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How Long Would It Take To Travel To The Nearest Star …

Weve all asked this question at some point in our lives: How long would it take to travel to the stars? Could it be within a persons own lifetime, and could this kind of travel become the norm someday? There are many possible answers to this question some very simple, others in the realms of science fiction. But coming up with a comprehensive answer means taking a lot of things into consideration.

Unfortunately, any realistic assessment is likely to produce answers that would totally discourage futurists and enthusiasts of interstellar travel. Like it or not, space is very large, and our technology is still very limited. But should we ever contemplate leaving the nest, we will have a range of options for getting to the nearest Solar Systems in our galaxy.

The nearest star to Earth is our Sun, which is a fairly average star in the Hertzsprung Russell Diagrams Main Sequence. This means that it is highly stable, providing Earth with just the right type of sunlight for life to evolve on our planet. We know there are planets orbiting other stars near to our Solar System, and many of these stars are similar to our own.

In the future, should mankind wish to leave the Solar System, well have a huge choice of stars we could travel to, and many could have the right conditions for life to thrive. But where would we go and how long would it take for us to get there? Just remember, this is all speculative and there is currently no benchmark for interstellar trips. That being said, here we go!

Over 2000 exoplanets have been identified, many of which are believed to be habitable. Credit: phl.upl.edu

As already noted, the closest star to our Solar System is Proxima Centauri, which is why it makes the most sense to plot an interstellar mission to this system first. As part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri, Proxima is about 4.24 light years (or 1.3 parsecs) from Earth. Alpha Centauri is actually the brightest star of the three in the system part of a closely orbiting binary 4.37 light years from Earth whereas Proxima Centauri (the dimmest of the three) is an isolated red dwarf about 0.13 light years from the binary.

And while interstellar travel conjures up all kinds of visions of Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel, ranging from warp speed and wormholes to jump drives, such theories are either highly speculative (such as the Alcubierre Drive) or entirely the province of science fiction. In all likelihood, any deep space mission will likely take generations to get there, rather than a few days or in an instantaneous flash.

So, starting with one of the slowest forms of space travel, how long will it take to get to Proxima Centauri?

The question of how long would it take to get somewhere in space is somewhat easier when dealing with existing technology and bodies within our Solar System. For instance, using the technology that powered the New Horizons mission which consisted of 16 thrusters fueled with hydrazine monopropellant reaching the Moon would take a mere 8 hours and 35 minutes.

On the other hand, there is the European Space Agencys (ESA) SMART-1 mission, which took its time traveling to the Moon using the method of ionic propulsion. With this revolutionary technology, a variation of which has since been used by the Dawn spacecraft to reach Vesta, the SMART-1 mission took one year, one month and two weeks to reach the Moon.

So, from the speedy rocket-propelled spacecraft to the economical ion drive, we have a few options for getting around local space plus we could use Jupiter or Saturn for a hefty gravitational slingshot. However, if we were to contemplate missions to somewhere a little more out of the way, we would have to scale up our technology and look at whats really possible.

When we say possible methods, we are talking about those that involve existing technology, or those that do not yet exist, but are technically feasible. Some, as you will see, are time-honored and proven, while others are emerging or still on the board. In just about all cases though, they present a possible, but extremely time-consuming or expensive, scenario for getting to even the closest stars

Ionic Propulsion:Currently, the slowest form of propulsion, and the most fuel-efficient, is the ion engine. A few decades ago, ionic propulsion was considered to be the subject of science fiction. However, in recent years, the technology to support ion engines has moved from theory to practice in a big way. The ESAs SMART-1 mission for example successfully completed its mission to the Moon after taking a 13 month spiral path from the Earth.

SMART-1 used solar powered ion thrusters, where electrical energy was harvested from its solar panels and used to power its Hall-effect thrusters. Only 82 kg of xenon propellant was used to propel SMART-1 to the Moon. 1 kg of xenon propellant provided a delta-v of 45 m/s. This is a highly efficient form of propulsion, but it is by no means fast.

Artists concept of Dawn mission above Ceres. Since its arrival, the spacecraft turned around to point the blue glow of its ion engine in the opposite direction. Image credit: NASA/JPL

One of the first missions to use ion drive technology was the Deep Space 1 mission to Comet Borrelly that took place in 1998. DS1 also used a xenon-powered ion drive, consuming 81.5 kg of propellant. Over 20 months of thrusting, DS1 was managed to reach a velocity of 56,000 km/hr (35,000 miles/hr) during its flyby of the comet.

Ion thrusters are therefore more economical than rocket technology, as the thrust per unit mass of propellant (a.k.a. specific impulse) is far higher. But it takes a long time for ion thrusters to accelerate spacecraft to any great speeds, and the maximum velocity it can achieve is dependent on its fuel supply and how much electrical energy it can generate.

So if ionic propulsion were to be used for a mission to Proxima Centauri, the thrusters would need a huge source of energy production (i.e. nuclear power) and a large quantity of propellant (although still less than conventional rockets). But based on the assumption that a supply of 81.5 kg of xenon propellant translates into a maximum velocity of 56,000 km/hr (and that there are no other forms of propulsion available, such as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate it further), some calculations can be made.

In short, at a maximum velocity of 56,000 km/h, Deep Space 1 would take over 81,000 years to traverse the 4.24 light years between Earth and Proxima Centauri. To put that time-scale into perspective, that would be over 2,700 human generations. So it is safe to say that an interplanetary ion engine mission would be far too slow to be considered for a manned interstellar mission.

Ionic propulsion is currently the slowest, but most fuel-efficient, form of space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL

But, should ion thrusters be made larger and more powerful (i.e. ion exhaust velocity would need to be significantly higher), and enough propellant could be hauled to keep the spacecrafts going for the entire 4.243 light-year trip, that travel time could be greatly reduced. Still not enough to happen in someones lifetime though.

Gravity Assist Method:The fastest existing means of space travel is known the Gravity Assist method, which involves a spacecraft using the relative movement (i.e. orbit) and gravity of a planet to alter is path and speed. Gravitational assists are a very useful spaceflight technique, especially when using the Earth or another massive planet (like a gas giant) for a boost in velocity.

The Mariner 10 spacecraft was the first to use this method, using Venus gravitational pull to slingshot it towards Mercury in February of 1974. In the 1980s, the Voyager 1 probe used Saturn and Jupiter for gravitational slingshots to attain its current velocity of 60,000 km/hr (38,000 miles/hr) and make it into interstellar space.

However, it was the Helios 2 mission which was launched in 1976 to study the interplanetary medium from 0.3 AU to 1 AU to the Sun that holds the record for highest speed achieved with a gravity assist. At the time, Helios 1 (which launched in 1974) and Helios 2 held the record for closest approach to the Sun. Helios 2 was launched by a conventional NASA Titan/Centaur launch vehicle and placed in a highly elliptical orbit.

A Helios probe being encapsulated for launch. Credit: Public Domain

Due to the large eccentricity (0.54) of the 190 day solar orbit, at perihelion Helios 2 was able to reach a maximum velocity of over 240,000 km/hr (150,000 miles/hr). This orbital speed was attained by the gravitational pull of the Sun alone. Technically, the Helios 2 perihelion velocity was not a gravitational slingshot, it was a maximum orbital velocity, but it still holds the record for being the fastest man-made object regardless.

So, if Voyager 1 was traveling in the direction of the red dwarf Proxima Centauri at a constant velocity of 60,000 km/hr, it would take 76,000 years (or over 2,500 generations) to travel that distance. But if it could attain the record-breaking speed of Helios 2s close approach of the Sun a constant speed of 240,000 km/hr it would take 19,000 years (or over 600 generations) to travel 4.243 light years. Significantly better, but still not in the ream of practicality.

Electromagnetic (EM) Drive:Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.

Whereas conventional electromagnetic thrusters are designed to propel a certain type of mass (such as ionized particles), this particular drive system relies on no reaction mass and emits no directional radiation. Such a proposal has met with a great deal of skepticism, mainly because it violates the law of Conservation of Momentum which states that within a system, the amount of momentum remains constant and is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes through the action of forces.

The EM Drive prototype produced by NASA/Eagleworks. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Forum

However, recent experiments with the technology have apparently yielded positive results. In July of 2014, at the 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, researchers from NASAs advanced propulsion research claimed that they had successfully tested a new design for an electromagnetic propulsion drive.

This was followed up in April of 2015 when researchers at NASA Eagleworks (part of the Johnson Space Center) claimed that they had successfully tested the drive in a vacuum, an indication that it might actually work in space. In July of that same year, a research team from the Dresden University of Technologys Space System department built their own version of the engine and observed a detectable thrust.

And in 2010, Prof. Juan Yang of the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian, China, began publishing a series of papers about her research into EM Drive technology. This culminated in her 2012 paper where she reported higher input power (2.5kW) and tested thrust (720mN) levels. In 2014, she further reported extensive tests involving internal temperature measurements with embedded thermocouples, which seemed to confirm that the system worked.

Artists concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Center

According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Pluto in less than 18 months. Thats one-sixth the time it took for the New Horizons probe to get there, which was traveling at speeds of close to 58,000 km/h (36,000 mph).

Sounds impressive. But even at that rate, it would take a ship equipped with EM engines over 13,000 years for the vessel to make it to Proxima Centauri. Getting closer, but not quickly enough! and until such time that technology can be definitively proven to work, it doesnt make much sense to put our eggs into this basket.

Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP):Another possibility for interstellar space flight is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades. In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust.

A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine. In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date.

Artists impression of a Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

Compared to chemical propulsion, both NTP and NEC offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel. In addition, a nuclear-powered engine could also provide superior thrust relative to the amount of propellant used. This would cut the total amount of propellant needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions.

Although no nuclear-thermal engines have ever flown, several design concepts have been built and tested over the past few decades, and numerous concepts have been proposed. These have ranged from the traditional solid-core design such as the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) to more advanced and efficient concepts that rely on either a liquid or a gas core.

However, despite these advantages in fuel-efficiency and specific impulse, the most sophisticated NTP concept has a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kNs/kg). Using nuclear engines driven by fission or fusion, NASA scientists estimate it would could take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at opposition i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth.

But adjusted for a one-way journey to Proxima Centauri, a nuclear rocket would still take centuries to accelerate to the point where it was flying a fraction of the speed of light. It would then require several decades of travel time, followed by many more centuries of deceleration before reaching it destination. All told, were still talking about 1000 years before it reaches its destination. Good for interplanetary missions, not so good for interstellar ones.

Using existing technology, the time it would take to send scientists and astronauts on an interstellar mission would be prohibitively slow. If we want to make that journey within a single lifetime, or even a generation, something a bit more radical (aka. highly theoretical) will be needed. And while wormholes and jump engines may still be pure fiction at this point, there are some rather advanced ideas that have been considered over the years.

Nuclear Pulse Propulsion:Nuclear pulse propulsion is a theoretically possible form of fast space travel. The concept was originally proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project, and preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947. The actual project known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and lasted until 1963.

The Project Orion concept for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. Credit: silodrome.co

Led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Orion hoped to harness the power of pulsed nuclear explosions to provide a huge thrust with very high specific impulse (i.e. the amount of thrust compared to weight or the amount of seconds the rocket can continually fire).

