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    At the Institute for Interstellar Studies, Researchers Unite to Conquer Deep Space

    Written by

    Chris Hatherill

    

For six decades, warring factions of space nerds have toiled away on various plans for heading out into deep space to explore the stars. Now, as Voyager 1 exits our solar system, a new interstellar alliance hopes to unite these efforts and kick things up a notch, finally taking us beyond Pluto and on towards our rightful place in the galaxy: zooming around colonizing other star systems.

    The brand spanking new Institute for Interstellar Studies brings together researchers, designers and space scientists from separate groups ranging from The British Interplanetary Society (the godfathers of interstellar travel) to the Tau Zero Foundation, a US-based charity which promotes research and education. Beyond a slick website and plans for an educational academy, the group includes impressive advisors like Freeman Dyson, originator of the ginormous sun-encircling sphere idea which bears his name. There is also a list of research efforts with awesome names ranging from Project SENTINEL to Project Quantum Light, one if which is looking for a project lead if you have some extra time on your hands.

    
So will the new agency make a difference? We caught up with Kelvin Long, one of the group’s directors and author of Deep Space Propulsion: A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight to find out.

    What is the significance of launching the Institute now?

    Although science fiction has written about travelling to other star systems for over a century, the first attempt to characterize the technical challenge of interstellar travel in a physics and engineering context was only written 60 years ago by Dr Les Shepherd, the former President of the British Interplanetary Society, which is the oldest space organization in the world.

    

Since then, scientists and space enthusiasts have written papers, articles and even books exploring the various problems and potential solution pathways. Last year, the US government military research agency DARPA, in co-operation with NASA, launched the 100 Year Starship initiative, an attempt to create a new industry that focuses on research and cultural-political transformations, so that the conditions can be seeded for a starflight capable society to be created.



    This government stamp represented a sea change in attitudes towards the possibilities of deep space exploration. What the ‘interstellar community’ is still lacking, however, is a co-ordinated program of theoretical and experimental research, appropriately funding structures and political consensus that addressing interstellar flight is a worthwhile use of our time and energies, given competing problems on Earth. The institute aims to address all of this by becoming a nexus point about which other organizations can rely upon and individual researchers can lean to for support. In essence, the Institute aims to catalyze an interstellar society by taking advantage of the outstanding leadership that DARPA showed in 2011, by becoming a leader in itself.

    What do you think are the most exciting/promising projects currently underway?

    National space agencies like NASA do fantastic work in pioneering robotic missions to other worlds. This is well illustrated by the current Mars mission, Curiosity, and by the achievements of the past such as the Voyager and Pioneer missions. Human spaceflight is moving at a much slower pace since the 1960s but with the advent of commercial spaceflight, there is optimism that this may change in the coming years. Meanwhile, the Institute intends to conduct the vital R&D that neither governments nor commercial companies are doing.

    Specifically, the institute will launch cross-disciplinary projects across the spectrum of scientific and cultural thought. We have identified numerous knowledge gaps in technologies and mission capabilities for space exploration. Even if we wanted to attempt these missions today our technological immaturity prevents their realization. The role of the Institute will be to create innovative projects at the frontiers of our knowledge. These projects will be complimentary to those launched by similar sister organizations such as Icarus Interstellar and the Tau Zero Foundation. Both of these organizations are doing good work, and deserve wider support from society.

    With Voyager 1 leaving the solar system, do you think we’re entering a new era, psychologically at least?

    Yes. Both the Voyager probes are now at the solar heliosphere or beyond. This is incredibly exciting and they can be considered the world’s first Starships. That said, there is an enormous difference between traveling 100 AU (Astronomical Units) in around 40 years compared to traveling 270,000 AU in around a century; the distance to the closest stars. This difference in scale means that the velocities, energies and power requirements for any spacecraft must similarly be scaled for more ambitious missions. The increasing discovery of exosolar planets is also most likely having a psychological effect on our conscious the same way that the Apollo ‘Earth Rise’ and Voyager ‘Pal Blue dot’ photos most certainly did.

    

It is important to have hope and optimism that with the application of science nothing is beyond our reach, but that said, we must have humility before the challenge of the void and give acknowledgements to the bottom line requirements – interstellar flight is not easy. Technologically, interstellar flight is entirely possible; it just needs time for the appropriate technology to mature. We still need to convince people though, the public and politicians, that the mission is justified by the attempt and the cost in the first place; and rightly so.

    Do you think we’ll get other interstellar missions underway in our lifetime?

    Yes – given current trends in microelectronics miniaturization and increasing propulsion performance capability. This means in the future we should be able to get out there further and faster and be able to do more science than the probes that came before.

    Beyond our solar system there are nearby mission targets to explore, from the surrounding dwarf planets, to the gravitational lensing point between 50 – 1,000 AU to the comets of the Oort cloud, between 2,500 – 50,000 AU. These should be the near-term mission targets for our robotic ambassador probes in future decades. We need to send our probes out there to learn more about the environment so that we can appropriately quantify the resources, environment, risks and scientific interests. 

Once we have done that, human missions will surely follow.

    In the meantime, launching robotic probes to the stars sometime this century seems entirely feasible. It is likely that there are children alive today who will witness that launch, although it may be their grandchildren that first receive the radio telemetry from Centauri A. We can only guess at what those probes may discover. Sometime after that, the ambitious construction of World Ships can be considered as we prepare to embark on the greatest migration our species has ever known.

    For more, check out the Institute for Interstellar Studies

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