NEXT: Is This the Starship Century?
Our ancestors gazed at a night sky filled from horizon to horizon with brilliant stars. Were they dreaming of reaching for the cosmos even before they were fully human?
Interstellar voyages with today’s technology would take thousands or even tens of thousands of years. We’re not there yet, but some of the smartest people on our planet are working on ways we can conquer the final frontier.
Propulsion by energy beam, warp drive and other technologies are being researched with encouragement from NASA and other organizations. To explain what it all means, host Mat Kaplan of KPCC's science series, "NEXT: People | Science | Tomorrow," sat down to talk with some of the brightest minds in physics and science fiction Wednesday at the KPCC Crawford Family Forum.
Read highlights from the program:
Why would we want to reach the stars?
Gregory Benford, PhD, professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine: In this universe, it really matters, because stars aren't immortal. Eventually if humanity can persist for, let's say 5 billion years, we're going to be needing another star. But that's a kind of dumb, utilitarian answer. Because the stars are hanging there and beckoning to us, is the short answer.
But there's an even better way to put it: there are three variety of chimpanzee. There's the ordinary chimp, the Bonobo chimp — they still live in Africa. We're the chimp that got out of Africa because built into our bones is going over the horizon. I think if you wondered if there's a long-term, particular agenda or meaning to human action, it would be that our great drive is to expand human horizons, in every sense of the word. Not just our capabilities, our arts and sciences, our philosophies — but the literal horizons.
The above slide, which is included in the book Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, shows an estimate of how far we are from the next nearest star.
Do we have the technologies that might be able to get us, or at least our robots, to the stars?
Gregory Benford: I believe we do. Certainly for our robots. At the moment, the most probable method of getting a pioneering craft into the vicinity of a nearby star … [are] lightweight devices called [solar] 'sails' — you sail around in sunlight. In 2015, NASA is going to fly the first sail, manufactured by L'Garde corporation down in Irvine as a matter of fact, to [go] beyond the L1 point to use as a warning beacon of approaching solar storms. And they're going to do it using a sail, a sail which is about 35 meters across, and that's a practical use for a very lightweight device that weighs as much as a human being.
If you take sails and then fly them very close to the sun, then expose them to the sun and get a good boost out … you can get very high velocities leaving the solar system. You can send sailcraft out to explore the far regions beyond where Voyager is now, and you can do it fairly soon in a scale of a decade or two.
The likelihood of inhabiting other planets, and why it's likely to happen:
James Benford, PhD: President of Lafayette, California-based Microwave Sciences, Inc.: We find planets in habitable zones and they fall into two classes: those that don't apparently have any life — we can't detect any chemistry out of equilibrium — and those that do have a chemistry out of equilibrium and may have some form of life. Both cases are interesting.
The first case you can colonize without fear, because they could have the available land mass and oceans and yet life didn't originate there. And if life did exist, the other class of planets, then we would go to observe them because we'd see another ecosystem and perhaps, hopefully another civilization.
So all the cases you can think of for planets in habitable zones are going to be interesting to us, and therefore ultimately we're going [to] either colonize them or to study them. And I think you can do a lot robotically, but as we're finding ultimately on Mars, after a while you gotta move beyond robots and you've got to send people.
This slide above shows a solar sail traveling at a great velocity.
The above slide shows the speeds required to reach other stars so that a spacecraft (such as a solar sail) can arrive at a reasonable timeframe, say 100 years.
Mat Kaplan: host of KPCC’s science series, “NEXT: People | Science | Tomorrow;” host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society.
Gregory Benford, PhD: professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and has served as an advisor to the Department of Energy, NASA and the White House Council on Space Policy. A prolific science fiction writer, he is author of over twenty novels, including Jupiter Project, Artifact, Against Infinity, Eater, and Timescape.
James Benford, PhD: President of Lafayette, California-based Microwave Sciences, Inc., which provides contracting and consulting services in High Power Microwaves. His expertise includes high power microwave systems from conceptual designs to hardware, microwave source physics, electromagnetic power beaming for space propulsion, and experimental intense particle beams.
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“NEXT: People | Science | Tomorrow “-- the Crawford Family Forum series on the convergence of science, technology and society.
With contributions by Luis Gomez. This event was produced by Janice Watje-Hurst