In a nutshell, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a pusher. After each blast, the explosive force would be absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the advantage of the design is that it achieves a high specific impulse meaning it extracts the maximum amount of energy from its fuel source (in this case, nuclear bombs) at minimal cost. In addition, the concept could theoretically achieve very high speeds, with some estimates suggesting a ballpark figure as high as 5% the speed of light (or 5.4107 km/hr).

But of course, there the inevitable downsides to the design. For one, a ship of this size would be incredibly expensive to build. According to estimates produced by Dyson in 1968, an Orion spacecraft that used hydrogen bombs to generate propulsion would weight 400,000 to 4,000,000 metric tons. And at least three quarters of that weight consists of nuclear bombs, where each warhead weights approximately 1 metric ton.

Artists concept of Orion spacecraft leaving Earth. Credit: bisbos.com/Adrian Mann

All told, Dysons most conservative estimates placed the total cost of building an Orion craft at 367 billion dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to roughly $2.5 trillion dollars which accounts for over two thirds of the US governments current annual revenue. Hence, even at its lightest, the craft would be extremely expensive to manufacture.

Theres also the slight problem of all the radiation it generates, not to mention nuclear waste. In fact, it is for this reason that the Project is believed to have been terminated, owing to the passage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which sought to limit nuclear testing and stop the excessive release of nuclear fallout into the planets atmosphere.

Fusion Rockets:Another possibility within the realm of harnessed nuclear power involves rockets that rely on thermonuclear reactions to generate thrust. For this concept, energy is created when pellets of a deuterium/helium-3 mix are ignited in a reaction chamber by inertial confinement using electron beams (similar to what is done at the National Ignition Facility in California). This fusion reactor would detonate 250 pellets per second to create high-energy plasma, which would then be directed by a magnetic nozzle to create thrust.

Like a rocket that relies on a nuclear reactor, this concept offers advantages as far as fuel efficiency and specific impulse are concerned. Exhaust velocities of up to 10,600km/s are estimated, which is far beyond the speed of conventional rockets. Whats more, the technology has been studied extensively over the past few decades, and many proposals have been made.

Artists concept of the Daedalus spacecraft, a two-stage fusion rocket that would achieve up to 12% he speed of light. Credit: Adrian Mann

For example, between 1973 and 1978, the British Interplanetary Society conducted feasibility study known as Project Daedalus. Relying on current knowledge of fusion technology and existing methods, the study called for the creation of a two-stage unmanned scientific probe making a trip to Barnards Star (5.9 light years from Earth) in a single lifetime.

The first stage, the larger of the two, would operate for 2.05 years and accelerate the spacecraft to 7.1% the speed of light (o.071 c). This stage would then be jettisoned, at which point, the second stage would ignite its engine and accelerate the spacecraft up to about 12% of light speed (0.12 c) over the course of 1.8 years. The second-stage engine would then be shut down and the ship would enter into a 46-year cruise period.

According to the Projects estimates, the mission would take 50 years to reach Barnards Star. Adjusted for Proxima Centauri, the same craft could make the trip in 36 years. But of course, the project also identified numerous stumbling blocks that made it unfeasible using then-current technology most of which are still unresolved.

For instance, there is the fact that helium-3 is scare on Earth, which means it would have to be mined elsewhere (most likely on the Moon). Second, the reaction that drives the spacecraft requires that the energy released vastly exceed the energy used to trigger the reaction. And while experiments here on Earth have surpassed the break-even goal, we are still a long way away from the kinds of energy needed to power an interstellar spaceship.

Artists concept of the Project Daedalus spacecraft, with a Saturn V rocket standing next to it for scale. Credit: Adrian Mann

Third, there is the cost factor of constructing such a ship. Even by the modest standard of Project Daedalus unmanned craft, a fully-fueled craft would weight as much as 60,000 Mt. To put that in perspective, the gross weight of NASAs SLS is just over 30 Mt, and a single launch comes with a price tag of $5 billion (based on estimates made in 2013).

In short, a fusion rocket would not only be prohibitively expensive to build, it would require a level of fusion reactor technology that is currently beyond our means. Icarus Interstellar, an international organization of volunteer citizen scientists (some of whom worked for NASA or the ESA) have since attempted to revitalize the concept with Project Icarus. Founded in 2009, the group hopes to make fusion propulsion (among other things) feasible by the near future.

Fusion Ramjet:Also known as the Bussard Ramjet, this theoretical form of propulsion was first proposed by physicist Robert W. Bussard in 1960. Basically, it is an improvement over the standard nuclear fusion rocket, which uses magnetic fields to compress hydrogen fuel to the point that fusion occurs. But in the Ramjets case, an enormous electromagnetic funnel scoops hydrogen from the interstellar medium and dumps it into the reactor as fuel.

Artists concept of the Bussard Ramjet, which would harness hydrogen from the interstellar medium to power its fusion engines. Credit: futurespacetransportation.weebly.com

As the ship picks up speed, the reactive mass is forced into a progressively constricted magnetic field, compressing it until thermonuclear fusion occurs. The magnetic field then directs the energy as rocket exhaust through an engine nozzle, thereby accelerating the vessel. Without any fuel tanks to weigh it down, a fusion ramjet could achieve speeds approaching 4% of the speed of light and travel anywhere in the galaxy.

However, the potential drawbacks of this design are numerous. For instance, there is the problem of drag. The ship relies on increased speed to accumulate fuel, but as it collides with more and more interstellar hydrogen, it may also lose speed especially in denser regions of the galaxy. Second, deuterium and tritium (used in fusion reactors here on Earth) are rare in space, whereas fusing regular hydrogen (which is plentiful in space) is beyond our current methods.

This concept has been popularized extensively in science fiction. Perhaps the best known example of this is in the franchise of Star Trek, where Bussard collectors are the glowing nacelles on warp engines. But in reality, our knowledge of fusion reactions need to progress considerably before a ramjet is possible. We would also have to figure out that pesky drag problem before we began to consider building such a ship!

Laser Sail:Solar sails have long been considered to be a cost-effective way of exploring the Solar System. In addition to being relatively easy and cheap to manufacture, theres the added bonus of solar sails requiring no fuel. Rather than using rockets that require propellant, the sail uses the radiation pressure from stars to push large ultra-thin mirrors to high speeds.

IKAROS spaceprobe with solar sail in flight (artists depiction) showing a typical square sail configuration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Andrzej Mirecki

However, for the sake of interstellar flight, such a sail would need to be driven by focused energy beams (i.e. lasers or microwaves) to push it to a velocity approaching the speed of light. The concept was originally proposed by Robert Forward in 1984, who was a physicist at the Hughes Aircrafts research laboratories at the time.

The concept retains the benefits of a solar sail, in that it requires no on-board fuel, but also from the fact that laser energy does not dissipate with distance nearly as much as solar radiation. So while a laser-driven sail would take some time to accelerate to near-luminous speeds, it would be limited only to the speed of light itself.

According to a 2000 study produced by Robert Frisbee, a director of advanced propulsion concept studies at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a laser sail could be accelerated to half the speed of light in less than a decade. He also calculated that a sail measuring about 320 km (200 miles) in diameter could reach Proxima Centauri in just over 12 years. Meanwhile, a sail measuring about 965 km (600 miles) in diameter would arrive in just under 9 years.

However, such a sail would have to be built from advanced composites to avoid melting. Combined with its size, this would add up to a pretty penny! Even worse is the sheer expense incurred from building a laser large and powerful enough to drive a sail to half the speed of light. According to Frisbees own study, the lasers would require a steady flow of 17,000 terawatts of power close to what the entire world consumes in a single day.

Antimatter Engine:Fans of science fiction are sure to have heard of antimatter. But in case you havent, antimatter is essentially material composed of antiparticles, which have the same mass but opposite charge as regular particles. An antimatter engine, meanwhile, is a form of propulsion that uses interactions between matter and antimatter to generate power, or to create thrust.

Artists concept of an antimatter-powered spacecraft for missions to Mars, as part of the Mars Reference Mission. Credit: NASA

In short, an antimatter engine involves particles of hydrogen and antihydrogen being slammed together. This reaction unleashes as much as energy as a thermonuclear bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, which would travel at one-third the speed of light, are then be channeled by a magnetic nozzle to generate thrust.

The advantage to this class of rocket is that a large fraction of the rest mass of a matter/antimatter mixture may be converted to energy, allowing antimatter rockets to have a far higher energy density and specific impulse than any other proposed class of rocket. Whats more, controlling this kind of reaction could conceivably push a rocket up to half the speed of light.

Pound for pound, this class of ship would be the fastest and most fuel-efficient ever conceived. Whereas conventional rockets require tons of chemical fuel to propel a spaceship to its destination, an antimatter engine could do the same job with just a few milligrams of fuel. In fact, the mutual annihilation of a half pound of hydrogen and antihydrogen particles would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb.

It is for this exact reason that NASAs Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) has investigated the technology as a possible means for future Mars missions. Unfortunately, when contemplating missions to nearby star systems, the amount if fuel needs to make the trip is multiplied exponentially, and the cost involved in producing it would be astronomical (no pun!).

What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

According to report prepared for the 39th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit (also by Robert Frisbee), a two-stage antimatter rocket would need over 815,000 metric tons (900,000 US tons) of fuel to make the journey to Proxima Centauri in approximately 40 years. Thats not bad, as far as timelines go. But again, the cost

Whereas a single gram of antimatter would produce an incredible amount of energy, it is estimated that producing just one gram would require approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and cost over a trillion dollars. At present, the total amount of antimatter that has been created by humans is less 20 nanograms.

And even if we could produce antimatter for cheap, you would need a massive ship to hold the amount of fuel needed. According to a report by Dr. Darrel Smith & Jonathan Webby of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, an interstellar craft equipped with an antimatter engine could reach 0.5 the speed of light and reach Proxima Centauri in a little over 8 years. However, the ship itself would weigh 400 Mt, and would need 170 MT of antimatter fuel to make the journey.

A possible way around this is to create a vessel that can create antimatter which it could then store as fuel. This concept, known as the Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES), was proposed by Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar. Based on the idea of in-situ refueling, a VARIES ship would rely on large lasers (powered by enormous solar arrays) which would create particles of antimatter when fired at empty space.

Artists concept of the Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES), a concept that would use solar arrays to power lasers that create particles of antimatter to be used as fuel. Credit: Adrian Mann

Much like the Ramjet concept, this proposal solves the problem of carrying fuel by harnessing it from space. But once again, the sheer cost of such a ship would be prohibitively expensive using current technology. In addition, the ability to create dark matter in large volumes is not something we currently have the power to do. Theres also the matter of radiation, as matter-antimatter annihilation can produce blasts of high-energy gamma rays.

This not only presents a danger to the crew, requiring significant radiations shielding, but requires the engines be shielded as well to ensure they dont undergo atomic degradation from all the radiation they are exposed to. So bottom line, the antimatter engine is completely impractical with our current technology and in the current budget environment.

