Want To Go To The Stars? Hop On Board One Of These Spacecraft…

What is the best way to get to the stars? Catching a bus or the tube probably won’t make it but catching the space shuttle will. Unfortunately, there is a small problem in that it will take around 170,000 years. When you arrived there would be nothing there, as the star would have moved. You would also need about 10 space shuttles behind you to carry some music so you don’t get bored, and then there’s food, water etc etc.
The first choice of star would probably be Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. It’s Part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri; Proxima is 4.22 light years from Earth. Alpha Centauri is actually the brightest star of the three in the system, and so the system is named after this star. Alpha Centauri is part of a closely orbiting binary about 4.37 light years from Earth, but Proxima Centauri (the dimmest of the three) is an isolated red dwarf star 0.15 light years from the binary. Red dwarf stars generate far less energy than our Sun, so if we were to go we’d have to find a planet in a closer orbit to this red dwarf to sustain life as we know it.
No engines of today could get us there efficiently but the future will bring different designs of different engines, with new technology.
The ion drive is not really at that stage to take people to the stars but is on the verge of cutting flight times to Mars from six months to about 40 days. Ion engines accelerate electrically charge particles called ions. The difference between this and a normal rocket is that the drive will continue pushing wear as a normal rocket will accelerate until about half of its fuel is gone and then use the other half to decelerate (Of course this leaves not enough fuel to get home). This means there is a point where the rocket is coasting and this is where the ion drive wins the race as it is still accelerating.
Several space missions have already used ion engines, including NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is en route to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and Japan’s spacecraft Hayabusa, which rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in 2005. But a new engine being developed by Ad Astra, called VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), will have much more “oomph” than previous ones. That’s because it uses a radio frequency generator, similar to transmitters used to broadcast radio shows, to heat the charged particles, or plasma.
Nuclear pulse propulsion is a decent idea and has been looked at several times in several different designs. One way is to set up small nuclear explosions behind your spacecraft while riding the shockwaves forward. It sounds like a bit of a bumpy idea but NASA has proposed it. Project Orion was developed a while back and is similar to the NASA idea. There was also project Daedalus which was developed by the British interplanetary Society and project longshot.
A cross between a solar sail and a nuclear propelled spacecraft was suggested as project medusa. The nuclear explosions would be sent forwards to detonate between the ship and the solar sail ahead of it. The nuclear explosions would therefore push the solar sail driving along the ship. These are all methods that could be quite achievable, but I would expect there would be some green issues although I am sure deep space wouldn’t mind. The trouble with these nuclear engines is that they have enough fuel but the flight time to Alpha Centauri would be rather large.
A solar sail or solar thermal propulsion sounds quite romantic, and I can see them all over the solar system, taking cargo and passenger’s to their destinations. Luckily, space is big, so even though the spacecraft is sitting behind a massive solar sail going blindly forward, Its probably not likely that collisions will occur. I expect an ion drive or conventional rocket motor would take over closer to their destinations. NASA has come up with an idea for  solar thermal propulsion. It allows collecting light from the Sun or a close by star and heating up hydrogen gas, which is ejected from a nozzle on the back to provide forward thrust. A solar sail is propelled forward by a light breeze from the nearest star. This is enough to create a forward force from a massive sail which would be extremely light being hundreds of times thinner than paper.Unfortunately, unless you have a really efficient system it would not be of any use between the stars as the star’s strength would be so little that there would be no power. So both ideas are not a great way to get to the stars as you would have to wait for a something near a light speed ship to be built for rescue when you run out of star power Inbetween the stars.
Magnetic field sail. This engine produces a magnetic field, which repulses the solar wind and therefore pushes the spacecraft forward. This sail wouldn’t be visible to the eye and would push the spacecraft up to large speeds. Unfortunately, this depends on the solar wind.
Now it’s time to move away from the near future to much further away. I reckon that some of the good propulsion drives, will jump us around in no time at all. The warp drive, as any science fiction fan will know, is a drive that produces a bubble of space-time around your shiny ship. All the drive has to do is to contract or expand that space-time bubble that you are in. This would probably need a bit of power and energy. So why not use the dark energy? It would take a lot of energy to do this, something equivalent to the mass of Jupiter and this would only move it 10 m. This would cause all sorts of nasty time problems, and you would end up breaking causality.
We don’t really want to break causality do we? The Alcubierre propulsion drive gets around this by creating a wave of space-time ahead of the spacecraft. Our ship would ride the wave of this space-time, not actually in it but ahead of it. This would stop our time problems and we could smile the whole way to Alpha Centauri.
The vacuum method of propulsion (which was suggested by Arthur C Clarke) is a great idea and has been taken up today by Quantum Fields LLC. This type of ship extracts energy from the vacuum, and then pushes on the vacuum. This relies on the Casimir effect, which is the attractive force between two metal uncharged plates extremely close together. Unfortunately at the moment, the materials to make this method of propulsion have just not been invented yet, This would be a very slow spacecraft but anything that can keep its thrust going is going to accelerate to enormous speeds, eventually
Artificial gravitational fields could be possible if a controversial theory, the Heim theory turns out to be true. The Heim theory is a complex interaction between Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum physics, need I say any more? Anti-gravitational effects which have been reported by scientists spinning a super conducting magnet should produce ‘gravitophotons’ that produce a gravitational field against the motor itself, thereby pushing the spacecraft forward. Depending on the power produced this could get us to the nearest star.
To just get to the stars we would not need a propulsion motor that is out of this world. The only trouble is, it would take for ever. All we need is an asteroid with some large holes, or even hollow and then strap some motors to the back end of it and off we go. if It is going in the right direction moters may only be needed to slow it down. Then just put your humans on the inside, close the doors turn on the lights and keep an eye on the plants and ecosystem. Just don’t forget to keep enough fuel in reserve to slow down at the destination. An Ion drive would be perfect for this, but if you must you can strap ordinary rocket motors on the back or even a space shuttle or two.
Some theories are within our grasp, like the ion drive, but getting anywhere near the speed of light is said and seems to be near impossible. I don’t think it will be impossible though as are some models of the big bang, like the inflation theory, that shows space-time expanding at a speed above lightspeed. I expect the aeroplane seemed like an idea that was totally batty, is that here today or not?

