Do You Have Ideas for Deep Space Travel? NASA Wants to Hear from You

by Paul Scott Anderson on October 27, 2011

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Artist's conception of solar sail in orbit. Credit: NASA

You’ve probably heard by now how NASA is going to focus more on deep space exploration, both manned and robotic, leaving the low-Earth orbit and suborbital realms to commercial companies, a major change. There is, however, an opportunity for public input for deep space exploration as well, thanks to a new initiative for competitive ideas from universities, students, companies and government agencies. This means that you may have a chance to forward your proposals to help solve the problems that will need to be resolved in the coming years.

NASA’s new technology offices are getting ready to spend millions of dollars, it was announced at a seminar held last Monday as part of the Von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA is hoping to get between $375 million and $560 million in the fiscal year 2012 budget, which would be enough for competition prizes of $1 million or more.

“We have a space technology program, and there’s some money behind it,” Marshall Chief Technologist Andrew Keys said at the seminar.

The new heavy-lift rocket being designed will initially cost $1 billion or more, and still use proven conventional technology for its first planned launch in 2017. But as those first rockets are then replaced by larger ones, technological challenges will have to be overcome for new, better boosters to be designed, for example, which will ne necessary to take human farther into deep space to places like Mars.

The solar sail is also a good example of new technology, which is much different from conventional rockets, using the pressure of photons emitted from the Sun for propulsion, a very novel idea which is now being proven to be both possible and useful.

As in other facets of business and technology, competition will be a good thing, helping to bring out the best ideas and concepts from a larger knowledge pool, allowing the space industry to move more quickly and efficiently into the solar system and beyond. We may not have Star Trek-style warp speed yet, but the future is looking bright for space exploration, a future that can be better shared by all of us.

About 

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.

M October 27, 2011 at 8:49 PM

I suggest that they read Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. It sets out several scenarios for deep space travel.
This and other Sagan books are now available from Amazon Kindle (US residents only)

Anonymous October 30, 2011 at 5:39 AM

Actually, the author Dan Simmons has a couple of suggestions too. In his Hyperion-series he suggests dragging singularities behind spaceeships to create corridors for later travelers to use. It’s a ‘next step’ thing though – and i have no idea if physics will allow it.

Anonymous October 27, 2011 at 9:15 PM

If you are going to go somewhere far and fast, you want to reduce the payload. Computers use millions of atoms of doped silicon per transistor, where it may be possible to use a few atoms of carbon in the right arrangement. You could send back information coded in molecules that do not spread out, rather than radio signals that do.

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 2:25 AM

At that point your bit (0, 1) becomes quantum mechanical and whether your computer is registering a 0 or 1 is no longer boolean, but a quantum probability.

LC

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 7:52 AM

All states are quantum probabilities to some extent. However, if you have a 10 eV band gap, such as you can get with i-carbon (old figure – may be out of date now), you can be pretty sure what state it is in over a reasonable time. I think we ought to be able to make a conventional computer out of carbon. If the atoms themselves move, then we can probably make a very permanent bit.

If we are going to send out a solar sail with a computer and camera to neighbouring stars, then the sail can accelarate us away from Sol, and decelerate at the other end. Rather than transmit the data of what it has found, with all the power that would take, it could just turn around and sail back again. That would need a lot of ‘intelligence’ on the on-board computer to manage a mission lasting decades with no possibility of back-up, and a lot of memory for all the images and data. However, if we can get down to a few atoms per bit, we could have Avogadro’s number of bits for a few tens of grams.

Torbjörn Larsson October 28, 2011 at 11:52 AM

lcrowell is correct of course. Even if you try to capture information with chemistry, bond breaking and reforming will destroy it over time by quantum effects alone. Never mind cosmic radiation (CR). Carbon bonds can go to ~ 800 kJ/mole or ~ 8 eV.

As a comparison, diamond which is the carbon allotrope with the largest band gap is ~ 5 eV. Graphene has ~ 0 eV. I have never heard of “i-carbon”.

Today most electronics are handling such energy densities of course. The difference is that while the active volumes may well be down to quantum levels, the overall structures are still nanosized. Even so CR beats the stuffing out of them, and they have to be restarted and memory refreshed.

It is also an unfair comparison. Single photons can encode a lot of information, “more than our passwords” according to researchers that want to try them for secure communication. (But of course only for short distance war situations.)

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 12:16 PM

This responds to msg below to prevent the “narrow column problem.”

Computing on the level of the atom by necessity involves quantum computing. The standard classical bit structure {0, 1} is replaced by

|?> = 1/sqrt{2}(|0> + e^{i?}|1>)

which is a superposition of the two on and off states in some two state system. The two states (a quantum bit or qubit) might be the electronic states of some atom. If there are numerous atoms the general state is an n-partite entanglement of states.