Alcubierre Warp Drive:Fans of science fiction are also no doubt familiar with the concept of an Alcubierre (or Warp) Drive. Proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, this proposed method was an attempt to make FTL travel possible without violating Einsteins theory of Special Relativity. In short, the concept involves stretching the fabric of space-time in a wave, which would theoretically cause the space ahead of an object to contract and the space behind it to expand.

An object inside this wave (i.e. a spaceship) would then be able to ride this wave, known as a warp bubble, beyond relativistic speeds. Since the ship is not moving within this bubble, but is being carried along as it moves, the rules of space-time and relativity would cease to apply. The reason being, this method does not rely on moving faster than light in the local sense.

Artist Mark Rademakers concept for the IXS Enterprise, a theoretical interstellar warp spacecraft. Credit: Mark Rademaker/flickr.com

It is only faster than light in the sense that the ship could reach its destination faster than a beam of light that was traveling outside the warp bubble. So assuming that a spacecraft could be outfitted with an Alcubierre Drive system, it would be able to make the trip to Proxima Centauri in less than 4 years. So when it comes to theoretical interstellar space travel, this is by far the most promising technology, at least in terms of speed.

Naturally, the concept has been received its share of counter-arguments over the years. Chief amongst them are the fact that it does not take quantum mechanics into account, and could be invalidated by a Theory of Everything (such as loop quantum gravity). Calculations on the amount of energy required have also indicated that a warp drive would require a prohibitive amount of power to work. Other uncertainties include the safety of such a system, the effects on space-time at the destination, and violations of causality.

However, in 2012, NASA scientist Harold Sonny White announced that he and his colleagues had begun researching the possibility of an Alcubierre Drive. In a paper titled Warp Field Mechanics 101, White claimed that they had constructed an interferometer that will detect the spatial distortions produced by the expanding and contracting spacetime of the Alcubierre metric.

In 2013, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published results of a warp field test which was conducted under vacuum conditions. Unfortunately, the results were reported as inconclusive. Long term, we may find that Alcubierres metric may violate one or more fundamental laws of nature. And even if the physics should prove to be sound, there is no guarantee it can be harnessed for the sake of FTL flight.

In conclusion, if you were hoping to travel to the nearest star within your lifetime, the outlook isnt very good. However, if mankind felt the incentive to build an interstellar ark filled with a self-sustaining community of space-faring humans, it might be possible to travel there in a little under a century if we were willing to invest in the requisite technology.

But all the available methods are still very limited when it comes to transit time. And while taking hundreds or thousands of years to reach the nearest star may matter less to us if our very survival was at stake, it is simply not practical as far as space exploration and travel goes. By the time a mission reached even the closest stars in our galaxy, the technology employed would be obsolete and humanity might not even exist back home anymore.

So unless we make a major breakthrough in the realms of fusion, antimatter, or laser technology, we will either have to be content with exploring our own Solar System, or be forced to accept a very long-term transit strategy

We have written many interesting articles about space travel here at Universe Today. Heres Will We Ever Reach Another Star?, Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside, The Alcubierre Warp Drive, How Far Is A Light Year?, When Light Just Isnt Fast Enough, When Will We Become Interstellar?, and Can We Travel Faster Than the Speed of Light?

For more information, be sure to consult NASAs pages on Propulsion Systems of the Future, and Is Warp Drive Real?

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How Long Would It Take To Travel To The Nearest Star …

Weve all asked this question at some point in our lives: How long would it take to travel to the stars? Could it be within a persons own lifetime, and could this kind of travel become the norm someday? There are many possible answers to this question some very simple, others in the realms of science fiction. But coming up with a comprehensive answer means taking a lot of things into consideration.

Unfortunately, any realistic assessment is likely to produce answers that would totally discourage futurists and enthusiasts of interstellar travel. Like it or not, space is very large, and our technology is still very limited. But should we ever contemplate leaving the nest, we will have a range of options for getting to the nearest Solar Systems in our galaxy.

The nearest star to Earth is our Sun, which is a fairly average star in the Hertzsprung Russell Diagrams Main Sequence. This means that it is highly stable, providing Earth with just the right type of sunlight for life to evolve on our planet. We know there are planets orbiting other stars near to our Solar System, and many of these stars are similar to our own.

In the future, should mankind wish to leave the Solar System, well have a huge choice of stars we could travel to, and many could have the right conditions for life to thrive. But where would we go and how long would it take for us to get there? Just remember, this is all speculative and there is currently no benchmark for interstellar trips. That being said, here we go!

Over 2000 exoplanets have been identified, many of which are believed to be habitable. Credit: phl.upl.edu

As already noted, the closest star to our Solar System is Proxima Centauri, which is why it makes the most sense to plot an interstellar mission to this system first. As part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri, Proxima is about 4.24 light years (or 1.3 parsecs) from Earth. Alpha Centauri is actually the brightest star of the three in the system part of a closely orbiting binary 4.37 light years from Earth whereas Proxima Centauri (the dimmest of the three) is an isolated red dwarf about 0.13 light years from the binary.

And while interstellar travel conjures up all kinds of visions of Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel, ranging from warp speed and wormholes to jump drives, such theories are either highly speculative (such as the Alcubierre Drive) or entirely the province of science fiction. In all likelihood, any deep space mission will likely take generations to get there, rather than a few days or in an instantaneous flash.

So, starting with one of the slowest forms of space travel, how long will it take to get to Proxima Centauri?

The question of how long would it take to get somewhere in space is somewhat easier when dealing with existing technology and bodies within our Solar System. For instance, using the technology that powered the New Horizons mission which consisted of 16 thrusters fueled with hydrazine monopropellant reaching the Moon would take a mere 8 hours and 35 minutes.

On the other hand, there is the European Space Agencys (ESA) SMART-1 mission, which took its time traveling to the Moon using the method of ionic propulsion. With this revolutionary technology, a variation of which has since been used by the Dawn spacecraft to reach Vesta, the SMART-1 mission took one year, one month and two weeks to reach the Moon.

So, from the speedy rocket-propelled spacecraft to the economical ion drive, we have a few options for getting around local space plus we could use Jupiter or Saturn for a hefty gravitational slingshot. However, if we were to contemplate missions to somewhere a little more out of the way, we would have to scale up our technology and look at whats really possible.

When we say possible methods, we are talking about those that involve existing technology, or those that do not yet exist, but are technically feasible. Some, as you will see, are time-honored and proven, while others are emerging or still on the board. In just about all cases though, they present a possible, but extremely time-consuming or expensive, scenario for getting to even the closest stars

Ionic Propulsion:Currently, the slowest form of propulsion, and the most fuel-efficient, is the ion engine. A few decades ago, ionic propulsion was considered to be the subject of science fiction. However, in recent years, the technology to support ion engines has moved from theory to practice in a big way. The ESAs SMART-1 mission for example successfully completed its mission to the Moon after taking a 13 month spiral path from the Earth.

SMART-1 used solar powered ion thrusters, where electrical energy was harvested from its solar panels and used to power its Hall-effect thrusters. Only 82 kg of xenon propellant was used to propel SMART-1 to the Moon. 1 kg of xenon propellant provided a delta-v of 45 m/s. This is a highly efficient form of propulsion, but it is by no means fast.

Artists concept of Dawn mission above Ceres. Since its arrival, the spacecraft turned around to point the blue glow of its ion engine in the opposite direction. Image credit: NASA/JPL

One of the first missions to use ion drive technology was the Deep Space 1 mission to Comet Borrelly that took place in 1998. DS1 also used a xenon-powered ion drive, consuming 81.5 kg of propellant. Over 20 months of thrusting, DS1 was managed to reach a velocity of 56,000 km/hr (35,000 miles/hr) during its flyby of the comet.

Ion thrusters are therefore more economical than rocket technology, as the thrust per unit mass of propellant (a.k.a. specific impulse) is far higher. But it takes a long time for ion thrusters to accelerate spacecraft to any great speeds, and the maximum velocity it can achieve is dependent on its fuel supply and how much electrical energy it can generate.

So if ionic propulsion were to be used for a mission to Proxima Centauri, the thrusters would need a huge source of energy production (i.e. nuclear power) and a large quantity of propellant (although still less than conventional rockets). But based on the assumption that a supply of 81.5 kg of xenon propellant translates into a maximum velocity of 56,000 km/hr (and that there are no other forms of propulsion available, such as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate it further), some calculations can be made.

In short, at a maximum velocity of 56,000 km/h, Deep Space 1 would take over 81,000 years to traverse the 4.24 light years between Earth and Proxima Centauri. To put that time-scale into perspective, that would be over 2,700 human generations. So it is safe to say that an interplanetary ion engine mission would be far too slow to be considered for a manned interstellar mission.

Ionic propulsion is currently the slowest, but most fuel-efficient, form of space travel. Credit: NASA/JPL

But, should ion thrusters be made larger and more powerful (i.e. ion exhaust velocity would need to be significantly higher), and enough propellant could be hauled to keep the spacecrafts going for the entire 4.243 light-year trip, that travel time could be greatly reduced. Still not enough to happen in someones lifetime though.

Gravity Assist Method:The fastest existing means of space travel is known the Gravity Assist method, which involves a spacecraft using the relative movement (i.e. orbit) and gravity of a planet to alter is path and speed. Gravitational assists are a very useful spaceflight technique, especially when using the Earth or another massive planet (like a gas giant) for a boost in velocity.

The Mariner 10 spacecraft was the first to use this method, using Venus gravitational pull to slingshot it towards Mercury in February of 1974. In the 1980s, the Voyager 1 probe used Saturn and Jupiter for gravitational slingshots to attain its current velocity of 60,000 km/hr (38,000 miles/hr) and make it into interstellar space.

However, it was the Helios 2 mission which was launched in 1976 to study the interplanetary medium from 0.3 AU to 1 AU to the Sun that holds the record for highest speed achieved with a gravity assist. At the time, Helios 1 (which launched in 1974) and Helios 2 held the record for closest approach to the Sun. Helios 2 was launched by a conventional NASA Titan/Centaur launch vehicle and placed in a highly elliptical orbit.

A Helios probe being encapsulated for launch. Credit: Public Domain

Due to the large eccentricity (0.54) of the 190 day solar orbit, at perihelion Helios 2 was able to reach a maximum velocity of over 240,000 km/hr (150,000 miles/hr). This orbital speed was attained by the gravitational pull of the Sun alone. Technically, the Helios 2 perihelion velocity was not a gravitational slingshot, it was a maximum orbital velocity, but it still holds the record for being the fastest man-made object regardless.

So, if Voyager 1 was traveling in the direction of the red dwarf Proxima Centauri at a constant velocity of 60,000 km/hr, it would take 76,000 years (or over 2,500 generations) to travel that distance. But if it could attain the record-breaking speed of Helios 2s close approach of the Sun a constant speed of 240,000 km/hr it would take 19,000 years (or over 600 generations) to travel 4.243 light years. Significantly better, but still not in the ream of practicality.

Electromagnetic (EM) Drive:Another proposed method of interstellar travel comes in the form of the Radio Frequency (RF) Resonant Cavity Thruster, also known as the EM Drive. Originally proposed in 2001 by Roger K. Shawyer, a UK scientist who started Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd (SPR) to bring it to fruition, this drive is built around the idea that electromagnetic microwave cavities can allow for the direct conversion of electrical energy to thrust.

