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NASA’s Starship Project aims to make interstellar travel a reality

By Tom Dart, The Guardian
Wednesday, September 25, 2013 14:22 EDT
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A composite of the giant barred spiral galaxy NGC 6872, obtained from NASA on January 10, 2013. (AFP)
 
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It would be hard enough these days to find a human capable of playing a 12-inch LP, let alone an alien. So perhaps it is time for Nasa to update its welcome pack for extraterrestrials.

The agency announced earlier this month that its Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system, becoming the first object to enter interstellar space. On board is a gold-plated record from 1977.

It contains greetings in dozens of languages, sounds such as morse code, a tractor, a kiss, music – from Bach to Chuck Berry – and pictures of life on Earth, including a sperm fertilising an egg, athletes, and the Sydney Opera House.

Now, Jon Lomberg, the original Golden Record design director, has launched a project aiming to persuade Nasa to upload a current snapshot of Earth to one of its future interstellar craft as a sort of space-age message in a bottle.

The New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto in 2015, then is expected to leave the solar system in about three decades. The New Horizons Message Initiative wants to create a crowd-sourced “human fingerprint” for extra-terrestrial consumption that can be digitally uploaded to the probe as its journey continues. The message could be modified to reflect changes on Earth as years go by.

With the backing of numerous space experts, Lomberg is orchestrating a petition and fundraising campaign. The first stage will firm up what can be sent in a format that would be easy for aliens to decode; the second will be the online crowd-sourcing of material.

Especially given the remote possibility that the message will ever be read, Lomberg emphasises the benefits to earthlings of starting a debate about how we should introduce ourselves to interplanetary strangers.

“The Voyager record was our best foot forward. We just talked about what we were like on a good day … no wars or famine. It was a sanitised portrait. Should we go warts and all? That is a legitimate discussion that needs to be had,” he said.

“The previous messages were decided by elite groups … Everybody is equally entitled and qualified to do it. If you’re a human on Earth you have a right to decide how you’re presented.”

“Astronauts have said that you step off the Earth and look back and you see things differently. Looking at yourself with a different perspective is always useful. The Golden Record has had a tremendous effect in terms of making people think about the culture in ways they wouldn’t normally do.”

Buoyed by the Voyager news, scientists gathered in Houston last weekend for the annual symposium of the Nasa- and Pentagon-backed 100-Year Starship project, which aims to make human interstellar travel a reality within a century.

“I think it’s an incredible boost. I think it makes it much more plausible,” said Dr Mae Jemison, the group’s principal and the first African-American woman in space. “What it says is that we know we can get to interstellar space. We got to interstellar space with technologies that were developed 40 years ago. There is every reason to suspect that we can create and build vehicles that can go that far, faster.”

Jeff Nosanov, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, near Los Angeles, hopes to persuade the agency to launch about ten interstellar probes to gather data from a variety of directions. They would be powered by giant sails that harness the sun’s energy, much like a boat on the ocean is propelled by wind. Solar sails are gaining credibility as a realistic way of producing faster spacecraft, given the limitations of existing rocket technology. Nasa is planning to launch a spacecraft with a 13,000 square-foot sail in November next year.

“We have a starship and it’s 36 years old, so that’s really good. This is not as impossible as it sounds. Where the challenge becomes ludicrous and really astounding is the distances from one star to another,” Nosanov said.”Voyager 1 at its current speed, if it was pointed in the right direction – which it is not – would take 50,000 years to get to the next star. And this is the fastest thing ever built.”

“Using this system that’s going to be flown next year, making some realistic changes to it, you can go two or three times faster than Voyager. That takes the 36-year journey of Voyager to the Heliopause [interstellar boundary] and makes it 18 years or 15 years, and that is starting to get closer to some day where you might be able to propose it to Nasa as a real mission.”

Advances in 3D printing could solve one of the biggest challenges to manned long-term space flight: what to eat. Star Trek’s “replicators” no longer seem like science-fiction. In May, Nasa awarded a $125,000 grant to a company aiming to print a pizza from long-lasting foodstuffs. The International Space Station is expected to take delivery of an equipment-making 3D printer in 2014.

“You can use 3D printing to make tissue-engineering scaffolds. You can 3D print anything if you could make the base material. So with tissue-engineering scaffolds you print the scaffold that you want and then you would seed it with cells and hopefully grow the tissue of interest,” said Dr Ronke Olabisi, a member of the 100-Year Starship research team.

However, even sending astronauts on a two-year round-trip to Mars is deeply problematic, since space’s weightless environment and cosmic rays take a huge toll on the body. “Microgravity is huge, as is radiation. So if one doesn’t kill you, the other will,” said Olabisi.

So the best hope for new discoveries might be to stay at home and look up. Construction on the Square Kilometre Array, the biggest-ever radio telescope, is set to start in 2016. The project is being built in South Africa and Australia and is headquartered at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester.

Thousands of linked dishes with millions of antennae will create a telescope with a combined collecting area of about one square kilometre, generating more data every day than is currently produced by the entire world’s daily internet usage.

The Array is hoped to be fully operational by 2023 and is expected to offer insights into the formation of galaxies after the Big Bang and aid the search for extra-terrestrial life.

According to one theory, we had better hurry up. If humanity does not somehow destroy life on Earth, the universe’s natural selection eventually will – through an asteroid strike, perhaps, or a comet collision. “The universe is going to select for life-forms with particular characteristics and the key characteristic is an ability to leave your planet and survive,” said Hakeem Oluseyi, assistant professor of physics and space sciences at Florida Institute of Technology.

“Stars are temporary, planets are temporary and if we look at the history of life on Earth the first three-quarters of that life was single-cell organisms and they appear to have this ability that they can survive in space.”

“Once your species comes into existence, the clock is ticking … you have so many years, 100 million years or whatever, and then you’re going to be wiped out of existence by the universe.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

 
 
 
 
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