What is the best way to get to the stars? Catching a bus or the tube probably won’t make it but catching the space shuttle will. Unfortunately, there is a small problem in that it will take around 170,000 years. When you arrived there would be nothing there, as the star would have moved. You would also need about 10 space shuttles behind you to carry some music so you don’t get bored, and then there’s food, water etc etc.

The first choice of star would probably be Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. It’s Part of a triple star system called Alpha Centauri; Proxima is 4.22 light years from Earth. Alpha Centauri is actually the brightest star of the three in the system, and so the system is named after this star.

Alpha Centauri is part of a closely orbiting binary about 4.37 light years from Earth, but Proxima Centauri (the dimmest of the three) is an isolated red dwarf star 0.15 light years from the binary. Red dwarf stars generate far less energy than our Sun, so if we were to go we’d have to find a planet in a closer orbit to this red dwarf to sustain life as we know it.

No engines of today could get us there efficiently but the future will bring different designs of different engines, with new technology.

The ion drive is not really at that stage to take people to the stars but is on the verge of cutting flight times to Mars from six months to about 40 days. Ion engines accelerate electrically charge particles called ions.

The difference between this and a normal rocket is that the drive will continue pushing whereas a normal rocket will accelerate until about half of its fuel is gone and then use the other half to decelerate (Of course this leaves not enough fuel to get home). This means there is a point where the rocket is coasting and this is where the ion drive wins the race as it is still accelerating.

Several space missions have already used ion engines, including NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is en route to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and Japan’s spacecraft Hayabusa, which rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

But a new engine being developed by Ad Astra, called VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), will have much more “oomph” than previous ones. That’s because it uses a radio frequency generator, similar to transmitters used to broadcast radio shows, to heat the charged particles, or plasma.

