For generations, humans have dreamed, speculated, and theorized about the possibility of journeying to distant stars, finding habitable planets around them, and settling down. In time, the children of these bold adventurers would create a new civilization and perhaps even meet the children of Earth. People could eventually journey from one world to another, cultures would mix, and trade and exchanges would become a regular feature. The potential for growth that would come from these exchanges – intellectually, socially, politically, technologically, and economically – would be immeasurable.
Expanding humanity’s reach beyond the Solar System is not just the fevered dream of science fiction writers and futurists. It has also been the subject of very serious scientific research, and interest in the subject is again on the rise. Much like sending crewed missions to Mars, establishing permanent outposts on the Moon, and exploring beyond cislunar space with human astronauts instead of robots – there is a growing sense that interstellar travel could be within reach. But just how ready are we for this bold and adventurous prospect? Whether we are talking about probes vs. crews or technological vs. psychological readiness, is interstellar travel something we are ready to take on?
Today, multiple space agencies are investigating cutting-edge propulsion ideas that will allow for rapid transits to other bodies in the Solar System. These include NASA’s Nuclear-Thermal or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) concepts that could enable transit times to Mars in 100 days (or even 45) and a nuclear-powered Chinese spacecraft that could explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. While these and other ideas could allow for interplanetary exploration, getting beyond the Solar System presents some major challenges.
As we explored in a previous article, it would take spacecraft using conventional propulsion anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years to reach even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (4.25 light-years from Earth). To this end, engineers have been researching proposals for uncrewed spacecraft that rely on beams of directed energy (lasers) to accelerate light sails to a fraction of the speed of light. A new idea proposed by researchers from UCLA envisions a twist on the beam-sail idea: a pellet-beam concept that could accelerate a 1-ton spacecraft to the edge of the Solar System in less than 20 years.
Inspiration for space exploration can come from all corners. One of the most inspiring, or terrifying, sources of inspiration for some in space exploration came from computer science expert John von Neumann, who laid out a framework for self-replicating machines in a series of lectures he gave in 1948. Ever since then, scientists and engineers have been debating the advantages, and the perils, of such a system.
However, while technology has indeed advanced a long way since the 1940s, it still seems like we are still a long way from having a fully functional von Neumann machine. That is unless you turn to biology. Even simple biological systems can perform absolutely mind-blowing feats of chemical synthesis. And there are few people in the world today who know that better than George Church. The geneticist from Harvard has been at the forefront of a revolution in the biological sciences over the last 30 years. Now, he’s published a new paper in Astrobiology musing about how biology could aid in creating a pico-scale system that could potentially explore other star systems at next to no cost.
To stand on a coastal shore and watch how eagles, ravens, seagulls, and crows take flight in high winds. it’s an inspiring sight, to be sure. Additionally, it illustrates an important concept in aerial mechanics, like how the proper angling of wings can allow birds to exploit differences in wind speed to hover in mid-air. Similarly, birds can use these same differences in wind speed to gain bursts of velocity to soar and dive. These same lessons can be applied to space, where spacecraft could perform special maneuvers to pick up bursts of speed from “space weather” (solar wind).
This was the subject of a recent study led by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. By circling between regions of the heliosphere with different wind speeds, they state, a spacecraft would be capable of “dynamic soaring” the same way avian species are. Such a spacecraft would not require propellant (which makes up the biggest mass fraction of conventional missions) and would need only a minimal power supply. Their proposal is one of many concepts for low-mass, low-cost missions that could become interplanetary (or interstellar) explorers.
In the 1960s, American physicist Robert W. Bussard proposed a radical idea for interstellar travel: a spacecraft that relied on powerful magnetic fields to harvest hydrogen directly from the interstellar medium. The high speed of this “ramjet” forces the hydrogen into a progressively constricted magnetic field until fusion occurs. The magnetic field then directs the resulting energy towards the rear of the spacecraft to generate propulsion.
As it’s come to be known, the Bussard Ramjet has since been popularized by hard science fiction writers like Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, and science communicators like Carl Sagan. Unfortunately, a team of physicists recently analyzed the concept in more detail and concluded that Bussard’s idea is not practical. At a time when interstellar travel looks destined to become a real possibility, this analysis might seem like a wet blanket but is more of a reality check.
If you’re a fan of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the Fermi Paradox, then it’s likely you’ve heard of a concept known as the Great Filter. In brief, it states that life in the Universe may be doomed to extinction, either as a result of cataclysmic events or due to circumstances of its own making (i.e., nuclear war, climate change, etc.) In recent years, it has been the subject of a lot of talk and speculation, and not just in academic circles.
Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have also weighed in on the issue, claiming that humanity’s only chance at long-term survival is to become “interplanetary.” Addressing this very possibility, a research team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recently created a timeline for potential human expansion beyond Earth. According to their findings, we have the potential of going interplanetary by the end of the century and intragalactic by the end of the 24th!
In 2016, Russian-American billionaire Yuri Milner founded Breakthrough Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating some of the most enduring mysteries of the Universe. Chief among their scientific efforts is Breakthrough Starshot, a proof-of-concept prototype that combines a lightsail, a nanocraft, and directed energy (aka. laser) propulsion to create a spacecraft capable of reaching the nearest star (Alpha Centauri) in our lifetimes.
Naturally, this presents all sorts of technical and engineering challenges, not the least of which is the amount of power needed to accelerate the spacecraft to relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light). Luckily, scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) recently came up with a design for a directed-energy array made up of millions of individual lasers positioned across the Earth’s surface.
As Carl Sagan once said, “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” And our first emissaries to the stars will be robotic probes. These interstellar probes will be largely autonomous, but we will want to communicate with them. At the very least we will want them to phone home and tell us what they’ve discovered. The stars are distant, so the probes will need to make a very long-distance call.
Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that colonizing other star systems is hazardous to our health!
In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?“
This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Aurora Hypothesis that states that just because planets are habitable doesn’t mean that intelligent life can colonize there.