DARPA Crowdsources Interstellar Travel

Geek Culture

Last August, a bunch of Star Wars fans pestered NASA about a timetable for building a hyperdrive engine. Maybe someone was listening.

In May, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) opened up the discussion by soliciting new ideas for how to make self-sustaining space travel practical and feasible. The intent was to re-energize interest in interstellar travel in private sectors. Their “100 Year Starship Study” challenge (@100yss ) was answered with 150 submissions for the half-million-dollar prize. Presentations will be made in the fall at a conference in Florida, and DARPA will decide by November who gets the cash.

The nearest star is 25 trillion miles away. With our current space tech, that means a 4,000-year one-way trip. According to David Neyland, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, this is about more than improving rocket technology, colonizing nearby planets, or sending robots into deep space. The winning group will be able to use that grant money to investigate all of the issues the come with interstellar travel, such as coping with extended life in space, resource management, self-reliance, and ethics.

The RFI may be closed, but there is still time to submit an abstract (deadline: July 8) for what looks to be a cool conference in Orlando:

“This won’t just be another space technology conference – we’re hoping that ethicists, lawyers, science fiction writers, technologists and others, will participate in the dialog to make sure we’re thinking about all the aspects of interstellar flight,” said David Neyland, director of the Tactical Technology Office for DARPA. “This is a great opportunity for people with interesting ideas to be heard, which we believe will spur further thought, dreaming and innovation.”

Source: DARPA, June 15, 2011

Where No One Has Gone Before

Future spacefolk will have to know where to set their course when they engage whatever hyperdrive gets built. Penn State’s Jim Kasting has a few ideas on what makes a good destination planet. His book, How to Find a Habitable Planet, explains how his NASA research might one day detect distant worlds capable of sustaining life. Another option might be failed stars, according to Romanian researcher Viorel Badescu. Lacking the ability to generate energy through nuclear fusion, sub-brown dwarfs and free-floating planets radiate heat internally, making them difficult to detect but possibly life-supporting.

The Voyager probes comprise the furthest exploration thus far. Voyager I first entered the heliosheath back in 2005, and our understanding of the edge of our solar system has been changing ever since. Earlier this month, scientists used Voyager data to model huge magnetic bubbles where the solar winds slow and collide with the background material of space. The original missions of these spacecraft involved fly-bys of Jupiter and Saturn, but they were engineered to operate in regions of space where power from the Sun through solar panels was not possible. Instead, they support their systems with thermoelectric generators that produce electricity from heat, generated by the natural decay of plutonium dioxide. Until that runs out, we’ll continue to collect new information about our own corner of the universe.

Exploring the stars in yet-to-be-imagined space ships is a long way off, but maybe we can start by recapturing control of our own night skies. DARPA may want to make the universe a smaller place, but I’d settle for being able to look up at the stars and reflect on how big the place actually is.

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