Science fiction imagines spaceships traveling at speeds approaching the speed of light, and manned vessels with human colonies traveling intergalactic space for a generation. The goal of the 100-Year Starship initiative is to develop such a vehicle to travel at warp speeds, in order to have a mission to travel to another star within 100 years. The 100-Year Starship initiative is a project started with seed money from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Toward that goal, the independent, non-governmental 100-Year Starship organization hosted a public symposium last week, September 13 through 16 in Houston, Texas, to discuss the vision for interstellar spaceship travel. The timing of the event coincided with the at-sea burial of Neil Armstrong on September 13, 2012, and the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech challenging America to send a man to the moon.
Travel at Warp Speed
Generating a lot of buzz was Harold “Sonny” White, with his presentation of his analysis for the energy and speed requirements in theoretical travel via warp space bubbles. In the past, space travel assumes the constraint of the ship mass traveling through space, with its requisite energy and time specifications. Dr. White works at NASA’s Eagleton Laboratories on Advanced Propulsion Physics Research. Dr. White and his colleagues not only believe a real life warp drive is possible; they’ve already started the work.
Analysis by White in 2011 and 2012 has shown that the energy requirements can be greatly reduced by first optimizing the warp bubble thickness, and further by oscillating the bubble intensity to reduce the stiffness of space time. That is, say White and Sure on their Icarus Interstellar blog, “we compress the space in front of us and expand the space behind us in such a way that allows us to go wherever we want to go, really fast, while observing the 11th commandment: ‘Thou shall not exceed the speed of light.'” Their analysis results indicate travel at fast speeds with low energy might be possible. It may be possible to engineer spacetime creating conditions similar to what drives the expansion of the cosmos.
A warp drive would manipulate space-time itself to move a starship. A concept for a real-life warp drive was first suggested in 1994 by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre; however later estimations of energy needs were found to be prohibitively high. In whose lifetime will the warp drive reach fruition – ours, our children’s, or for a generation yet unborn?
The symposium held a salute to 50 years of human space flight. Speakers at the symposium included Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut, as well as astronomer Jill Tarter, a co-founder of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, space journalist Miles O’Brien, and photographer Norman Seeff. “Star Trek” actors LeVar Burton and Nichelle Nichols also participated. President Clinton endorsed the event and was the symposium’s honorary chair. (But did the symposium have an empty chair for him?)