Whereas conventional electromagnetic thrusters are designed to propel a certain type of mass (such as ionized particles), this particular drive system relies on no reaction mass and emits no directional radiation. Such a proposal has met with a great deal of skepticism, mainly because it violates the law of Conservation of Momentum which states that within a system, the amount of momentum remains constant and is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes through the action of forces.

The EM Drive prototype produced by NASA/Eagleworks. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Forum

However, recent experiments with the technology have apparently yielded positive results. In July of 2014, at the 50th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, researchers from NASAs advanced propulsion research claimed that they had successfully tested a new design for an electromagnetic propulsion drive.

This was followed up in April of 2015 when researchers at NASA Eagleworks (part of the Johnson Space Center) claimed that they had successfully tested the drive in a vacuum, an indication that it might actually work in space. In July of that same year, a research team from the Dresden University of Technologys Space System department built their own version of the engine and observed a detectable thrust.

And in 2010, Prof. Juan Yang of the Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian, China, began publishing a series of papers about her research into EM Drive technology. This culminated in her 2012 paper where she reported higher input power (2.5kW) and tested thrust (720mN) levels. In 2014, she further reported extensive tests involving internal temperature measurements with embedded thermocouples, which seemed to confirm that the system worked.

Artists concept of an interstellar craft equipped with an EM Drive. Credit: NASA Spaceflight Center

According to calculations based on the NASA prototype (which yielded a power estimate of 0.4 N/kilowatt), a spacecraft equipped with the EM drive could make the trip to Pluto in less than 18 months. Thats one-sixth the time it took for the New Horizons probe to get there, which was traveling at speeds of close to 58,000 km/h (36,000 mph).

Sounds impressive. But even at that rate, it would take a ship equipped with EM engines over 13,000 years for the vessel to make it to Proxima Centauri. Getting closer, but not quickly enough! and until such time that technology can be definitively proven to work, it doesnt make much sense to put our eggs into this basket.

Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP):Another possibility for interstellar space flight is to use spacecraft equipped with nuclear engines, a concept which NASA has been exploring for decades. In a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust.

A Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEP) rocket involves the same basic reactor converting its heat and energy into electrical energy, which would then power an electrical engine. In both cases, the rocket would rely on nuclear fission or fusion to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date.

Artists impression of a Crew Transfer Vehicle (CTV) using its nuclear-thermal rocket engines to slow down and establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

Compared to chemical propulsion, both NTP and NEC offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel. In addition, a nuclear-powered engine could also provide superior thrust relative to the amount of propellant used. This would cut the total amount of propellant needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions.

Although no nuclear-thermal engines have ever flown, several design concepts have been built and tested over the past few decades, and numerous concepts have been proposed. These have ranged from the traditional solid-core design such as the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) to more advanced and efficient concepts that rely on either a liquid or a gas core.

However, despite these advantages in fuel-efficiency and specific impulse, the most sophisticated NTP concept has a maximum specific impulse of 5000 seconds (50 kNs/kg). Using nuclear engines driven by fission or fusion, NASA scientists estimate it would could take a spaceship only 90 days to get to Mars when the planet was at opposition i.e. as close as 55,000,000 km from Earth.

But adjusted for a one-way journey to Proxima Centauri, a nuclear rocket would still take centuries to accelerate to the point where it was flying a fraction of the speed of light. It would then require several decades of travel time, followed by many more centuries of deceleration before reaching it destination. All told, were still talking about 1000 years before it reaches its destination. Good for interplanetary missions, not so good for interstellar ones.

Using existing technology, the time it would take to send scientists and astronauts on an interstellar mission would be prohibitively slow. If we want to make that journey within a single lifetime, or even a generation, something a bit more radical (aka. highly theoretical) will be needed. And while wormholes and jump engines may still be pure fiction at this point, there are some rather advanced ideas that have been considered over the years.

Nuclear Pulse Propulsion:Nuclear pulse propulsion is a theoretically possible form of fast space travel. The concept was originally proposed in 1946 by Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician who participated in the Manhattan Project, and preliminary calculations were then made by F. Reines and Ulam in 1947. The actual project known as Project Orion was initiated in 1958 and lasted until 1963.

The Project Orion concept for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. Credit: silodrome.co

Led by Ted Taylor at General Atomics and physicist Freeman Dyson from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Orion hoped to harness the power of pulsed nuclear explosions to provide a huge thrust with very high specific impulse (i.e. the amount of thrust compared to weight or the amount of seconds the rocket can continually fire).

In a nutshell, the Orion design involves a large spacecraft with a high supply of thermonuclear warheads achieving propulsion by releasing a bomb behind it and then riding the detonation wave with the help of a rear-mounted pad called a pusher. After each blast, the explosive force would be absorbed by this pusher pad, which then translates the thrust into forward momentum.

Though hardly elegant by modern standards, the advantage of the design is that it achieves a high specific impulse meaning it extracts the maximum amount of energy from its fuel source (in this case, nuclear bombs) at minimal cost. In addition, the concept could theoretically achieve very high speeds, with some estimates suggesting a ballpark figure as high as 5% the speed of light (or 5.4107 km/hr).

But of course, there the inevitable downsides to the design. For one, a ship of this size would be incredibly expensive to build. According to estimates produced by Dyson in 1968, an Orion spacecraft that used hydrogen bombs to generate propulsion would weight 400,000 to 4,000,000 metric tons. And at least three quarters of that weight consists of nuclear bombs, where each warhead weights approximately 1 metric ton.

Artists concept of Orion spacecraft leaving Earth. Credit: bisbos.com/Adrian Mann

All told, Dysons most conservative estimates placed the total cost of building an Orion craft at 367 billion dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to roughly $2.5 trillion dollars which accounts for over two thirds of the US governments current annual revenue. Hence, even at its lightest, the craft would be extremely expensive to manufacture.

Theres also the slight problem of all the radiation it generates, not to mention nuclear waste. In fact, it is for this reason that the Project is believed to have been terminated, owing to the passage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which sought to limit nuclear testing and stop the excessive release of nuclear fallout into the planets atmosphere.

Fusion Rockets:Another possibility within the realm of harnessed nuclear power involves rockets that rely on thermonuclear reactions to generate thrust. For this concept, energy is created when pellets of a deuterium/helium-3 mix are ignited in a reaction chamber by inertial confinement using electron beams (similar to what is done at the National Ignition Facility in California). This fusion reactor would detonate 250 pellets per second to create high-energy plasma, which would then be directed by a magnetic nozzle to create thrust.

Like a rocket that relies on a nuclear reactor, this concept offers advantages as far as fuel efficiency and specific impulse are concerned. Exhaust velocities of up to 10,600km/s are estimated, which is far beyond the speed of conventional rockets. Whats more, the technology has been studied extensively over the past few decades, and many proposals have been made.

Artists concept of the Daedalus spacecraft, a two-stage fusion rocket that would achieve up to 12% he speed of light. Credit: Adrian Mann

For example, between 1973 and 1978, the British Interplanetary Society conducted feasibility study known as Project Daedalus. Relying on current knowledge of fusion technology and existing methods, the study called for the creation of a two-stage unmanned scientific probe making a trip to Barnards Star (5.9 light years from Earth) in a single lifetime.

The first stage, the larger of the two, would operate for 2.05 years and accelerate the spacecraft to 7.1% the speed of light (o.071 c). This stage would then be jettisoned, at which point, the second stage would ignite its engine and accelerate the spacecraft up to about 12% of light speed (0.12 c) over the course of 1.8 years. The second-stage engine would then be shut down and the ship would enter into a 46-year cruise period.

According to the Projects estimates, the mission would take 50 years to reach Barnards Star. Adjusted for Proxima Centauri, the same craft could make the trip in 36 years. But of course, the project also identified numerous stumbling blocks that made it unfeasible using then-current technology most of which are still unresolved.

For instance, there is the fact that helium-3 is scare on Earth, which means it would have to be mined elsewhere (most likely on the Moon). Second, the reaction that drives the spacecraft requires that the energy released vastly exceed the energy used to trigger the reaction. And while experiments here on Earth have surpassed the break-even goal, we are still a long way away from the kinds of energy needed to power an interstellar spaceship.

Artists concept of the Project Daedalus spacecraft, with a Saturn V rocket standing next to it for scale. Credit: Adrian Mann

Third, there is the cost factor of constructing such a ship. Even by the modest standard of Project Daedalus unmanned craft, a fully-fueled craft would weight as much as 60,000 Mt. To put that in perspective, the gross weight of NASAs SLS is just over 30 Mt, and a single launch comes with a price tag of $5 billion (based on estimates made in 2013).

In short, a fusion rocket would not only be prohibitively expensive to build, it would require a level of fusion reactor technology that is currently beyond our means. Icarus Interstellar, an international organization of volunteer citizen scientists (some of whom worked for NASA or the ESA) have since attempted to revitalize the concept with Project Icarus. Founded in 2009, the group hopes to make fusion propulsion (among other things) feasible by the near future.

Fusion Ramjet:Also known as the Bussard Ramjet, this theoretical form of propulsion was first proposed by physicist Robert W. Bussard in 1960. Basically, it is an improvement over the standard nuclear fusion rocket, which uses magnetic fields to compress hydrogen fuel to the point that fusion occurs. But in the Ramjets case, an enormous electromagnetic funnel scoops hydrogen from the interstellar medium and dumps it into the reactor as fuel.

Artists concept of the Bussard Ramjet, which would harness hydrogen from the interstellar medium to power its fusion engines. Credit: futurespacetransportation.weebly.com

As the ship picks up speed, the reactive mass is forced into a progressively constricted magnetic field, compressing it until thermonuclear fusion occurs. The magnetic field then directs the energy as rocket exhaust through an engine nozzle, thereby accelerating the vessel. Without any fuel tanks to weigh it down, a fusion ramjet could achieve speeds approaching 4% of the speed of light and travel anywhere in the galaxy.

However, the potential drawbacks of this design are numerous. For instance, there is the problem of drag. The ship relies on increased speed to accumulate fuel, but as it collides with more and more interstellar hydrogen, it may also lose speed especially in denser regions of the galaxy. Second, deuterium and tritium (used in fusion reactors here on Earth) are rare in space, whereas fusing regular hydrogen (which is plentiful in space) is beyond our current methods.

This concept has been popularized extensively in science fiction. Perhaps the best known example of this is in the franchise of Star Trek, where Bussard collectors are the glowing nacelles on warp engines. But in reality, our knowledge of fusion reactions need to progress considerably before a ramjet is possible. We would also have to figure out that pesky drag problem before we began to consider building such a ship!

Laser Sail:Solar sails have long been considered to be a cost-effective way of exploring the Solar System. In addition to being relatively easy and cheap to manufacture, theres the added bonus of solar sails requiring no fuel. Rather than using rockets that require propellant, the sail uses the radiation pressure from stars to push large ultra-thin mirrors to high speeds.

IKAROS spaceprobe with solar sail in flight (artists depiction) showing a typical square sail configuration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Andrzej Mirecki

However, for the sake of interstellar flight, such a sail would need to be driven by focused energy beams (i.e. lasers or microwaves) to push it to a velocity approaching the speed of light. The concept was originally proposed by Robert Forward in 1984, who was a physicist at the Hughes Aircrafts research laboratories at the time.

