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Ad Astra Incrementis
May 1, 2012 4:14 AM   Subscribe

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.

Centauri Dreams 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.
posted by audi alteram partem (42 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
The blog post mentions partial requirements as being AI, cryogenic freezing, digitization of human consciousness. I question if these technologies are within our reach.

cstross has written extensibly about various problems for interstellar human space colonization.
posted by zabuni at 4:37 AM on May 1, 2012


Digitization of human consciousness would precludes the requirement for freezing, and given that freezing water turns into ice and sticks crystal spikes through every cell wall it may well be simpler.
posted by jaduncan at 4:59 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you could solve the problems of building a self-sustaining 'world' ship, ie one on which several successive generations of colonists live, I've always thought that the rationale for getting off at the other end might disappear. People might just go on living on the ships indefinitely, with occasional forays to a planet surface to pick up essential minerals or whatever.

Recently it has occurred to me you could make a similar argument about large ocean-going ships, but no-one ever decided they might as well just carry on living on the ship. Maybe they never got quite big enough, and of course Earth's oceans are not big enough to require a multiple generation journey.

Might be a novel in it, though.
posted by Segundus at 5:03 AM on May 1, 2012


The link to FOCAL project appears to be broken.

This all appears to be a bit Fringe sciencey for me. I'm going to need Dr Bishop to talk me through it.
posted by Mezentian at 5:04 AM on May 1, 2012


If digitization of human consciousness is a serious option you might as well include psychic teleportation and have done with it.
posted by Segundus at 5:04 AM on May 1, 2012


Recently it has occurred to me you could make a similar argument about large ocean-going ships, but no-one ever decided they might as well just carry on living on the ship.

It's a current libertarian dream. It's not a bad idea, but I'd want better company than Lord of the Flies types who want to dodge domestic taxes.
posted by jaduncan at 5:16 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Might be a novel in it, though.
posted by sneebler at 5:41 AM on May 1, 2012


From the link to Poul Anderson's novel I ended up at the wikipedia entry for the Bussard ramjet. It has been a while since I learned about these, and several items in the wiki article were new to me: the electrostatic scoop idea, and the idea to get up to speed by tossing out intial booster fuel ahead of time with a railgun.
posted by TreeRooster at 6:02 AM on May 1, 2012


Might be a novel in it, though.

C.M. Kornbluth wrote a short story called "Shark Ship" (originally published as "Reap the Dark Tide") in 1958 about a group of people who take to the sea in huge ships and just keep on going, staying away from land and sustaining themselves by fishing and aquaculture for centuries. Then something goes wrong on one of the ships...

It's a good read, like most of Kornbluth's stuff. You can find a copy online if you Google around a bit.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:15 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Was interested to hear Elon Musk predict yesterday on the BBC that we'll have people on Mars within the next 12 years!
posted by idb at 6:25 AM on May 1, 2012


Forget the cryogenics. Tanks of eggs and sperm, ready to be combined and incubated when the ship is near a Class M planet. Robot nannies take charge until the strongest children take over.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:31 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where do you think Stross gets his research? Well, research on actual space science and engineering, and not the transhumanist mumbo jumbo that populates his space opera. What Gilster follows is the real deal.

(Second to last link is also broken, and Gilster's name is misspelled.)
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 6:41 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Elon Musk predict yesterday on the BBC that we'll have people on Mars within the next 12 years!

Probably technically possible but extremely unlikely.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:25 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is one of the few instances where my personal preference (you might even call it my "faith") is completely at odds with reality. Despite everything I know about general relativity and the vastness of space, I'm perpetually hanging on to the notion that it must somehow be possible to create the kind of implausible universe where we colonize the stars without the need for generation ships, cryogenics, or AIs.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:26 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


@RonButNotStupid
>I'm perpetually hanging on to the notion that it must somehow be possible

And that is why it WILL become possible. No matter what the problem, there will always be another way to look at it. Sure, it might be a thousand times more difficult than the most difficult problem we have ever solved, but technological progress is exponential.

It took a few hundred years from the first coastal fishing boats to true ocean going ships, and a few hundred more years to the first ships that tack around our cosmic coast. It will probably take a few hundred years from the first orbital spacecraft to true deep space ships. We are moving steadily forward at the same relaxed pace as we always did.
posted by EnterTheStory at 7:39 AM on May 1, 2012


I wonder what DaVinci would have imagined if he had been asked: 500 years from now, how will someone in Florence talk instantly to someone in Egypt?

DaVinci's ideas about how this would be done would sound as ridiculous as our ideas now.
posted by Flood at 8:17 AM on May 1, 2012


And that is why it WILL become possible. No matter what the problem, there will always be another way to look at it. Sure, it might be a thousand times more difficult than the most difficult problem we have ever solved, but technological progress is exponential.