Ion drive

Ion drive

Nuclear pulse propulsion is a decent idea and has been looked at several times in several different designs. One way is to set up small nuclear explosions behind your spacecraft while riding the shockwaves forward. It sounds like a bit of a bumpy idea but NASA has proposed it. Project Orion was developed a while back and is similar to the NASA idea. There was also project Daedalus which was developed by the British interplanetary Society and project longshot.

A cross between a solar sail and a nuclear propelled spacecraft was suggested as project medusa. The nuclear explosions would be sent forwards to detonate between the ship and the solar sail ahead of it. The nuclear explosions would therefore push the solar sail driving along the ship.

These are all methods that could be quite achievable, but I would expect there would be some green issues although I am sure deep space wouldn’t mind. The trouble with these nuclear engines is that they have enough fuel but the flight time to Alpha Centauri would be rather large.

A solar sail or solar thermal propulsion sounds quite romantic, and I can see them all over the solar system, taking cargo and passenger’s to their destinations. Luckily, space is big, so even though the spacecraft is sitting behind a massive solar sail going blindly forward, Its probably not likely that collisions will occur. I expect an ion drive or conventional rocket motor would take over closer to their destinations.

NASA has come up with an idea for  solar thermal propulsion. It allows collecting light from the Sun or a close by star and heating up hydrogen gas, which is ejected from a nozzle on the back to provide forward thrust. A solar sail is propelled forward by a light breeze from the nearest star. This is enough to create a forward force from a massive sail which would be extremely light being hundreds of times thinner than paper.

Unfortunately, unless you have a really efficient system it would not be of any use between the stars as the star’s strength would be so little that there would be no power. So both ideas are not a great way to get to the stars as you would have to wait for a something near a light speed ship to be built for rescue when you run out of star power Inbetween the stars.

Solar sail

Solar sail

Magnetic field sail. This engine produces a magnetic field, which repulses the solar wind and therefore pushes the spacecraft forward. This sail wouldn’t be visible to the eye and would push the spacecraft up to large speeds. Unfortunately, this depends on the solar wind.

Now it’s time to move away from the near future to much further away. I reckon that some of the good propulsion drives, will jump us around in no time at all. The warp drive, as any science fiction fan will know, is a drive that produces a bubble of space-time around your shiny ship.

All the drive has to do is to contract or expand that space-time bubble that you are in. This would probably need a bit of power and energy. So why not use the dark energy? It would take a lot of energy to do this, something equivalent to the mass of Jupiter and this would only move it 10 m. This would cause all sorts of nasty time problems, and you would end up breaking causality.

We don’t really want to break causality do we? The Alcubierre propulsion drive gets around this by creating a wave of space-time ahead of the spacecraft. Our ship would ride the wave of this space-time, not actually in it but ahead of it. This would stop our time problems and we could smile the whole way to Alpha Centauri.

Warp Field

Warp Field

The vacuum method of propulsion (which was suggested by Arthur C Clarke) is a great idea and has been taken up today by Quantum Fields LLC. This type of ship extracts energy from the vacuum, and then pushes on the vacuum. This relies on the Casimir effect, which is the attractive force between two metal uncharged plates extremely close together.

Unfortunately at the moment, the materials to make this method of propulsion have just not been invented yet, This would be a very slow spacecraft but anything that can keep its thrust going is going to accelerate to enormous speeds, eventually

Artificial gravitational fields {could be possible if a controversial theory, the Heim theory turns out to be true. The Heim theory is a complex interaction between Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum physics, need I say any more?

Anti-gravitational effects which have been reported by scientists spinning a super conducting magnet should produce ‘gravitophotons’ that produce a gravitational field against the motor itself, thereby pushing the spacecraft forward. Depending on the power produced this could get us to the nearest star.

A future Starship

A future Starship

To just get to the stars we would not need a propulsion motor that is out of this world. The only trouble is, it would take for ever. All we need is an asteroid with some large holes, or even hollow and then strap some motors to the back end of it and off we go.