The concept retains the benefits of a solar sail, in that it requires no on-board fuel, but also from the fact that laser energy does not dissipate with distance nearly as much as solar radiation. So while a laser-driven sail would take some time to accelerate to near-luminous speeds, it would be limited only to the speed of light itself.

According to a 2000 study produced by Robert Frisbee, a director of advanced propulsion concept studies at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a laser sail could be accelerated to half the speed of light in less than a decade. He also calculated that a sail measuring about 320 km (200 miles) in diameter could reach Proxima Centauri in just over 12 years. Meanwhile, a sail measuring about 965 km (600 miles) in diameter would arrive in just under 9 years.

However, such a sail would have to be built from advanced composites to avoid melting. Combined with its size, this would add up to a pretty penny! Even worse is the sheer expense incurred from building a laser large and powerful enough to drive a sail to half the speed of light. According to Frisbees own study, the lasers would require a steady flow of 17,000 terawatts of power close to what the entire world consumes in a single day.

Antimatter Engine:Fans of science fiction are sure to have heard of antimatter. But in case you havent, antimatter is essentially material composed of antiparticles, which have the same mass but opposite charge as regular particles. An antimatter engine, meanwhile, is a form of propulsion that uses interactions between matter and antimatter to generate power, or to create thrust.

Artists concept of an antimatter-powered spacecraft for missions to Mars, as part of the Mars Reference Mission. Credit: NASA

In short, an antimatter engine involves particles of hydrogen and antihydrogen being slammed together. This reaction unleashes as much as energy as a thermonuclear bomb, along with a shower of subatomic particles called pions and muons. These particles, which would travel at one-third the speed of light, are then be channeled by a magnetic nozzle to generate thrust.

The advantage to this class of rocket is that a large fraction of the rest mass of a matter/antimatter mixture may be converted to energy, allowing antimatter rockets to have a far higher energy density and specific impulse than any other proposed class of rocket. Whats more, controlling this kind of reaction could conceivably push a rocket up to half the speed of light.

Pound for pound, this class of ship would be the fastest and most fuel-efficient ever conceived. Whereas conventional rockets require tons of chemical fuel to propel a spaceship to its destination, an antimatter engine could do the same job with just a few milligrams of fuel. In fact, the mutual annihilation of a half pound of hydrogen and antihydrogen particles would unleash more energy than a 10-megaton hydrogen bomb.

It is for this exact reason that NASAs Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) has investigated the technology as a possible means for future Mars missions. Unfortunately, when contemplating missions to nearby star systems, the amount if fuel needs to make the trip is multiplied exponentially, and the cost involved in producing it would be astronomical (no pun!).

What matter and antimatter might look like annihilating one another. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

According to report prepared for the 39th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference and Exhibit (also by Robert Frisbee), a two-stage antimatter rocket would need over 815,000 metric tons (900,000 US tons) of fuel to make the journey to Proxima Centauri in approximately 40 years. Thats not bad, as far as timelines go. But again, the cost

Whereas a single gram of antimatter would produce an incredible amount of energy, it is estimated that producing just one gram would require approximately 25 million billion kilowatt-hours of energy and cost over a trillion dollars. At present, the total amount of antimatter that has been created by humans is less 20 nanograms.

And even if we could produce antimatter for cheap, you would need a massive ship to hold the amount of fuel needed. According to a report by Dr. Darrel Smith & Jonathan Webby of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, an interstellar craft equipped with an antimatter engine could reach 0.5 the speed of light and reach Proxima Centauri in a little over 8 years. However, the ship itself would weigh 400 Mt, and would need 170 MT of antimatter fuel to make the journey.

A possible way around this is to create a vessel that can create antimatter which it could then store as fuel. This concept, known as the Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES), was proposed by Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar. Based on the idea of in-situ refueling, a VARIES ship would rely on large lasers (powered by enormous solar arrays) which would create particles of antimatter when fired at empty space.

Artists concept of the Vacuum to Antimatter Rocket Interstellar Explorer System (VARIES), a concept that would use solar arrays to power lasers that create particles of antimatter to be used as fuel. Credit: Adrian Mann

Much like the Ramjet concept, this proposal solves the problem of carrying fuel by harnessing it from space. But once again, the sheer cost of such a ship would be prohibitively expensive using current technology. In addition, the ability to create dark matter in large volumes is not something we currently have the power to do. Theres also the matter of radiation, as matter-antimatter annihilation can produce blasts of high-energy gamma rays.

This not only presents a danger to the crew, requiring significant radiations shielding, but requires the engines be shielded as well to ensure they dont undergo atomic degradation from all the radiation they are exposed to. So bottom line, the antimatter engine is completely impractical with our current technology and in the current budget environment.

Alcubierre Warp Drive:Fans of science fiction are also no doubt familiar with the concept of an Alcubierre (or Warp) Drive. Proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994, this proposed method was an attempt to make FTL travel possible without violating Einsteins theory of Special Relativity. In short, the concept involves stretching the fabric of space-time in a wave, which would theoretically cause the space ahead of an object to contract and the space behind it to expand.

An object inside this wave (i.e. a spaceship) would then be able to ride this wave, known as a warp bubble, beyond relativistic speeds. Since the ship is not moving within this bubble, but is being carried along as it moves, the rules of space-time and relativity would cease to apply. The reason being, this method does not rely on moving faster than light in the local sense.

Artist Mark Rademakers concept for the IXS Enterprise, a theoretical interstellar warp spacecraft. Credit: Mark Rademaker/flickr.com

It is only faster than light in the sense that the ship could reach its destination faster than a beam of light that was traveling outside the warp bubble. So assuming that a spacecraft could be outfitted with an Alcubierre Drive system, it would be able to make the trip to Proxima Centauri in less than 4 years. So when it comes to theoretical interstellar space travel, this is by far the most promising technology, at least in terms of speed.

Naturally, the concept has been received its share of counter-arguments over the years. Chief amongst them are the fact that it does not take quantum mechanics into account, and could be invalidated by a Theory of Everything (such as loop quantum gravity). Calculations on the amount of energy required have also indicated that a warp drive would require a prohibitive amount of power to work. Other uncertainties include the safety of such a system, the effects on space-time at the destination, and violations of causality.

However, in 2012, NASA scientist Harold Sonny White announced that he and his colleagues had begun researching the possibility of an Alcubierre Drive. In a paper titled Warp Field Mechanics 101, White claimed that they had constructed an interferometer that will detect the spatial distortions produced by the expanding and contracting spacetime of the Alcubierre metric.

In 2013, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published results of a warp field test which was conducted under vacuum conditions. Unfortunately, the results were reported as inconclusive. Long term, we may find that Alcubierres metric may violate one or more fundamental laws of nature. And even if the physics should prove to be sound, there is no guarantee it can be harnessed for the sake of FTL flight.

In conclusion, if you were hoping to travel to the nearest star within your lifetime, the outlook isnt very good. However, if mankind felt the incentive to build an interstellar ark filled with a self-sustaining community of space-faring humans, it might be possible to travel there in a little under a century if we were willing to invest in the requisite technology.

But all the available methods are still very limited when it comes to transit time. And while taking hundreds or thousands of years to reach the nearest star may matter less to us if our very survival was at stake, it is simply not practical as far as space exploration and travel goes. By the time a mission reached even the closest stars in our galaxy, the technology employed would be obsolete and humanity might not even exist back home anymore.

So unless we make a major breakthrough in the realms of fusion, antimatter, or laser technology, we will either have to be content with exploring our own Solar System, or be forced to accept a very long-term transit strategy

We have written many interesting articles about space travel here at Universe Today. Heres Will We Ever Reach Another Star?, Warp Drives May Come With a Killer Downside, The Alcubierre Warp Drive, How Far Is A Light Year?, When Light Just Isnt Fast Enough, When Will We Become Interstellar?, and Can We Travel Faster Than the Speed of Light?

For more information, be sure to consult NASAs pages on Propulsion Systems of the Future, and Is Warp Drive Real?

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How Long Would It Take To Travel To The Nearest Star …

Space Adventures, Ltd. | Home

May 1, 2017

ISS Cupola a room with an extraordinary view

Positioned on the Earth facing side of the International Space Station (ISS) the Cupola provides extraordinary views of the Earth. The Cupola juts out from the main structure of the

November 18, 2014

Reasons you should fly to space

At Space Adventures we are often asked why private citizens should fly to space. So I asked our previous spaceflight client, Richard Garriott, who spent 12 days on the International

October 7, 2014

10 Best Photos of Earth Taken By Astronauts

Pictures Taken From Space Provide a Look into the Space Travel Experience Since the first astronauts returned with photos showing our planet from a new perspective, our desire to see

More here:

Space Adventures, Ltd. | Home

Space Adventures, Ltd. | Home

May 1, 2017

ISS Cupola a room with an extraordinary view

Positioned on the Earth facing side of the International Space Station (ISS) the Cupola provides extraordinary views of the Earth. The Cupola juts out from the main structure of the

April 18, 2017

Soyuz Rocket successfully launching humans to space for over 40 years.

Soyuz Rocket The Soyuz spacecraft launches on the Soyuz rocket, which like the spacecraft has a long track record of successful operation. First flown in 1966, Soyuz rockets in various

April 5, 2017

Soyuz spacecraft success through continual improvement

Today, there are only two vehicles that can carry humans into space. One is the Russian Soyuz, the other is the Chinese Shenzhou (see below). Only Chinese professional astronauts (or

November 18, 2014

Reasons you should fly to space

At Space Adventures we are often asked why private citizens should fly to space. So I asked our previous spaceflight client, Richard Garriott, who spent 12 days on the International

October 7, 2014

10 Best Photos of Earth Taken By Astronauts

Pictures Taken From Space Provide a Look into the Space Travel Experience Since the first astronauts returned with photos showing our planet from a new perspective, our desire to see

View post:

Space Adventures, Ltd. | Home

New radiation-hardened computers are ready to blast off on space missions – CNET

BAE Systems

If you think getting knocked around in your backpack on the subway is tough on a computer, try going into space, where radiation and cosmic rays can cause sensitive computer equipment to degrade and fail.

Aerospace company BAE Systems has just announced a new computer it calls “radiation-hardened.” According to the company, the new RAD5545 “provides next-generation spacecraft with the high-performance onboard processing capacity needed to support future space missions,” and is faster and more power-efficient than its predecessor.

A single RAD5545 SBC replaces multiple cards on previous generations of spacecraft. It combines high performance, large amounts of memory, and fast throughput to improve spacecraft capability, efficiency, and mission performance. With its improved computational throughput, storage, and bandwidth, it will provide spacecraft with the ability to conduct new missions, including those requiring encryption processing, multiple operating systems, ultra high-resolution image processing, autonomous operation, and simultaneous support for multiple payloads missions that were impossible with previous single-board computers.

Because it’s a single-card computer with all the components on one circuit board, it’s smaller, with fewer parts to potentially fail, and it uses specially insulated components to protect against radiation. Long-term trips, such as to Mars, would especially require computer hardware that could stand up to the long-term rigors of space travel.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise meanwhile is trying a different approach to dealing with radiation. It’s space-testing relatively ordinary computers with software to detect and correct radiation-induced computing errors.