Already quantum key encryption exists. A quantum state of some bit stream is entangled to an ancillary state so that any attempt by a third party to eavesdrop on the message is detected by the demolition of the entanglement. The quantum states involve photons in fiber optics. So there is a prospect for the more general quantum computer. Lab bench trial systems have involved ions in a laser trap, and more potentially realistic systems with solid state physics are being worked on. So far qubits with nitrogen atoms in a carbon-diamond matrix seems to be the most promising.

The quantum computer will for my interest be a boon for simulating quantum gravity. Beyond some scientific applications the potential for global implementation of quantum computers is somewhat troubling. If you think the world is exponentially getting complicated you have seen nothing compared to what the quantum computer will bring. The quantum computer can compute some algorithms which take a time T in a time T’ ~ log(T). The exception appears to be with n-complete algorithms, where quantum computers speed them up but in a bounded polynomial time. A future world with quantum computers will make today’s world look like a lazy walk on a Sunday afternoon.

LC

Geology Lovell October 27, 2011 at 10:00 PM

You bet I have ideas but will not cost you anything because I want so much for you to do well. Trust me if you ever trust anyone. Over 30 years ago I discovered that Earth has a way of recording images of people, Animals and events etc. I found how to get these images from the worlds past that must go all the way back in time to the beginning.
There is no one in the world that can do or understand the things I have done unless they see this in person. I insist I can and will show you how this works in person and that there are others that try and tell you about faces they see on planets etc. but none of them have much of a clue at how this works I spent every day hours for over 30 years and this is so important for you and the world. I can show you how to tell if there is or was ever life on a planet and if they had any technology because I can get images of the objects. If you will not believe me then at least let me know of or see new images as they come in. I could inform you of things I find and you can ignore me if you want to but it would be great for you to know. I can show you how to get images all day long every day. Would you like to see Giant creatures from the past in the flesh ? Because of the way this works you can not get images of ancient life everywhere because images have been recording for many years so it has overwritten many images where there is heavy traffic but if you go to more remote places you have a good chance to get much older images.These images are etched into Dirt Rock and even trees. I would have to show you for you to understand what I am talking about. I have emailed you , news Media, Scientist , etc. for many years now and will not stop because it is so important that you know and you can send your rovers to visit planets first and see. Now I have found very human looking people on Titan or at least very good pictures of them and for a long time I did not think there was any people on Mars because there was no signs of them BUT! that has changed. I found that they must live under ground if they are still alive because I have found at least two entrances and images of people at the entrances. By the way. You should consider a Magnetic catapault from the moon so you take the equipment to the moon then launch. I know you will consider me crazy but it would be your loss because I know what I discover is real and put it through all sorts of test to make sure.

Anonymous October 27, 2011 at 10:37 PM

Missouri.

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 2:17 AM

Definitely Texas…

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 2:39 AM

Nah. ‘Missouri’ as in ‘show me…’

Preferably with Sagan’s ‘extraordinary evidence.’

Nathan October 27, 2011 at 10:39 PM

I wouldn’t mind trying some of your ‘way of looking at people on rocks’. But that stuff is illegal. Dob’t send a letter to the DEA.

metamaterials October 28, 2011 at 2:57 AM

Please NASA launch a spacecraft that will orbit the sun along the direction of the suns motion in the spiral arm around the galaxy. Have plasma detection instruments and determine if there is an exchange of matter and ionized charge between the sun and the interstellar medium plasma ISM on a streaming course inside filaments wrapping around our galaxy. Search for carbon nanotubes, graphenes, and buckyballs in the spiral arms of our galaxy, and nearest supernova in our galaxy.

Torbjörn Larsson October 28, 2011 at 11:55 AM

There are no signs of magnetic “filaments wrapping around our galaxy”, rather chaotic structures on the images astronomers present us here.

The search for organics is old and ongoing.

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 3:36 AM

Everything in the universe goes around circles,therein lies the secret to deep space travel.If ya can’t beat um join um.The space ship as to be built where the cabin is stationary,but the propulsion method would have to be spining around.I think there is a way the speed could be amplified and give the warp speed we need.How we would get spinning propulsion,I am not a rocket scientest and do not have that answer.