If It is going in the right direction moters may only be needed to slow it down. Then just put your humans on the inside, close the doors turn on the lights and keep an eye on the plants and ecosystem. Just don’t forget to keep enough fuel in reserve to slow down at the destination. An Ion drive would be perfect for this, but if you must you can strap ordinary rocket motors on the back or even a space shuttle or two.

Some theories are within our grasp, like the ion drive, but getting anywhere near the speed of light is said and seems to be near impossible. I don’t think it will be impossible though as are some models of the big bang, like the inflation theory, that shows space-time expanding at a speed above lightspeed. I expect the aeroplane seemed like an idea that was totally batty, is that here today or not?

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  1. Roga says:

    Good summary article. Few points:

    Alcubierre geometry seems to be the best chance for FTL. However, it may still violate causality – but that’s not necessarily a showstopper, it’s just weird. And you have to travel slower than light the first time, to “pave the highway” as it were for future passengers.

    Magsails and M2P2 are not useful on our end, but they are extremely, insanely useful for interstellar relativistic travel, because they are very effective drag brakes. Rockets or solar sails or Orions would not have to carry deceleration propellant with a magsail, they can just turn the sail on around the other star’s heliopause and coast in, keeping a reasonable G load on the occupants the whole way. Since the rocket equation is exponential, this allows you to cut your mass to the square root.

    I too see a big role for solar and magsails in a romantic analog of the high seas. I don’t know if they will ever fully replicate the glory of clipper ships by carrying cargo and commerce around the solar system – fusion rockets are just too near-term and too appealing an opportuniy – but solar and mag sail craft will be sportsmen’s dreams. Imagine an inner-planets regatta, dropping from Earth to Mercury by antiorbital tacking, then a close sun pass to fly by Venus for a gravity assist to Mars! You’d be hard pressed to run that route even with a fusion rocket.

  2. Chris Dann says:

    The sails could also be just a continuous cargo line to planet/moon/station taking food, oxygen, water etc. I love the idea of a recreational sail though.

  3. James Smith João Pessoa, Brazil says:

    But there are almost certainly undiscovered possibilities that will change everything.

    A great example of this is a piece I read by Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Illusions) who wrote that the ancient Egyptians could fly. Obviously, we know that they did not. They left us so many records in the form of drawings and writings that we would know if they had.

    But, they had bamboo, papyrus, linen, and the thermals and steady winds of the Nile valley. They could have built gliders capable of sailing hundreds of miles. Unfortunately, they were ignorant of the laws of aerodynamics even though they were as much in effect then as now. But they didn’t know, so they didn’t go.

    It’s likely that there are laws of physics that we don’t know about today that, if we did, we would be capable of feats as astounding to us as flying would have been to the Pharaohs, who would have assumed it was supernatural.

  4. Chris Dann says:

    Agreed, perhaps the large Hadron Collider will give those new discoveries.

  5. [...] idea is a free-floating solar sail at a point near the Earth where the pressure of solar radiation balances the Earth’s [...]

  6. Jayne Cobb says:

    It’s interesting that the ship with the ion drive was – according to the flags depicted on it – built by the UK, the USA, Canada, Ireland (some sort of english language chauvinism, I thought at first) and North Korea.

  7. I have invented a novel propulsion engine but I lack the necessary funding resources to manufacture a working model of it as proof of concept. I have reached out to many so-called “research” institutions but they all turned me down. The notion of “academic research” or “government-funded research” makes me puke, seriously! Universities and government agencies are wasting TAX money on their so-called “research”. I wish people like me, who have visions but lack money, could have access to only 1/1000 of those funds/grants. I am an independent engineer/inventor, came up with a novel invention which is an electro-mechanical engine, which means it converts electricity directly into mechanical force instead of using fuel. It’s a novel concept and it’s hard to explain how it works and creates thrust because some people (as I expected) told me it violates conservation of momentum. In theory yes but in practice I don’t think so. I hope I will have a prototype of it fabricated and put to test soon. You may check it out on my website:

    -Hossein Nabipoor, inventor of the first practical interstellar propulsion engine

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