We have officially begun our first mission to travel to distant galaxies ... slowly. It's been about 10 months since DARPA announced it had awarded seed funding to form an independent, non-governmental organization with the goal of pursuing human interstellar space flight within the next 100 years. Leaders from this "100 Year Starship" took to the stage recently at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, to talk a bit more about what it means to pursue such a "grand challenge."

Former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison told the audience that the task at hand for 100 Year Starship is to figure out how to make the necessary capabilities available. Coming up with an answer is no small feat, especially considering that the Voyager craft is just now exploring the edge of our solar system after more than three decades in space. Traveling at Voyager speed, Jemison pointed out it would take 70,000 years to reach the next closest star to ours.

Inventing a way for humans to make it to other stars or planets without decomposing on the way there requires much more speed and energy than contemporary spacecraft can provide, and "when we are able to create it, we also solve our energy problems (on Earth)," Jemison told the crowd.

Tackling such massive challenges of innovation and planning such a journey will also be beneficial for the way that humans of all backgrounds interact with each other, Jemison added.

(left to right) Moderator Benjamin Palmer, Jemison, Tarter, Burton

"We'll have to learn to cooperate more and compete less," concurred actor LeVar Burton, who is perhaps best known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jemison said that part of the challenge will come in educating the public to a high enough level of scientific literacy to able to support and contribute to such a project that will require us "to think more broadly and ask the right questions."

Unique Challenges

Another panelist, Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, noted that NASA and others are already "on the verge of being able to find Earth 2.0." (See my previous article from SXSW on NASA's search for life using the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope.) Tarter likened the 100 Year Starship project to other grand challenges that humanity has embarked upon in recent memory, like the campaign for universal literacy or mapping the human genome. But she noted that deep space exploration poses some particularly unique, head-scratching challenges.

"We don't yet know what could support life that we don't yet know," Tarter said. "We could even have to modify ourselves biologically to make the trip."

There is also the possibility that even pursuing the amount of energy necessary to make such a journey carries certain risks with it. For example, finding a way to harness zero-point energy (ZPE) – the possibility of which is a matter of some controversy – could be the answer to fueling interstellar travel, but Tarter cautioned that an accident involving ZPE could also destroy the top layer of the Earth.

Tarter said that regardless of how it is accomplished, the key to building a 100 Year Starship will be to first build support for the cause around the world. Jemison pointed out that Tarter herself actually holds a certain amount of notoriety in the popular culture as the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in the Hollywood adaptation of Carl Sagan's "Contact."

Tarter pointed out that the ending of that film had been left open for a sequel, and that perhaps the time is right for a "Contact 2" film to "tell the (100 Year Starship) story to the world."

100 Year Starship will be holding its third annual public symposium in Houston September 19 - 22. You can listen to audio of the SXSW panel below:

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    About the Author

    Eric Mack

    Eric Mack has been covering technology and the world since the late 1990s. As well as being a Gizmag regular, he currently contributes to CNET, NPR and other outlets.

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    • With going to the stars, we may have to change the frame a little. See the journey as the destination.

      It's all very well accelerating up to some significant fraction of lightspeed with your ion drive, but what happens when you get the other end? You're going to have to spend a long time slowing down again!

      And I hate to think what damage a piece of space rock would do to a ship designed for max speed.

      The idea of inter-stellar commuting is probably not the right paradigm

      No. What humans need is a slowboat to the stars, a true new "planet" ('wanderer') where generations will live out their lives entirely in deep space, occasionally dropping off populations to colonise whatever potential planets they find along the way

      I reckon we need to find a reasonable size asteroid, and mine the heck out of it, then build a full-on planetary habitat inside, complete with all the good old sci-fi mod cons like rotational gravity simulations and fusion-based ecosystems.

      Once we've got one of those, we need to strap on some good ol' power sources, fill her up with about 1000 suitable volunteers (could be a good way to reduce the prison population. That didn't work out too badly for Australia!) and let her chug on out for who knows where.

      Rather put the funds into life extension so the rest of us can still be around to hear about what happens.

    • "What humans need is a slowboat to the stars, a true new "planet" ('wanderer') where generations will live out their lives entirely in deep space, occasionally dropping off populations to colonise whatever potential planets they find along the way"

      What do you think Earth is?......