Through the power of wanting?

I'm sorry, but the structure of the universe means that moving physical objects at lightspeed is simply not possible. Not merely difficult, like flying machines or diving to the bottom of the ocean.

We are just as likely to discover a way of storing an infinite amount of water in a 1 gallon jug.

To claim otherwise is just a denial of facts, or a misunderstanding of definitions.
posted by General Tonic at 8:22 AM on May 1, 2012


Frankly, I'm glad that our future descendants may be so far-flung in time and space that any parochial insanity could not spread to a whole world (again). What was that thing they used to say about eggs and baskets?
posted by General Tonic at 8:25 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Through the power of wanting?

It should be noted that many of scientists and engineers helped put humans on the moon were huge fans of scifi. They wanted to see those novels become reality pretty bad. They just knew how to put the science to work to make the dreams a reality.

I have no doubt that will continue.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:36 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


but technological progress is exponential.
Really? The scientists that made moonshots a reality were working with a pittance of the energy that interstellar travel needs.
There is a reason big science has done little in the last few decades, and that is because it isn't scaling exponentially at all, rather it plods along arithmetically (e,g. a bigger ring to smash particles).
We made some exponential advances in transistor density for a decade or so, but that is largely done too. Last cab off the rank was bandwidth, and even the amount of info stuffed down a tube is starting to slow its growth.
Does the interstellar rocket ever take off if advances proceed only arithmetically? (I should point out I'm sad about this).
posted by bystander at 8:53 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have no doubt that will continue.
Somebody isn't clapping their hands, that is the only explanation!
posted by bystander at 8:54 AM on May 1, 2012


My humor chip is out on repair, can you translate, please?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:57 AM on May 1, 2012


It should be noted that many of scientists and engineers helped put humans on the moon were huge fans of scifi. They wanted to see those novels become reality pretty bad.

Yes, but there was never anything about going to the moon which violated physical law.

I'm not saying humans will never visit or colonize other star systems, just that it will be done slower than light, and no amount of hand-wavy appeals to inspiration and historical precedent can change the laws of physics.
posted by General Tonic at 9:01 AM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'll never forget reading "To Outlive Eternity" (the 1967 Galaxy story the novel is based on) during a long car trip—it blew my teenage mind. Alas, I don't expect to live to see humans leave the solar system, which is a goddam shame.
posted by languagehat at 9:22 AM on May 1, 2012


I'm not saying humans will never visit or colonize other star systems, just that it will be done slower than light, and no amount of hand-wavy appeals to inspiration and historical precedent can change the laws of physics.

I'm saying it. We will not send people to other star systems. Robots, yes.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:56 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


We could start a project to send a probe to Alpha Centauri now, if we were willing to fund it. The problem is keeping that funding on a project that will span generations, and whose ultimate payoff won't be known until the people who decided to build the thing are long dead.

But that difficulty is also what makes it one of the most interesting problems we can imagine. Nearly every technology we could come up to decrease the cost and improve the odds of success would have benefits elsewhere, and ultimately all it requires of us are energy and time.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:27 AM on May 1, 2012


One Hundred Year Starship Initiative website has gone live:

http://100yss.org

No t-shirts or bumper stickers yet though.
posted by newdaddy at 10:41 AM on May 1, 2012


cstross has written extensibly about various problems for interstellar human space colonization.
From that:
The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.

Is he high? Does he not understand value?
If I labour my entire life to build something for someone (such as my generation's contribution to our civilization), that thing has value to me. And its persistence has value to me; I would not struggle to build it except that it benefits others.

He proposes that it should not matter to me if my labours are wasted instead of benefiting the people I laboured for, merely because I won't personally know my labour was wasted? I think at a very fundamental level he is not comprehending a large chunk of humanity. Or value.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:46 AM on May 1, 2012


The problem is keeping that funding on a project that will span generations, and whose ultimate payoff won't be known until the people who decided to build the thing are long dead.

FWIW, my understanding is that society has been doing this for hundreds (if not thousands?) of years. Many times the architect (and peers) of a bridge or cathedral would expect to be alive to see its completion, but not always.

The Denmark military, predicting the forests would be thinned but the navy would need wood for shipbuilding, planted great oak forests that would not be harvestable for 300 years. etc. (I imagine that shipbuilding technology advanced enough during that time, as did environmental degradation, that the forests acquired considerable non-military value.)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:54 AM on May 1, 2012


I'm sorry, but the structure of the universe means that moving physical objects at lightspeed is simply not possible. Not merely difficult, like flying machines or diving to the bottom of the ocean.

You know, I always thought so, too, but then you read science fiction stories with wormholes and space bending, and you think to yourself,"Come on! How do you come up with that stuff?"

From Science, that's where.