Read the rest here:

New radiation-hardened computers are ready to blast off on space missions – CNET

Bold Space Travel – Santa Barbara Edhat

Transforming science fiction to reality, UC Santa Barbara physics professor Philip Lubin is creating a laser-cannon system to propel miniature spaceships with solar sails more than 25 trillion miles to the suns nearest star Proxima Centuari.

Loaded with cameras, other sensors, historical records of humanity, greetings from Earth and possibly human DNA, the smartphone-sized crafts, or interstellar arks, would be thrust on an historic journey that would take about 20 years a blink of an eye in space travel.

People understood roughly 100 years ago that it was possible using then- technology to send a human to the moon and return them, Lubin said, noting that one challenge was scaling down equipment. If you look at the popular literature at that time, the idea was treated as science fiction, like Flash Gordon.

Lubins ambitious vision is showcased in Laser-Sailing Starships, one of eight new books in the Out of this World Series (World Book, 2017). Targeted to middle- school students, the books focus on research fellows involved in the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. NASAs aim is to foster the next generation of scientific talent.

The great part about the whole series is that it doesnt talk down to kids, but addresses the science head-on, said Jason Derleth, the program executive for NASA, which helps fund Lubins research.

In 2009, Lubin began examining how to use directed energy a phased laser array to deflect asteroids bound for Earth. But there was limited outside interest in the UCSB research, he said, because the planet doesnt get hit often.

See the rest here:

Bold Space Travel – Santa Barbara Edhat

Elon Musk’s Sexy Spacesuit Is One Giant Leap for Space Tourism – Fortune

This week, Elon Musk dragged space fashion into the 21st century with the newly revealed SpaceX spacesuit . But can he do the same for space tourism?

The allure of space travel is deeply embedded in our psyche. Jules Vernes 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon captured some of this drive. But it was JFKs 1961 Moon Shot speech, and the space programs that followed, that encouraged ordinary people to imagine they might one day be able to travel beyond the Earth.

That possibility came closer in 2004 when Burt Rutans SpaceShip One became the first private vessel to carry its three pilots into suborbital flight. Since then, a handful of companies have been pushing hard to kickstart the future of space tourism.

$250,000 will secure you a seat on Sir Richard Bransons Virgin Galactic, even though the company has yet to make its maiden passenger voyage. And Jeff Bezos is also gearing up to give budding space tourists a similar experience with Blue Origins Space Capsule.

Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are promising a few minutes of weightlessness and stunning views of the Earth from spacealbeit at the cost of a second mortgage. But these are little more than titillating carnival rides compared to true space travel.

For this, aspiring space tourists need to look to SpaceX. In February, Musk announced plans to fly two paying passengers around the moon in 2018. This is still the equivalent of a stroll down the street given the vastness of the solar system. But unlike the toe-dipping experiences promised by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, its more likely to capture the full space experience.

And that includes the risks.

If theres one thing weve learned in recent decades, its that space is dangerous. For space tourism to come close to succeeding, companies offering trips beyond the Earths atmosphere are going to have to grapple with a complex and shifting risk landscape.

Space travel encapsulates a remarkable frisson between risk and safety. For many people, the anticipated experience of being in space seems to far outweigh perceived personal risksjust look at the number of people willing to risk their lives on a one-way trip to Mars!

Yet irrespective of what individuals are willing to accept, the possibility of civilian injuries and deaths present a major challenge to the future of space tourism. Expect to see crippling insurance premiums, cold-footed investors, and the specter of regulations that potentially suck the lifeblood out of a fragile industry. But also expect public backlashes against seemingly reckless private ventures that potentially leave deep public scars if they fail.

These and similar risks dont spell the death of space tourism by any stretch of the imagination. But success will depend on weaving a subtle course through new risk territory. Of course, itll mean ensuring that passengers are adequately protected in the event of system failures, and that theyre kept as safe as possible without restricting the experience theyve paid for. But it will also mean granting companies the social and legal license to operate.

And trivial as it may seem, a well-designed spacesuit taps in to all of these. Naturally, you cant succeed in space tourism simply by creating a sexy spacesuit. But you can do a lot with a suit thats functional, desirable, and iconic. And you can excel with one that makes the complete experience worthwhilenot only for the wearer, but for the rest of us who are vicariously experiencing this new adventure from a distance, and everything it promises for the future.

This is a tall order. But maybe Musks sleek new spacesuit will bring us a step closer toward a viable and vibrant future of space tourism.

Andrew Maynard is a professor in the Arizona State University (ASU) School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and director of the ASU Risk Innovation Lab.

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Elon Musk’s Sexy Spacesuit Is One Giant Leap for Space Tourism – Fortune

Space travel microbes turn urine into polymers – Chemistry World (subscription)

A strain of yeast that can recycle urine and carbon dioxide into omega-3 fatty acids and polymers has been developed by US scientists, who say it could help astronauts turn waste products into food on long interplanetary journeys.

Biomolecular engineer Mark Blenner from Clemson University in South Carolina presented the work at the 254th American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, as part of a broader session on getting people to Mars.

Our yeast not only grow on human urine, they actually prefer it to other nitrogen sources

Mark Blenner, Clemson University

Blenners research focuses on the yeast species Yarrowia lipolytica whose cells naturally produce and accumulate omega-3 fatty acids. He says that these products could be used as nutritional supplements for astronauts, as theyve been implicated in preventing bone loss and maintaining cardiovascular and ocular health, but dont have a long enough shelf life for adequate supplies to be brought from Earth. His group showed that the yeast could grow using human urine as a source of nitrogen, something that there would be a plentiful supply of on manned space missions.

Our yeast not only grow on human urine, they actually prefer it to other nitrogen sources, Brenner says. His group have also used synthetic biology to engineer a strain of the same yeast to produce polyhydroxyalkanoates, which shows they have the potential to manufacture polymer inks that could be used to fabricate objects in a 3D printer. In particular, he said this could be very useful in situations where an astronaut has lost a tool or a piece of equipment that they need.

Blenner admits they dont currently know how the biology would react to being in space. But in the meantime there are several more terrestrial applications they can explore, such as producing omega-3 supplements for fish farms and making other speciality chemicals. He says the next stepis for his team to demonstrate that they can get usable quantities of both the polyestersand the omega-3 fatty acids from these astronaut waste stream. We are going to be doing genetic engineering to the cell to really try and force it to make the products that we want, by knocking out certain pathways that might syphon off intermediates, Blenner explains. The team is also still at the early stages of characterising how the yeast go about taking up a lot of these waste substrates. We havent really done a full analysis yet of whats left over to try and see if there is any way to get the yeast to use some of the leftovers, he says.

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Space travel microbes turn urine into polymers – Chemistry World (subscription)

Turning human waste into plastic, nutrients could aid long-distance space travel – Space Daily

Imagine you’re on your way to Mars, and you lose a crucial tool during a spacewalk. Not to worry, you’ll simply re-enter your spacecraft and use some microorganisms to convert your urine and exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2) into chemicals to make a new one. That’s one of the ultimate goals of scientists who are developing ways to make long space trips feasible.

The researchers are presenting their results this week at the 254th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Thursday. It features nearly 9,400 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

Astronauts can’t take a lot of spare parts into space because every extra ounce adds to the cost of fuel needed to escape Earth’s gravity. “If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we’ll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them,” Mark A. Blenner, Ph.D., says. “Atom economy will become really important.”

The solution lies in part with the astronauts themselves, who will constantly generate waste from breathing, eating and using materials. Unlike their friends on Earth, Blenner says, these spacefarers won’t want to throw any waste molecules away. So he and his team are studying how to repurpose these molecules and convert them into products the astronauts need, such as polyesters and nutrients.

Some essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, have a shelf life of just a couple of years, says Blenner, who is at Clemson University. They’ll need to be made en route, beginning a few years after launch, or at the destination.

“Having a biological system that astronauts can awaken from a dormant state to start producing what they need, when they need it, is the motivation for our project,” he says.

Blenner’s biological system includes a variety of strains of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica. These organisms require both nitrogen and carbon to grow. Blenner’s team discovered that the yeast can obtain their nitrogen from urea in untreated urine.

Meanwhile, the yeast obtain their carbon from CO2, which could come from astronauts’ exhaled breath, or from the Martian atmosphere. But to use CO2, the yeast require a middleman to “fix” the carbon into a form they can ingest. For this purpose, the yeast rely on photosynthetic cyanobacteria or algae provided by the researchers.

One of the yeast strains produces omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart, eye and brain health. Another strain has been engineered to churn out monomers and link them to make polyester polymers.

Those polymers could then be used in a 3-D printer to generate new plastic parts. Blenner’s team is continuing to engineer this yeast strain to produce a variety of monomers that can be polymerized into different types of polyesters with a range of properties.

For now, the engineered yeast strains can produce only small amounts of polyesters or nutrients, but the scientists are working on boosting output. They’re also looking into applications here on Earth, in fish farming and human nutrition. For example, fish raised via aquaculture need to be given omega-3 fatty acid supplements, which could be produced by Blenner’s yeast strains.

Although other research groups are also putting yeast to work, they aren’t taking the same approach. For example, a team from DuPont is already using yeast to make omega-3 fatty acids for aquaculture, but its yeast feed on refined sugar instead of waste products, Blenner says. Meanwhile, two other teams are engineering yeast to make polyesters. However, unlike Blenner’s group, they aren’t engineering the organisms to optimize the type of polyester produced, he says.

Whatever their approach, these researchers are all adding to the body of knowledge about Y. lipolytica, which has been studied much less than, say, the yeast used in beer production.

“We’re learning that Y. lipolytica is quite a bit different than other yeast in their genetics and biochemical nature,” Blenner says. “Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better.”

A video on the research is available here

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Turning human waste into plastic, nutrients could aid long-distance space travel – Space Daily

Potential Solution for Dealing with Human Waste in Space Travel – Industry Daily News (press release) (blog)

Researchers recently showed a rather unique solution to one of the more perplexing and unavoidable problems in long distance space travel: taking care of the human waste. According to their process, an astronaut could essentially create new tools or replace broken ones using a technology that converts exhaled carbon dioxide and other waste products into feasible chemicals. The researchers were to show the results of their study at ACSs 254th National Meeting and Exposition.

Two Birds with One Stone, Space Travel Edition

PhD Mark Blenner stated that for astronauts to be able to conduct space exploration journeys for longer durations than what is currently possible, it is not just the travel technology that needs to be developed. There could potentially be a way recycle the human waste products into something that the astronauts can utilize. Some of the potential products for this process are spare parts for components. These are something that are more often than not, left behind due to weight issues. The cost of fuel and storage for the spare parts can end up being a significantly high cost that companies may not be able to afford. Blenner adds that in such as situation, an atom economy would be highly valuable. The solution offered by the researchers would thus, not only be a core answer to the spare parts problem, but also a more useful alternative to dumping astronaut waste into space.