Fynder Enlil October 28, 2011 at 3:46 AM

Longshot and Daedalus, without a doubt, time to send a probe to Alpha Centaurus. Task 1 has to be breaking the light second to the moon. New Horizons did it in 8 hours, get a vehicle to the moon in a second and Rigel Centaurus is four years away. Such a task though is better suited to planetary exploration. NASA has got to stop sending single probes to the planets, send buses, that carry numerous orbiters and lander/rovers. The establishment of an interplanetary internet. And hubble scale SOHO’s to targets like the great attractor, Sag A*, the center of the Virgo supercluster, that can constantly monitor and map deep space and our directionology. nothing like all the space out there with plenty to miss. metamaterials comment a probe forward to our orbit around Sag A* a Lagrange telescope and these missions should be run on a continuum with the Pioneer and Voyager probes, so we have forward aft, forward up and down, we don’t have probes galactic center, galactic north and south, (mapping the local chimney) and galactic anti-center. as far as manned space flight, we need an international lunar station, (building on the success of the ISS) that should involve UNOOSA and UNCOSA to include developing nations, and lunar base Alpha, the next person on the moon, should be a women.

FrankMonday October 28, 2011 at 5:08 AM

You are still asking for a propulsion system that hits light speed. As soon as you put the word “light” in front of a specific time, you are asking for the speed of light, be it a second, hour, day, or year.
Einstein gets in the way of light speed travel. As the ship approaches the SOL, its mass becomes infinite.
There is also time dilation to contend with. Sure the folks on the ship will experience time “normally”. They will get to the Moon in 1 second (although they would probably become stains on the bulkhead due to inertia and other pesky physical issues) or the star in 4 years. Back here at home app. 40 years (I don’t know the formula off the top of my head) will have passed. Not too bad, although Mission Control will be manned by the children of the people at the initial launch. Once you get into tens of LYRS, the descendants of the people will be there to welcome you home. That is as long as there were no huge changes on Earth like an apocalypse.

The best option for getting to the stars using known physics is “warp drive”. This is where the ship doesn’t even move. Space is folded between the origin and the destination. Since the ship doesn’t move it doesn’t violate the SOL limit. There is no time dilation either, so you got that going for you. The issue becomes the energy needed to warp space and it is huge, like the power of a small sun. We are at least a century away and that’s optimistic.

There is a sense amongst laypersons that these challenges are close to being solved. This is simply not the case. many think all it requires is a huge budget and the best minds. Nope. We need a “new physics” that takes us beyond current science. We still haven’t wrangled relativity and quantum mechanics yet, let alone harnessing the power of a sun.

Sorry to be such a bummer but we all should really think realistically about this particular topic. I’m not saying that we just throw our hands in the air and call it a day. We should be doing the advanced theoretical work which will lead to interstellar travel in the future. It is just that though, theoretical. A couple of guys are not going to build a warp drive in the garage anytime soon.

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 8:16 AM

While ‘warp drives’ and such make for good SF, the likely fact is that any ‘new physics’ will have a considerable overlap with the current ‘old physics’. There might be something wholly new out there, but it will probably be subtle. In a way, this may be a good thing. We are separated from quasars, but we can look at them from a safe distance. If we could jump to any spot in the universe, then everything else would be connected to us too, and I guess stuff could jump the other way.

Maybe we will have to change our concepts of time and exploration. A thousand years is a long time for us today, but most of the rest of space will be pretty much the same. If something is going to explore other galaxies, then perhaps it will have to go to sleep for a hundred million years or so, and take a memory of the civilization that built it with it.

In the meantime, we have seven billion people on one planet. If we want to go to the stars, then the first thing to do is to figure out how to stabilize our presence here, so we have the sort of time it will take to go there. This isn’t intended as gloomy preaching of the ‘ooh, mankind, it’s so terrible and dirty!’ sort – just basic project management.

FrankMonday October 28, 2011 at 5:14 AM

I meant to clarify a point – light takes longer than 1 second to hit the Moon. In other words, you don’t get to the Moon in 1 light-second.

Torbjörn Larsson October 28, 2011 at 12:15 PM

To be fair, it is near enough, Moon semi-major axis is ~ 3.8*106 km [Wikipedia] so it will take ~ 1.3 s. I think we should read the claim as breaking the rounded figure for the (unphysical) demo.

Prof. Michael O. Zimmermann Ph October 28, 2011 at 10:48 AM

No matter what the critics and pessimists bring up, I am certain we will solve interstellar, maybe even intergalactic, space travel eventually. For now we must do with what science can offer!

I am for an ion ion drive/solar sail combo to the nearest solar system containing planets in the habitable zone. Space contains some of the fuels needed and the solar sail can act also as a collector.
In addition we should attempt to establish footholds/stations (manned or unmanned) on some of the solar systems moons, beginning with our own, asteroid belt objects, and Mars. Terra-forming could be started in small increments to improve object-conditions over the long run, e.g. bacteria in various forms to produce needed gases…

Instead of building walls of ethical arguments we should build trust in our joint cognitive abilities. Religious beliefs are not to be used as an argument against a planetary civilization, but for it!
We are after all the only advanced civilization in our solar system (unless someone here has knowledge to the contrary) ;-)

Voyager 1 and 2 are approaching interstellar space with “old” technology. With today’s technology we could do much better. To do that we must pool human resources, invite private investors and give the leadership to science, not national interests.