You don't actually have to travel faster than light in any one star system if you can just find a shortcut that goes between them.

So now I never say "never". Because when even Stephen Hawking waffles on this, and now feels interstellar travel could happen, who am I to deny the possibility?
posted by misha at 12:22 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


We made some exponential advances in transistor density for a decade or so, but that is largely done too. Last cab off the rank was bandwidth, and even the amount of info stuffed down a tube is starting to slow its growth.

Boy, I can't say how unimaginative, misinformed and just plain pessimistic this is. For one thing, just yesterday someone posted to the arxiv the first credible paper describing an "optic transistor". Here;

http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.5515

To quote Richard Feynman, "There's plenty of room at the bottom." Plenty of smart people are working at any time of the day or night on faster computers, better communications networks, novel energy systems, propulsion systems, new materials. I have a great deal of faith that the Singularity is coming, even if it's not on schedule.
posted by newdaddy at 12:28 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Through the power of wanting?

I'm sorry, but the structure of the universe means that moving physical objects at lightspeed is simply not possible.


You don't need to travel at lightspeed to get a ship across the galaxy inside the span of a human passenger's lifetime. Not just to the nearest star, but literally across the galaxy.

It's physics. The obstacles are engineering and resources, not the structure of the universe.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:15 PM on May 1, 2012


You don't even need a shortcut or wormhole. You can do it travelling from A to B, across thousands of lightyears, travelling at less than the speed of light, because the frames of reference are relative, and they're not the ones that actually come into play when you do this.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:19 PM on May 1, 2012


As cool as travelling to the stars would be, I'd just be happy at us expanding into the rest of the solar system. Lunar and Martian bases. The Jovian moons. The Belt. Or heck, let's settle the rest of our planet. Orbital wells. Undersea and underground cities. Even if the surface is destroyed, we can go into the vaults! Or to Antarctica.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:01 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


My humor chip is out on repair, can you translate, please?
Belief and hand clapping will save Tinkerbell, but they won't be enough to rewrite physics.
Having faith in progress has been useful while it was technologies being applied science, but hoping that those technology applications will continue to the point where they can alter physics is wishful thinking.
Rockets to the moon extrapolated bigger propulsion systems and newtonian physics. Travel to the stars requires our understanding of physics to be wrong. The first is achievable with hard work, the second isn't.
posted by bystander at 5:08 PM on May 1, 2012


Travel to the stars requires our understanding of physics to be wrong. I don't believe there's anything in generally accepted physics that precludes humans travelling to other stars. Can you tell me what you mean here specifically? I'm not trying to be snide, I just really am not seeing what is the crux of your argument.
posted by newdaddy at 10:10 PM on May 1, 2012


Bystander is mistaken about physics. Or Nasa is. One of those two. :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:52 AM on May 2, 2012


Travel to the stars requires our understanding of physics to be wrong.

Man, someone should tell those "astronomers" that. Otherwise I'd get confused and think that's the kind of journey that the photons in the telescope just came from!
posted by jaduncan at 1:55 AM on May 2, 2012


Considering that we can barely even get half-$billion satellites into orbit reliably (remember GLORY holing?), this whole interstellar discussion (while stimulating, don't get me wrong) is largely academic. We don't really know much about what's out there.

John Grunsfeld, astronaut (SciFri MP3) admitted last week: "Getting to Mars is extremely hard." Ask anyone who's actually tried. (Fingers crossed for August.) Sending someone there before we know a LOT more would be cruel, a waste of money, and aspiration-killing.
posted by Twang at 2:11 AM on May 2, 2012


I have a great deal of faith that the Singularity is coming

That and $5 will get you a cup of coffee.
posted by Twang at 2:16 AM on May 2, 2012


I find it interesting in discussions of interstellar exploration how often human space travel and remote probe travel are conflated. It's true that we barely have the technology to send humans to Mars, yet we already have one probe entering interstellar space.

Even the current impossibilities of human interstellar travel are challenges of engineering, not fundamental physics, though they may be insurmountable challenges. As -harlequin- notes, in theory if you get a ship up to a good fraction of c (and manage not to fry its human crew with radiation), there's no reason they can't explore other star systems.

One argument the Tau Zero Foundation makes, and one I find persuasive, is that in pursuing technologies that would aid interstellar exploration would have benefits for research and travel in our solar system and here back home in the comfy gravity well of earth.
posted by audi alteram partem at 4:56 AM on May 2, 2012


Bystander is mistaken about physics. Or Nasa is. One of those two. :-)
Is there a plan from NASA for how you can do some interstellar travel?
Sure, we can hurl a probe out of the solar system, and I am fantastically pleased we did that, and would support doing it again, but you are never going to the stars.
posted by bystander at 2:33 PM on May 2, 2012


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