Saving Every Molecule to Maximize Efficiency

A lot of astronauts could likely be interested in the atom economy that this technology could offer. They find a lot more value in saving every atom and molecule that what those on Earth would, making the repurposing of human waste a welcome idea. One of the key motivation factors for Blenner and the team was the idea of creating a biological system that can be toggled between active and dormant on command.

More:

Potential Solution for Dealing with Human Waste in Space Travel – Industry Daily News (press release) (blog)

Space Adventures, Ltd. | Home

May 1, 2017

ISS Cupola a room with an extraordinary view

Positioned on the Earth facing side of the International Space Station (ISS) the Cupola provides extraordinary views of the Earth. The Cupola juts out from the main structure of the

April 18, 2017

Soyuz Rocket successfully launching humans to space for over 40 years.

Soyuz Rocket The Soyuz spacecraft launches on the Soyuz rocket, which like the spacecraft has a long track record of successful operation. First flown in 1966, Soyuz rockets in various

April 5, 2017

Soyuz spacecraft success through continual improvement

Today, there are only two vehicles that can carry humans into space. One is the Russian Soyuz, the other is the Chinese Shenzhou (see below). Only Chinese professional astronauts (or

November 18, 2014

Reasons you should fly to space

At Space Adventures we are often asked why private citizens should fly to space. So I asked our previous spaceflight client, Richard Garriott, who spent 12 days on the International

October 7, 2014

10 Best Photos of Earth Taken By Astronauts

Pictures Taken From Space Provide a Look into the Space Travel Experience Since the first astronauts returned with photos showing our planet from a new perspective, our desire to see

Original post:

Space Adventures, Ltd. | Home

Space travel microbes turn urine into polymers – Chemistry World (subscription)

A strain of yeast that can recycle urine and carbon dioxide into omega-3 fatty acids and polymers has been developed by US scientists, who say it could help astronauts turn waste products into food on long interplanetary journeys.

Biomolecular engineer Mark Blenner from Clemson University in South Carolina presented the work at the 254th American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, as part of a broader session on getting people to Mars.

Our yeast not only grow on human urine, they actually prefer it to other nitrogen sources

Mark Blenner, Clemson University

Blenners research focuses on the yeast species Yarrowia lipolytica whose cells naturally produce and accumulate omega-3 fatty acids. He says that these products could be used as nutritional supplements for astronauts, as theyve been implicated in preventing bone loss and maintaining cardiovascular and ocular health, but dont have a long enough shelf life for adequate supplies to be brought from Earth. His group showed that the yeast could grow using human urine as a source of nitrogen, something that there would be a plentiful supply of on manned space missions.

Our yeast not only grow on human urine, they actually prefer it to other nitrogen sources, Brenner says. His group have also used synthetic biology to engineer a strain of the same yeast to produce polyhydroxyalkanoates, which shows they have the potential to manufacture polymer inks that could be used to fabricate objects in a 3D printer. In particular, he said this could be very useful in situations where an astronaut has lost a tool or a piece of equipment that they need.

Blenner admits they dont currently know how the biology would react to being in space. But in the meantime there are several more terrestrial applications they can explore, such as producing omega-3 supplements for fish farms and making other speciality chemicals. He says the next stepis for his team to demonstrate that they can get usable quantities of both the polyestersand the omega-3 fatty acids from these astronaut waste stream. We are going to be doing genetic engineering to the cell to really try and force it to make the products that we want, by knocking out certain pathways that might syphon off intermediates, Blenner explains. The team is also still at the early stages of characterising how the yeast go about taking up a lot of these waste substrates. We havent really done a full analysis yet of whats left over to try and see if there is any way to get the yeast to use some of the leftovers, he says.

Continue reading here:

Space travel microbes turn urine into polymers – Chemistry World (subscription)

Former Astronauts Talk About Space Travel, Their Favorite Sci-Fi Movies and the Future of Our Planet – Parade

August 7, 2017 11:36 AM BySamuel R. Murrian Parade @SamuelR_Murrian More by Samuel R.

Just over 500 people in human history have traveled to space, and former NASA astronautsJeff HoffmanandJerry M. Linengerare among them. Hoffman was born in Brooklyn, New York, and made five space flights, including the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. Eastpointe, Michigan-born Linenger is a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, and has flown on the space shuttle Atlantisand Russian space station Mir.

They are both involved inNational Geographicchannels highly anticipated and ambitious One Strange Rock, an event series exploring the conditions that make Earth the only planet known to sustain life. Hoffman and Linenger will each host one episode of the show, which is produced by Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky(Black Swan,Requiem for a Dream).One Strange Rock is slated for an early 2018 premiere.

ParadeattendedNational Geographics annual Nerd Nite bash on the roof of the Kimpton Solamar Hotel in downtown San Diego during Comic-Con weekend. During the lively party, Hoffman and Linenger each gave passionate talks about their experiences in space and their involvement in One Strange Rock. Afterward, we talked to them about what inspired them to pursue careers in space travel, their favorite science fiction movies and the future of our planet.

What made you want to go into space travel?

Hoffman: When I was a little kid, in the 1950s before sputnikat that point the Space Age was still mostly science fiction. I read about sounding rockets that were being launched, and monkeys going into space, but essentially my childhood heroes were the science fiction guys: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. It was really exciting because I lived through the beginning of the real Space Age when sputnik was launched and then the first people went into space. All of the early astronauts were military test pilots, so I never really looked at being an astronaut, although I was always fascinated with the idea. It wasnt a realistic career goal, because I was never going to be a military pilot. I was interested in science and space. I actually became a professional astronomer.

It was really when the space shuttle came along in the 1970s, and the shuttle had a crew of seven and they only needed two pilots that really opened things up for scientists, engineers and medical doctors. When NASA put out a call for the first group of shuttle astronauts, thats when I applied and I was lucky enough to get selected. That changed my life.

Linenger:When I was 14 looking at the moon, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut someday. I went home and said, Dad, I want to be an astronaut. He could have said, Jerry, forget it. Set your sights on something more realistic. Your odds of being an astronaut are one in a billion. But he didnthe put him arm around me and said, This is America, work hard and study hard, and you can be anything you set your mind to. When I was up in orbit, during rough times on the space station, Id be running on a treadmill and I could feel his presence. I could feel him telling me he was glad I made it and he was proud of me. That tells me that youre never really alone. That tells me you always have people around you who care about you to draw on. You could say thats a coping mechanism, but I choose to believe that was my dads presence helping me.

How would you describe the feeling of being in space to someone who has never been?

Hoffman:Its a feeling of freedom, and being able to do things physically that you would never dream of. Thats why its such a delightful feeling. I really think theres a future for commercial space travel, because people will pay to have that incredible experience. Its a joy; its an ecstasy. Your body has no weight and you have the freedom to move around in ways that you maybe dreamed of before but could never do it.

How has space travel changed your life?

Linenger: I used to be a different person, a real stoic old Naval officer. Up there, I got in touch with being a human being. When I give talks like I did tonight, or in this show coming up, were hitting at some serious human emotions and feelings, and what its like in space. It makes you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

What is it aboutOne Strange Rockthat made you want to get involved?

Hoffman: When they contacted me, I thought it was an honor to be asked by National Geographic to work on a project. Then, when they described it to me, the idea of explaining some of the unique things about our planet that make it one strange rock, and that each of the episodes would be hosted by an astronaut given that weve had the opportunity to look at our planet from such a different perspective, I thought that was also a very nice idea.

Linenger: This show was very much on a personal level. My episode is on death. The show made me think about that kind of stuff. My bodys atoms of the Big Bang are in me, and now I need to be there for my kids and to perpetuate the next generation and leave something behind.

Are there any films about space that really stand out to you as accurate portrayals of space?

Linenger:The Martian(2015). As an astronaut watching that movie, everythingMatt Damons character did in that movie was something I was trained to do. The only question was could I execute one thing after another under pressure like that? Im not sure that I could, and Im not sure any astronaut could. The big insight for me in that movie is he used about 65% of the knowledge I have gained in my training. It was fun to watch.

I took my daughter and her class to seeHidden Figures(2016). My girl is 16, and her eyes lit up. Im always encouraging her, and telling her she can do anything. Weve got it pretty darn good in the U.S.if youve got the drive, you can do it. I tell her that all the time.

Apollo 13(1995)was fabulous.Gravity(2013) in 3Dis the closest Ifeltto being in space. As an audience, if you want to know what it feels like, that gives you a pretty good feel, even though some of the details are a little farfetched.

Hoffman: So many science fiction movies and articleshow should I put it kindlythey just, get it wrong. In the case ofThe Martian, just like withApollo 13, they did their best to get it right. Its a pleasure when that happens. And they made a good story out of it. Its a real public service, because people get the feelingyou know, maybe we really could go to Mars someday. And thats important. Thats one role that science fiction plays that I think is maybe not appreciated enough. Science fiction has been around for a long time. And its given people the belief that we can go to space, that these things are possible. And thats important because if you dont think that something is possible, youre not going to try to do it.

Do you think that young people today are being educated enough about the world around them, and about space exploration?

Linenger: Yes, I think theyre in the right spot at the right time and Im envious. My goal in life right now is to help launch them, because theyve got so much more potential than I had when I was their age. When Im talking to teenagers, I tell them the sky is not the limit. Space was what I got to, and I dont know what their limits are going to be.

Hoffman: First of all, space exploration is not in the news these days in the ways that it was during the early days of the space program. Its something that people have gotten used toThe really nice thing is nowadays for people who are genuinely interested, you dont have to get your news from the main news channels. With all of the different media today, if you want to find out whats going on there are a hundred different ways you can get that information. The NASA website is mobbed after every Mars probe or fly by Pluto, because even though its not on the evening news every night, theres a lot of interest out there.

Is there any advice youd want to give young people who are considering a career in space travel?

Hoffman: Weve barely scratched the surface. Its been 50 years since we flew more than a few hundred miles away from the EarthIf this is something that kids are interested in, work really hard and build up your technical knowledge because space flight is a highly technical enterprise. You need your physics, math, chemistry and computers. Dont be afraid to dream of difficult things, but realize that youre going to have to work hard to make your dreams come true.

Linenger: My main point I tell people is youve got to love what youre doing. Youve got to have passion for what youre doing. If you do, youll do it well. Thats the key to becoming an astronaut. You better have a great thirst for knowledge, and curiosity better be a big driver within you. Set your sights on big things, and even if you dont quite make it, at least youre going in a good direction and you have lots of other good options.

Being astronauts, you have a truly unique perspective of Earth. What are some of your hopes and fears for Earth for the next 100 years?

Linenger: One thing I will say is that on a space station I had to support life. When I was working up there, it took a lot of my time and a lot of my effort to keep myself alive and to make it a habitable environment. Planet Earth is wondrous. Its incredible. Its evolved over millions and millions of years, and its buffering ability is majestic. It can take a lot of insult, but we cant overdo it. Were getting to the point where were overdoing it. With just some common sense measures on all of our parts and well be just fine.

Hoffman: The first thing that most astronauts will tell you when we look at the Earth is what a beautiful planet it is. When you look closely, there are some pretty scary things that you can see. We can see some of the ecological damage that were doing to our planet from the cosmic perspective. You see the destruction of a rainforest, the pollution of rivers, the pollution over big cities. I think a lot of astronauts come back from space with an increased ecological sensitivity that we try to share with other people when we talk about it.