I am aware that my comment is unscientific but don’t all great things start with an idea…? for some of the ideas we then develop the technology or improve on existing capabilities.

We can do it!

squidgeny October 28, 2011 at 12:00 PM

I would like to see work towards artifical gravity in space. A good starting step would be a habitation module tethered to a heavier counter-weight, rotating about their common centre of mass.

Torbjörn Larsson October 28, 2011 at 12:05 PM

If only I had fresh ideas, not odds and ends that is picked from what is already out there. So many people have thought about this topic already.

But sure, I will take my brain for a spin on this.

technological challenges will have to be overcome for new, better boosters to be designed, for example, which will ne necessary to take human farther into deep space to places like Mars.

They are not necessary for Mars or, since we now know about the low energy requirement for interplanetary travel, elsewhere in the system.

In fact, I think Musk does a valid showcase how smaller, Falcon Heavy sized, launchers maximize ROI for liquid fuels.

If you can use nuclear engines the mass would presumably go up several orders of magnitude, IIRC the best ROI for an Orion is city size mass. However they seem to be excluded due to misguided concerns where release of AGW gases are taken as less an environmental risk than radioactivity. :-[

Nathan October 28, 2011 at 12:53 PM

If you wanna get somewhere fast take the 1982 Chevy Camaro.

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 1:12 PM

I think this call involves interplanetary exploration. Interstellar stuff is probably not on the table here. I mention below some of the physics which involves warp drives below and the matter of how things can go faster than light under certain circumstances. I think as with my book on sending probes to other stars that the best approach to propulsion may be to construct large Fresnel lenses that collimate solar photons onto a sail. This permits one to boost a payload to the outer regions of the solar system. It might also be a way to push a large spacecraft meant for human exploration out to Mars or even Jupiter. Once the large craft is in orbit around the destination the piloted crew is sent there in a small craft with a VASMIR propulsion system. This small craft can reach velocities of 1000km/sec or so which reaches the large spacecraft in a few weeks. This prevents some of the problems with radiation exposure and the need for extensive provisions and life support for a multi-year mission.

Things can travel faster than light if there is a dynamics to space itself which permits this. The two circumstances for this are the universe itself and black holes. An observer can fall into a black hole and cross the horizon in a finite time period. This observer has passed light speed and is trapped in the black hole. This observer can see the outside world, but they can’t send a signal to the outside. By way of contrast observer on the outside sees an object falling into a black hole locally Lorentz boosted, where its clocks slow down and light emitted by this object is red shifted. The exterior observer never sees this object actually reach the even horizon.

The universe itself is similar. There is a cosmological event horizon. In a certain choice of coordinates the spacetime has a metric

ds^2 = Adt^2 – A^{-1}[dr^2 + r^2d?^2]

for A = (1 – ?r^2/3), for ? the cosmological constant. The metric element A = 0 for r = sqrt{3/?}, which is where the cosmological horizon is. At this distance the velocity of galaxies moving outwards by v = Hd is the speed of light and the red shift factor is z = 1. This involves space expanding so that any two points on that space with some distance d move apart at v = Hd. The one thing which is similar to the black hole is that this does not involve two objects passing by each other or colliding (eg a scatter experiment) at velocities equal to or surpassing the speed of light.

What I did some calculations on is the prospect that we could excite the quantum states of the vacuum so that there is a dilaton or inflaton factor which sets up an anisotropic expansion of space. This way the space expands outwards at a much faster rate along a cone or beam. So we have ? = ?(?, ?) or some such dependency. If this were done then a spacecraft is driven by this “space flow” to speeds greater than light. However, this runs into some troubles, for the deformed cosmological horizon in this beam becomes “hot” with Unruh like radiation and is not stable.

LC

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 5:16 PM

You have to first build a fuel station on the moon, and launch from there. Fuel can be made with the water on the moon.

metamaterials October 28, 2011 at 6:35 PM

Anything traveling close to light speed over a long course to another star, would have to avoid hitting tiny pebbles and rocks that would vaporize in the collision. We assume outer space is empty, and the Voyager’s are not traveling very fast to be damaged.

Anonymous October 28, 2011 at 9:29 PM

The travelling is not the problem, but you will never see your family and friends ever again unless you take them with you because of time dilation. I can imagine that in the future we have technology that could grow mega-spacecraft and have a group of 1000 or 10,000 settlers take off to another star. Pioneers.

Stephen Russell October 29, 2011 at 2:59 PM

Go Interplanetary alone, IE have Commercial Space reuse the Moon.
Send in Perm Orbital Array over Mars for later habitation.
All else use a Next Gen Voyager class Probes for Deep Space.
Yes Next Gen Voyager probes.

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