanoSail-D should be launched within a year. But if you’re talking futuristic concepts like warp drive and the study of potential breakthroughs, NASA is no longer the place to be.

Pushing into Dark Territory

With that off my chest, let’s proceed to dark energy, which I want to discuss because utterly unexpected scientific results may offer us useful clues to future technologies. We’re only beginning to learn about dark energy, but the notion that the universe should be expanding at an accelerating rate has flowed out of supernova observations that have been supported by later studies like the Supernova Legacy Survey. Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the Higher-Z team concludes that dark energy has been a factor for at least nine billion years.

All of which is strange and wondrous, as it implies that a hugely important component of our universe only became known within the last twelve years, when the first supernova work was reported. If there is a factor that causes space to expand — one that seems to make up about 72 percent of the mass-energy of the universe — it must exert a strong negative pressure to account for its effects. The fact that it is so hard to detect and is not thought to interact with the fundamental forces other than gravity means that studying it in the laboratory is, to say the least, problematic.

And as far as harnessing its powers for future propulsion systems, the idea is far-fetched in the extreme — at our current technology level. We can’t, however, rule it out for the far future. And that’s the thing about the future. It plays out according to the inputs we give it, meaning that if in some future century our science progresses to the point that what we now know as dark energy becomes something we can engineer, it will be because a long line of scientists, starting now, have put in the groundwork to get us to that destination.

That’s why I keep an eye on dark energy studies in these pages, suggesting only that the more unexplained things we gradually master in the universe, the more likely we are to make genuine breakthroughs. The Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project used to make this sort of thing its bread and butter, but private organizations like the Tau Zero Foundation now have to continue that work without help from government agencies.

The Geometry of Spacetime

And there is some interesting news about dark energy as we continue to pursue this odd effect. One reason that dark energy work is so absorbing is that it tackles the very geometry of the universe. Findings from a team including Yale University physicist Priyamvada Natarajan, reported in the August 20 issue of Science, are based on gravitational lensing of 34 extremely distant galaxies situated behind the massive galactic cluster Abell 1689. Astronomers can study how the images are distorted by intervening mass. Says Natarajan:

“The content, geometry and fate of the universe are linked, so if you can constrain two of those things, you learn something about the third.”

Image: The massive gravitational force of the dark matter (shown in blue) in giant galaxy cluster Abell 1689 bends the light from distant background galaxies, giving astronomers clues to the nature of dark energy. Credit: NASA, ESA, Eric Jullo/JPL, Priyamvada Natarajan/Yale University, Jean-Paul Kneib/Universite de Provence.

As I said, we’re in early days when it comes to the study of dark energy, and if there are actually ways to harness it, such developments may well be centuries away. But it’s useful to know that Natarajan and team have been able to narrow the range of current estimates about dark energy’s effect on the universe — denoted by the value w — by some thirty percent. They did this by combining the gravitational lensing studies with new data from supernovae, X-ray galaxy clusters and related data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).

We learn from all this that the dark energy work thus far confirms previous findings that we do indeed live in a flat universe, one in which the expansion will continue to accelerate and the universe will expand forever. Assuming, that is, that dark energy’s effects remain constant over cosmological time scales. We have much to do to understand how dark energy works, but with NASA out of the hunt when it comes to examining it and other components of far future propulsion engineering, we shouldn’t expect that hyperdrive any time soon.

The paper is Natarajan et al., “Cosmological Constraints from Strong Gravitational Lensing in Clusters of Galaxies,” Science Vol. 329, No. 5994 (20 August 2010), pp. 924-927 (abstract).


Millis: Approaches to Interstellar Flight

How do you go about pushing the frontiers of propulsion science? Tau Zero Foundation founder Marc Millis discussed the question in a just published interview with h+ Magazine. One aspect of the question is to recognize where we are today. Millis is on record as saying that it may be two to four centuries before we’re ready to launch an Alpha Centauri mission. Why the delay? The problem is not so much high-tech savvy as it is available energy, and Millis evaluates it by comparing the energy we use for rocketry today vs. the entire Earth’s consumption of energy.

The question is how much energy we produce and how much we consume, and what percentage of that is devoted to spaceflight. You can see and hear Millis discussing his calculations on the matter in a presentation he made at the TEDx Brussels 2009 session, one that is linked to from the interview. Obviously, the time to the Centauri stars decreases if we decide to put ten times more energy into the space program than we have historically done. Will we make such a choice?

While we’re working such issues out, Millis advocates backing off the idea of choosing a single best approach for interstellar flight. We’re a long way from actually flying such a mission, and rather than attempting to choose a single course, we do better by researching the entire range of possibilities:

Relative to the technology, as a culture we’re so used to thinking how we can get “there” the quickest, or what’s the best single approach. When it comes to interstellar flight and learning to live beyond Earth, this thinking sidetracks us because we’re so far from fruition in our understanding of interstellar space options, that there’s no way for us to pick “the” one way. Instead, there are many different options and unknowns. We stand to gain a lot more from the attempt to understand them – chipping away at them rather than not doing anything at all. By researching the spectrum of possibilities, we’re likely to be better off in the near term.

A research plan that looks laterally, the way a mountain climber evaluates the best path up? We haven’t explicitly tried that approach in interstellar studies, but Millis backs it:

I really want to change the paradigm of how we look at interstellar flight. It’s not just a matter of trying to get there quickly or to find “the best approach,” rather it’s finding the smartest things we can do today that set the stage for a more productive future. At the Tau Zero Foundation, we cover simple solar sails to the seemingly impossible faster-than-light. Rather than trying to identify the best approach, we’re trying to identify the next steps that students can work on to chip away at where their own personal interests lie.

Most of the h+ interview is spent on current issues, such as the cancellation of the Constellation program and the most realistic way to get to Mars, but those with a yen for breakthrough ideas will enjoy Millis’ thoughts on faster than light travel and the time paradoxes it might introduce. Does quantum entanglement show instantaneous connections between particles or are there other explanations, and are there faster than light implications in all this? Read the interview for more, and bear in mind that the book Millis edited with Eric Davis, Frontiers of Propulsion Science, gets into such questions with a vengeance. Re quantum entanglement and its implications, even Millis calls that the hardest chapter in the book, a statement with which most scientists would agree.