    • One of the frequently discussed problems of deep space missions is the absence and necessary creation of artificial gravity. I have seen dozens of designs, rotating space-wheels and the like. What I've never seen and seems much simpler and economical is an enclosed platform tethered perpendicular to a lead weight that revolve around a common center. Instrumentation could be at the axis point on the tether for stability.

    • It is good to have people thinking about this and we should fund it fully, but we've got a solar system to settle first. That project needs even more funding and the goals involved are more reachable with current technology.

      It would be a sad thing if we spent too much time working on interstellar travel and not local expansion while a killer asteroid approaches. We have an urgent need to spread out and many of the biggest threats on the risk matrix can be dealt with by colonizing other locations in our solar system. We will then be standing in a strong position to make bigger treks.

      Regardless of whether we get going to other stars in a hundred years or a thousand, it is imminent that we will have settled the galaxy in about a million years, perhaps much less. That is, of course, if we aren't destroyed before we get started.

      We really need to avoid things that slow the initial steps of expansion like focusing on far-sighted ideas and ignoring what we know how to do now. We need to assume there are no aliens, for instance, until one comes and says hello (or tries to kill us). Space is not reserved to these "ghosts" and we shouldn't respect the territory of non-entities. Spending money looking for aliens does nothing to protect us from our threats or to get us out into space.

      I say Space-Ward Ho!! first the Moon, then Mars, the Asteroids and everything else in the solar system. I figure by then some group will have already started in on the project this article is about. We should do that too, buts lets not get the cart ahead of the horse.

      We need to get up into NEAR-SPACE and settle there first and nothing should distract us from that goal. The need to guarantee human survival trumps all other objectives. Only then should we go interstellar.

      Rustin Haase
    • Well, as for aliens, I think we will probably not find any. Distance is a problem but, time is also a problem. It would be almost impossible to find them distance-wise; if that were possible then we are left with the problem of finding them within the right timeframe. Will we arrive before they are there or after they're gone? Our space and time coordinates have to be just right.

      I think a generational ship is our only option unless we make suspended animation and longevity discoveries in the next 100 years or so.

    • The solution to interstellar travel cannot be some percentage of light speed, distances are much to great and lifespans are far to short. There is another way, warp drive. Alcubierre warp drive has been shown to be possible requiring much less energy than originally thought. The White-Juday Warp Field Interferometer now set up at Johnson Space Center is testing the technology right now to essentially create micro warps in space-time.

      Jerry Peavy
    • re; Nickov8

      While it turns out that the gas mix in interstellar space is wrong for using a Bussard ramjet for propulsion the ram scoop does work but creates more drag than ion engines will produce with the collected mass but for braking the ram scoop will lower your velocity faster than your ion engines and fill your tanks with reaction mass for tooling around in the destination solar system or accelerating to the next solar system.

      Larry Niven used the term "Slowboat" for his sublight starships the idea of which he stole and modified a little from Robert Heinlein "Universe ships". The fastest sublight starship you can imagine is a slowboat.

      If I build a starship I have a better use for it than giving criminals a reward that many hard working honest people dream of.

    • Can we have some 3D Visuals & sims for the audience. Desktop scale models of concepts etc Be nice to see

      Stephen Russell
    • @techmanmacho

      Yes ... but we seem to be stuck in a bit of a loop

    • The trouble is that any ship we launch with todays technology will take so long to reach its destination that a ship built many years ( or centuries ) later is almost certain to get there first. I think we need to find some means of travelling faster than light. There are still loopholes in our knowledge. I suggest waiting to see what properties anti-matter has. We still do not know for certain how it is affected by gravity, and if that is in the opposite direction it should be possible to build an anti-matter ship that continues accelerating by repulsion of matter. I think that maybe the reason we see so little anti-matter is that it was repulsed by matter (probably surrounding the galaxies) , maybe as an alternative explanation to dark matter.

      Stephen Colbourne
    • re; Stephen Colbourne

      Anti-mater has all the properties of regular mater except for a reversed electrical charge and that when anti-mater and mater come into contact both get converted into energy. (mostly Gamma rays) Neutrons appear to be interchangeable.

      If the price of giving humanity the stars is somebody beating me to my original destination it is worth the price.


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