With all the recent press about the 4 billion mile, 10 year trip to a comet in the asteroid belt, and the release of Interstellar in the movie theatres, it seems appropriate to look at the way we do travel in space. Despite 50 years of invention, we appear to be pretty much stuck with rockets and flybys. However as detailed in this nice Gizmodo article, there are other options for traveling thru space. The article goes into some detail about three options that seem like science fiction, but that we’re currently working on.
The first option is thermonuclear fusion. At least we know it works – it powers the Sun after all. However, we’ve never been able to set up a successful fusion experiment. The problem has always been controlling the plasma in a usable fashion and keeping the fusion process alive. It could another 30 years before we reach the stage where this lets us travel cheaply through the solar system, but it could let us approach maybe one tenth the speed of light, where we could reach the nearest stars in 40 years or so.
The second option is a solar sail. We’ve actually launched one of these, although the rocket blew up and so it never got a chance to be deployed. The idea here is a large unfolded sail that could either harness the power of the (free) solar pressure or (more expensive) lasers directed into space. Although such a space-craft system would start off slow it could quickly get up to about 1/5 the speed of light. The technology exists for this one, we just need to get it launched.
The third option is the most exotic. You could, theoretically traverse the entire universe inside a few years of your own life by using a pair of black holes. In essence you go into a sling shot between the black holes and then fly off into space. As you get really close to the speed of light, your time slows down so you could get anywhere and back in a few years. Unfortunately a few billion years may have passed on Earth while you are gone. This one remains in the realms of science fiction, for now.
The most expensive part of space travel is having to bring all our fuel with us. This means we have to launch everything from Earth. Imagine there was no such thing as a gas station, instead we would all have to drive to the oil field in our own fuel tankers and collect all the car fuel required for the rest of our life! Clearly we need gas stations in space, and the Moon might be able to play that role.
To this end, Australian researchers have developed a substance that looks and behaves like soil from the moon’s surface and can be mixed with polymers to create ‘lunar concrete’, a finding that may help advance plans to construct safe landing pads and mines on the moon. Valuable rare earth minerals, hydrogen, oxygen, platinum and the non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel Helium-3 (He-3) are abundant on the moon. NASA and other space agencies have shown interest in lunar mining but the US is yet to ratify a 1984 treaty that would strictly regulate moon resource extraction.
However, even if moon mining was allowed, lunar conditions are so different to Earthly conditions that new machinery may have to be invented to develop resources found there. Furthermore, the cost of transporting materials made on Earth would be prohibitive, forcing scientists to come up with ways to build certain equipment using material only found on the moon’s surface. So the long journey to the outer reaches of the solar system goes via the moon, but it starts with recreating the moon on Earth.
The race for space
The old NASA system of funding missions into space was extremely susceptible to delays, overruns, and dependence on a single source. Hardly an example of capitalism. The new approach is sleeker. In the new system, NASA puts up some money to get more than one company capable of delivering a product, set the companies against each other to provide the best product and lets the free market decide the winner. Fresh innovative thinking wins the day, and the financial risk of overruns is shifted to the private system. So why would any members of congress vote against it? Well, unsurprisingly a few states and companies have grown fat on the the old system, and they have no intention of having to compete or be innovative.
In this case, the free market speaks, the taxpayer wins, and we can all do better science.
discovery over the mall
End of an era for American space flight. It did get too expensive and turned into a real cash cow, but now what do we do. The two options left now are either hitch a ride with other nations (russia or china) or buy a lift with Richard Branson. The real problem is what happens if we want to get back into the space travel game again. It’ll take even more to catch up with those who have continued to fund this.
As humans, we want to explore. It is a natural instinct and one we should pay attention to. A nation that stops exploring is a nation that needs to reassess priorities.