One Strange Rock will premiere on National Geographicin the first quarter of 2018, date TBD.

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Former Astronauts Talk About Space Travel, Their Favorite Sci-Fi Movies and the Future of Our Planet – Parade

Genes in Space winner in Florida to witness her idea take off – The National

Alia Al Mansoori, the Genes in Space winner 2017, is eagerly anticipating her idea taking off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Pawan Singh / The National

She wants to be the first Emirati in space and to plant the UAE flag on the surface of Mars.

And on Monday, 15-year-old Alia Al Mansoori will get her first taste of what that involves when a Falcon 9 rockets blasts off from the world-famous Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Alia will not be on boardbut her work will be. The Dragon capsule on the SpaceX ship carries her winning experiment from The Nationals Genes in Space competition.

Alia and her family will be watching the lift-off at the Nasa complex as guests of Boeing, sponsors of the nationwide contest.

The capsule will carry her experiment to the International Space Station, where it will be tested by one of the astronauts on board.

Last week, Alia was at Harvard University to help prepare her experiment for its voyage into orbit.

Her winning entry uses ribonucleic acid (RNA), a molecule that, like DNA, is key part of all living things.

Samples of RNA will be tested on board the ISS in a specially adapted version of a machine called a miniPCR DNA Discovery System.

She hopes to see if the samples, taken from Nemitode worms, behave differently in space than on Earth, something that could prove vital for long-distance space travel, which Alia hopes to experience.

The samples, packed into several dozen small vials, have been deep frozen and packed in dry ice before being sent to the space centre.

Alias terrestrial journey has been an amazing one since winning the competition.

She has meet Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, is training to be an ambassador for Expo 2020 and has visited Canada to explore further education options in her chose fields of molecular biology and medicine.

The Genes in Space contest attracted more than 100 entries and aims to promote interest in science in UAE schools.

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Read more:

Emirati girl wins Genes in Space competition in pictures

Young Emirati is reaching for the stars as she aims to become UAE’s first astronaut

UAE Genes in Space winner busy fine-tuning her experiment for blast-off

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Alia, a pupil at Al Mawakeb school, says: Ive always wanted to be an astronaut. When I go to Mars, hopefully I will be taking the UAE flag with me.

The launch on Monday is a resupply mission for the ISS and takes place in the same complex where Apollo 11 left for the Moon in 1969 and was later used for Space Shuttle missions.

It will use a commercial rocket built by SpaceX, the company created by billionaire Elon Musk, who is also behind Tesla electric cars.

The Falcon 9 is one of the most sophisticated rockets ever built and is able to land the first stage under its own power for reuse, rather than falling into the sea, like other rockets.

Mondays launch has been delayed several timesbut was finally cleared by Nasa on Thursday after a successful test of the nine Merlin main engines.

Ten minutes after lift-off, the first stage of the rocket will land back at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Dragon capsule will continue into orbit for a rendezvous with the ISS early on Wednesday morning. Astronauts will use a robotic arm to capture the capsule, which will remain docked with the space station until its return to Earth in September.

This will be the 12th mission conducted by SpaceX for its contract with Nasa and will carry dozens of scientific experiments alongside Alias, as well as supplies and equipment.

Other experiments include growing vegetables in space and medical research. Alias experiment will eventually be returned to Earth for evaluation, although no date has been set yet.

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Genes in Space winner in Florida to witness her idea take off – The National

A pair of musicians uses Quindar tones to create a musical tribute to … – PRI

You may not know what a Quindar tone is, but you have definitely heard one.

Quindar tones are the beeps heard in the background of famous space communications, like Neil Armstrongs the Eagle has landed message to Mission Control when the lunar module first reached the moon.

The tones, named after the company that made the equipment, were generated by ground control to turn on and off the radio transmitters used to talk to astronauts. Recently two musicians, Mikael Jorgensen and James Merle Thomas, have taken inspiration from these tones and other sounds from NASAs audio archives to create a new musical album, called Hip Mobility.

Jorgensen, when hes not exploring the bleeps and pings of NASA, is keyboardist for the band Wilco. Thomas is a musician and art historian based in Philadelphia.

Thomas describes the genesis of their projectthis way: [W]hen I was finishing my doctorate [in 2011, 2012], I was working as a fellow at the National Air and Space Museum, and I was looking at how artists and architects were collaborating with engineers at NASA to design for space. In other words, what it meant to build something like the interior of Skylab, as a kind of house that would be different from a regular spacecraft.

When I was researching that material, he continues, I started encountering a lot of archival stuff old industrial films, archival audio. Its not the stuff of the heroic missions that we always think of. It wasnt the countdowns. It wasnt the triumphant sound clips. It was really the mundane stuff of every day. It was tape hiss. It was microphones that were left on. It was people talking about what it felt like to live in space for a long time. It felt almost like a deep portrait of what it meant to live at that given moment in a very unique place. I thought that would make an excellent starting point for telling a story or making some compositions using those sounds.

Jorgensen says that when he and Thomas began to collaborate, they would text each other in-between writing sessions. He recalls asking Thomas, What are those sounds? What are those beeps called? When Thomas told them they were called Quindar tones, Jorgensen knew immediately that would be the name of the project.

Then we further discovered what a Quindar tone was, Jorgensen says. It is a handshake between telemetry systems that keep Mission Control and spacecraft communications open. Its sort of like, Are you there? And then the spacecraft answers, Yeah, Im here. Are you still there? And back and forth.

He says it reminded him of how he and Thomas communicated musically.

Thomas says that the first part of making the Quindar record was sitting around listening to hours and hours of archival audio. But one the things he noticed right away was a small difference between the two Quindar tones. They sound at two different frequencies. Theyre not a musical interval apart, Jorgensen explains, but they are something like 100 Hertz different from each other.

We were struck by the fact that this is basically a synthesizer that NASA is playing, Thomas says. It is a kind of a complex note structure thats being beamed out into the ether. So, we immediately started thinking, What if we push and pull with this fixed industrial standard and think about it less like a precise measure of communication and think about it more like an expressive instrument?

It was a really short path from that way of thinking to thinking about what was happening with synthesizers at this same moment, he continues. What were composers like Stockhausen or John Cage doing when they were using similar devices to create sounds?

The advances that were made due to space agency funding directly inspired and made technologies available for commercial synthesizer apparatus, the Quindar module being a prime example, Jorgensen adds. So, for him, as a lifelong space lover and the son of a recording engineer, the intersection of NASA and electronic music was a logical extension of all of those interests.

Another good parallel to their work would be an artist like Robert Rauschenberg, Thomas says. Rauschenberg was invited by NASA in July of 1969 to travel to Cape Kennedy and witness the launch of Apollo 11.

Rauschenberg was an official guest of the agency and, along with a number of other artists, he was asked to provide some kind of interpretation of the experience.

Rauschenberg didnt set up an easel and paint like everyone else, Thomas says. He immediately started rooting around in the engineers trash cans and found schematics and blueprints and tourist maps from Cocoa Beach. He really upended the narrative that NASA was trying to create, and made a wild, kaleidoscopic set of collages, called Stoned Moon.

I think theres something in the spirit of rewriting a narrative, of maybe thinking differently about the way a countdown works, or the way that were told a story, and to reshuffle the order in which its told, Thomas says. I think theres something in that way of thinking that really informed the way that we were thinking about composition on this album.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRIs Science Friday with Ira Flatow.

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A pair of musicians uses Quindar tones to create a musical tribute to … – PRI

35 Pictures From The Space Race That Are Out Of This World – BuzzFeed News

Left: A laboratory dog wears a space suit and oxygen mask during preparation for space travel at a Soviet base in Moscow in 1957. Right: Malyshka, a Russian space dog, poses here in its snug-fitting space suit with a transparent space helmet beside it. Meanwhile, the newly launched Soviet satellite, Sputnik II, circles the earth, carrying what is reported to be a female husky dog, the first living being to roam space.

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35 Pictures From The Space Race That Are Out Of This World – BuzzFeed News

Topeka children’s imaginations take flight at the Exploration Mars Space Camp – Topeka Capital Journal

The open-mouthed wow factor that space travel creates was brought to children in East Topeka this week as part of a Space Camp that included meeting NASA professional Herb Baker and former NFL football player Joe Mays.

Kia McClain, a Topekan chosen last year to be a social media influencer for NASAs Mars journey, reached out to the Neighborhood Opportunity for Wellness program to bring the space event to the Highland Park neighborhoods.

More than 100 kids showed up from the NOW initiative neighborhoods at Deer Creek, Pine Ridge Manor and Echo Ridge when the camp started this week, McClain said.

(My favorite part of camp) has been trying on the space outfit from the astronaut that came out, camper LaDaysha Baird said. I like to dress up.

The camp was supported by multiple agencies, McClain said, including United Way of Greater Topeka. In her work with NASA, McClain reached out to Baker, who retired from NASA after 42 years working in operation support, most often at the Johnson Space Center.

For Baker, it was a joy to share his love of NASA and space.

My whole life almost has been involved with NASA, he said, explaining that even before pursuing a career there, he went to middle school near Johnson and his friends had parents who went to space. His friends who were astronauts talk about the first time they were intrigued by the idea of becoming astronauts.

There might be one kid here who gets to put that spacesuit on and it changes their lives, Baker said. Thats kind of what Im hoping for.

A real NASA spacesuit and the opportunity to try it on was just one of many events that occurred during the five-day evening camp.

For McClain, a social media expert, the camp gave her the chance to share her own excitement about her NASA connection with children, and she did so by reaching out to numerous partners. Two of those were Joe and Toiya Mays who own the Laya Center in Kansas City, Mo., a holistic spa that has been working with THA around community gardens and aquaponics.

One of the kids favorite events was when Toiya Mays showed them how knowledge of natural health can be used to create medicines and foods, McClain said. For instance, the kids were able to learn about making a natural cough medicine by putting elderberries in 90-proof alcohol or making natural Hawaiian Punch using hibiscus flowers.

Joe Mays shared about the rigorous training and healthy eating necessary to playing in the NFL, and how that same type of fitness would be important for astronauts, McClain said.

The children were wonderful little sponges that were open to not only learning how technology relates to healthcare, but were intrigued by a healthier way of life, Toiya Mays said. We explained the importance of maintaining good eating habits and how eating fruits and veggies is a direct link to energy in a holistic way. They had fun showing us their Pucker Faces during the lime &energy test where we showed a video of the actual electricity currents that come from a Key lime.

The Mays also helped set up a hibernation chamber simulator, where they created a small nook blocked off by cardboard and cooled by a portable cryotherapy machine the Laya Center uses.

This cooled the room and made it similar to what astronauts would experience during a 4-8 month trip to Mars, Toiya Mays said. It was a huge hit!

Although the official space camp portion of the event is over, McClain is working with the NOW program, United Way and THA to continue events weekly throughout the year.

Its the kick-off to major opportunities involving NASA, involving all of these partners that are at the table and just creating future opportunities for the children to go far beyond Topeka, McClain said.

Online editor J.C. Reeves contributed to this report.

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Topeka children’s imaginations take flight at the Exploration Mars Space Camp – Topeka Capital Journal


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