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DARPA's Long-Term Long Shot to the Stars

DARPA's Long-Term Long Shot to the Stars

DARPA wants to hear serious plans for reaching the stars. The research organization is preparing to give a $500,000 grant to the person or group with the best plan for developing a way to send a living human to another star system sometime in the next 100 years. Such a plan would require no small amount of imagination -- the perils of space are many, and the journey itself could take centuries.

By Richard Adhikari
08/22/11 6:00 AM PT

In a few short weeks, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, will award a US$500,000 grant for a 100-year starship project.

The grant will be awarded at the 100 Year Starship Study Symposium, which will be held in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 30 through Oct. 2.

The symposium will deal with the practical issues humanity needs to address to achieve interstellar flight 100 years from now.

The award will be given to the organization or person who comes up with the business model selected to develop and mature a technology portfolio enabling long-distance manned spaceflight by then.

What will that portfolio constitute? Cryogenic sleep? Advanced arcology techniques that will enable generations of space travelers to live on board a spaceship on a flight that might span millions of light-years and hundreds of years of elapsed time? Or other technologies?

The project's a joint effort between DARPA and the National Aeronautical and Space Agency's Ames Research Center.

Papers and topics for discussion for the symposium were solicited from a variety of sources, including scientists, ethicists, lawyers and science fiction writers.

DARPA did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Tomorrow, the Stars

The winning organization is expected to tackle issues such as biology and space medicine, habitats, and how to create public interest in the project through various means.

Its business plan will provide a sustainable model for long-term private-sector investment into the various disciplines needed to achieve long-distance space travel.

Spin-offs from the research will be used by the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, and the private sector, as they have been over the years.

For example, scratch-resistant lenses, athletic shoes, magnetic resonance imaging (MIR), computer-aided topography (CAT) scans and cordless power tools all emerged from technologies developed for use in space. This website lists some of the spin-offs that have benefited people at large.

"Certainly there could be some amazing byproducts," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. "Finding a way to cryogenically freeze someone alone could save thousands of lives halting injury until medical resources can be brought into play or developed, for instance."

Problems With Long-Distance Space Travel

Transporting a human being billions of miles in space "is not physically difficult," Paul Davies, director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, told TechNewsWorld.

However, it's "immensely expensive to do so in a manner that wouldn't kill the astronauts," Davies added.

Attaining interstellar flight would require solving some challenging problems, Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Chief among them are energy, propulsion, environment and life support, and various social problems that astronauts may encounter when sealed in a ship not just for years, but for decades.

"You'll need some way to both propel the vehicle and power systems for generations," Howe said. Fusion might be an option because the travelers might be able to mine interstellar hydrogen for fuel, and we're getting close to developing net energy-positive fusion reactions, he added.

Propulsion to reach interstellar speeds and then slow down the space vehicle "may be easy if you have infinite power at your disposal," Howe stated.

The environment would need technologies beyond what's available now. "While we have some recycling abilities today, we'd need an order of magnitude better systems," Howe remarked.

Solving the social problem might be even more important than the technological solutions. "We'd need a way to keep people from killing each other and wiping out the project," especially since the journey might last hundreds of years, Howe said.

"The possible solutions could be so valuable that they'd clearly justify small investments today to investigate them," Howe suggested.

Get the Money, Ditch the People

Overall, there will be two issues that might stymie long-distance space travel. One is money, and the other is the threat to the travelers.

"There are lots of ways to reach immense speeds, but they are all mega-expensive or inconsistent with human survival," ASU's Davies pointed out.

For example, accelerating a space going vehicle to, say, one tenth the speed of light will need "inconceivable amounts of energy," Davies said. Translation: You'll need lots of cash to fund the travel.

"I would favor not sending humans anyway," Davies stated. "It's better to send nano-probes."


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