Carl Sagan wrote, “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” But how will humans or our machine representatives fly to the stars?
The Tau Zero Foundation describes itself
as “a volunteer group of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and writers who have agreed to work together toward practical interstellar flight and to use this quest to teach you about science, technology, and our place in the universe.”
The foundation takes its name from Poul Anderson’s 1970 novel
. In the book, a crew find themselves trapped on a runaway spaceship. They approach so close to the speed of light that their experience of time dilation, their tau factor, results in tens of billions of years passing in the outside universe while they experience a handful of years on-board.
The projects envisioned by the Foundation travel at less fantastic speeds, but they still evoke a sense of wonder. The Foundation’s blog Centauri Dreams
, run by Paul Gilster (author of a book
by the same title), reports on various astronomical and aerospace research projects relevant to interstellar exploration.
True to its motto “Ad Astra Incrementis” the Foundation promotes projects that use today’s technology as stepping stones for future interstellar exploration. While Glister notes that breakthough advances
in physics and engineering will always be possible (resulting in warp drives and other exotic means of locomotion), the Foundation focuses on technologies that are in our reach if not our grasp.
Coverage includes both technology already deployed (solar sails
and ion engines
) to theoretical designs (beamed energy sails
and nuclear pulse propulsion
) that could propel a probe at considerable fractions of light speed.
The Foundation considers the technological and cultural infrastructure needed to develop interstellar technologies through the 100 Year Starship Study
and the Project Icaraus
update to the 1970s Project Daedalus conceptual interstellar probe. One project that could serve as an early testbed for interstellar technology is Claudio Maccone's FOCAL project
to send a telescope 550 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun in order to take advantage of Sun’s gravitational lens.
also tracks projects that could provide specific targets for interstellar probes, particularly methods for studying exoplanets that would show evidence of biological activity
, and looking for planets similar to Earth
as well as understanding the range of habital biozones possible around stars unlike our own.
Ultimately the Foundation sees a dual goal
in pursuing interstellar flight:
It touches on the deepest meaning of what we are as a species and our place in the Universe.... The enormous benefits of practical interstellar flight should be obvious. Not only would it free humanity from having just one safe haven, but it would also generate profound technological spin-offs.