Friday, March 2, 2012

Fueling the dream of travel to the stars

Interstellar travel is a fantasy of many children, and believe it or not, the ambition of some scientists. Photo from 2008 Maker Faire by Jim Merithew/

Human space technology may be limited, but human dreams are not. Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz was among the ex-astronauts, engineers, artists, theologians, students and science-fiction writers who celebrated that paradox during the 100 Year Starship Study (100YSS) conference last fall in Orlando.

Think robots in space, nuclear fission, solar-powered sails. These are just a few of the ideas being bandied about for making interstellar travel a reality.

In a report on the conference for a recent issue of Physics World, Perkowitz describes what it was like to be immersed in “humanity’s adventurous, stubborn, mad and glorious aspiration to reach the stars.” Following is an eScienceCommons interview, about the dreamers and doers pushing at our horizons.

eScienceCommons: Who is behind the 100YSS and the conference?

Sidney Perkowitz: It was organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA is famous for being willing to sponsor off-the-wall ideas, because you never know where basic research will take you. Supposedly, they’ve looked into things like telepathy and telekinesis, pure science-fiction stuff. But DARPA points out that research into space travel has brought advancements in technologies with civilian applications, like robotics, batteries and new materials. DARPA doesn’t necessarily believe that someone will build a starship, but the effort to do so could provide some useful spin-offs.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour'srobotic arm hovers over Earth's horizon, before a starburst from the Sun. Photo by NASA.

eSC: What kind of people attended the starship conference?

Perkowitz: All kinds. Mae Jemison was there. She is a former NASA astronaut and the first black woman to travel in space. Among the many things she’s involved with is a program encouraging young people to go into science.

I met another scientist, a Georgia Tech graduate interested in founding a company to sweep up all the human-made space debris floating around the Earth. And I heard a talk by an Iranian woman who had come up with the money to become one of the few civilians to go into space. She said that once you’ve done that, you never think about Earth in the same way.

There were a couple of visual artists there, who felt they would be inspired by hearing more about space travel, and a lot of science fiction writers. A theologian at the conference gave an interesting talk about space travel being a kind of spiritual expansion, like going beyond the roof of a cathedral. Another theologian made a complicated argument about the nature of evil and redemption, and how they might apply to life on other planets.

The ideas of some people at the conference were completely off the wall, but who knows? You should always have some visionaries around. Some of them will be wrong, but some of them will be right.

An artist's impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. Art by European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser.

eSC: How realistic is it that we could ever reach even one of the closest stars to the sun, more than 4 light years away?

Perkowitz: I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. The distances are so great, I’m not sure that technology will ever match them. But I believe that we should keep trying, just like we should keep trying to cure cancer. I think the dream of interstellar travel is important to the human race.

Unmanned space probes armed with telescopes and other instruments have allowed us to learn more about the solar system during the last 20 years than we have during the previous 2,000 years. The discovery of exo-planets has changed our whole conception of the universe. We used to think there were nine planets, then eight because they demoted Pluto. The latest findings suggest that there are actually more planets in our galaxy than stars. That’s phenomenal, and it opens up the possibility of extraterrestrial life by a factor of millions.

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