Travelling to Another Star? Unfortunately Starship Fuel Economy Sucks

The Daedalus star ship, proposed in the 1970s, would propel itself forward using controlled fusion explosions (Nick Stevens, www.starbase1.co.uk)
The Daedalus star ship, proposed in the 1970s, would propel itself forward using controlled fusion explosions (Nick Stevens, http://www.starbase1.co.uk)

On writing the Universe Today article Bad News: Interstellar Travel May Remain in Science Fiction yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel depressed. So far, in all my years of science fiction viewing, I have never thought that travelling to another star would be impossible. Although I knew it would be hard, and something we won’t be able to consider for a century or so, I always assumed it could be possible. Well, in a recent meeting of rocket scientists at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, they concluded that even the most advanced forms of propulsion would require gargantuan quantities of fuel to carry a starship over the few light years to the nearest star. Suddenly I realised I had been looking at the question of interstellar travel in the wrong light; it’s not that it would take a stupid number of generations to get from A to B, we would require 100 times the total energy output of Earth to make it there. Where’s Captain Kirk when you need him…

If you thought the current cost of running your car was sky-rocketing, spare a thought for our future interstellar travellers. To be sure they have enough energy to travel the 4.3 light years to Proxima Centauri (although that destination is open to debate, Proxima is a flare star and therefore a little inhospitable for us humans), starships would require at least 100 times more energy that is currently generated by the entire planet. So that begs the question: where could we get the fuel from? Some suggestions include mining the outer planets, asteroids and comets. Others suggest a “short” hop to the outer Oort Cloud (thanks alan) to re-fuel and then make the possible two-light year interstellar flight to Proxima Centauri’s theorized Oort Cloud (that’s if the Oort Cloud exists in the first place). Unfortunately, interstellar travel would require a cosmic mining effort, possibly an impossible feat.

They said putting a man into space was impossible; Uri Gagarin did that in 1961. They also said that about putting man on the Moon; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin nailed that endeavour in 1969. Now we have our sights set on Mars, and there’s a real chance we’ll see that happen within the next 30 years. Nothing appears “impossible” within the confines of our Solar System. But that’s the issue, we are confined within the heliosphere, literally an island in the middle of a vast ocean we call interstellar space. Flying to a planet is one thing, getting to another star system is a challenge we can only begin to come to terms with.

“Impossible” is not a word we like, but the use of current (and advanced) technology to travel to Proxima Centauri simply cannot cut it. So we have to start looking deep into the possibilities of more bizarre theories that have recently hit the headlines. As previously discussed on Astroengine, many years of research have been devoted into the science behind the warp drive (more commonly associated with Star Trek, as a means to ensure the starship Enterprise can potter around in more than one star system per season) and the web has been abuzz with this possibility. Warping space-time (whilst assuming the existence of microscopic dimensions permeating throughout the Universe) is becoming an accepted possibility (albeit rather extreme).

But there’s a problem. You guessed it. How would you fuel such a starship? To even think about creating a “warp bubble,” the warp drive would require an energy output of 1045 Joules, that’s the same energy as if you converted the whole of Jupiter into its equivalent mass-energy.

Again, the fuel simply isn’t there. I think we need to start thinking out of the box on this one and probe deep into the quanta so we can begin to unravel what makes the cosmos tick. So from the very big, to the very small; perhaps experiments like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be able to help us out by seeing if there really are tiny dimensions extra to the four we already know about. From there we might be able to devise new theories about how they could be used for long-haul space travel.

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28 thoughts on “Travelling to Another Star? Unfortunately Starship Fuel Economy Sucks”

  1. You ever heared from antigravity? The technology exist since late 40s and is based on the Lorentz force. Colliders back then didn’t exist, and yet starships in disc shape are real and are real before Star Trek appeared on TV.

    Keep up the search 😉

  2. The technology exist since late 40s and is based on the Lorentz force. Colliders back then didn't exist, and yet starships in disc shape are real and are real before Star Trek appeared on TV.

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  4. But there’s a problem. You guessed it. How would you fuel such a starship? To even think about creating a “warp bubble,” the warp drive would require an energy output of 1045 Joules, that’s the same energy as if you converted the whole of Jupiter into its equivalent mass-energy.

  5. But there’s a problem. You guessed it. How would you fuel such a starship? To even think about creating a “warp bubble,” the warp drive would require an energy output of 1045 Joules, that’s the same energy as if you converted the whole of Jupiter into its equivalent mass-energy.

  6. . They also said that about putting man on the Moon; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin nailed that endeavour in 1969. Now we have our sights set on Mars, and there’s a real chance we’ll see that happen within the next 30 years.Lost socks blog post

  7. Maybe I am just naive but it seems to me that if once an object is moving in space it keeps moving in said direction. So why would anyone need constant propulsion for the entire trip?

    Would we not simply need enough fuel to get moving to whatever speed we needed? And then fuel for corrections?

    It is not like we will be meeting up with any planets once outside of the heliosphere(which would theoretically make us burn more fuel to work around their gravity). My understanding is that once we hit interstellar space its just open.

    Maybe my thoughts are just that but I know one thing- Ptolemy created mathematics that semi accurately predicted planetary motion and explained retrograde. His math and theories were accepted for 1000 years. It was wrong yet it worked enough to be functional.

    To think we know enough to say anything is impossible in regards to understanding the universe is arrogant. I think we know just enough to be dangerous and would not be surprised if some of our current *understandings* end up being regarded in history the same as Ptolemy. You can add the saying “as far as we know” to just about anything in regards to the universe.

  8. Since this is about pushing the technological envelope, aren’t there some American scientists seriously experimenting with anti gravity technology (including at NASA)? Such stuff as superfluid ferro-fluids and frictionless or near frictionless condensates spun in rings and accelerators and so on. There is no fuel to be burned, and the energy to circulate the fluid could theoretically be battery stored from solar cells. Radiation from suns is somewhat more aggressive in space where there is not magnetic field or atmosphere. Also, I read an article a few years ago (in New Scientist? an ESA Web page?) about ion exchange based propulsion for satellites and deep space probes. It doesn’t take much to keep an object moving in space once the momentum is achieved (of course, breaking gravity should one encounter any large celestial bodies is going to be expensive.)
    Reference:
    Fundamentals of electric propulsion: ion and Hall thrusters By Dan M. Goebel, Ira Katz.
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=superfluid-can-climb-walls
    http://www.enterprisemission.com/anti-grav.htm
    http://www.slate.com/id/2072733/

  9. Since this is about pushing the technological envelope, aren’t there some American scientists seriously experimenting with anti gravity technology (including at NASA)? Such stuff as superfluid ferro-fluids and frictionless or near frictionless condensates spun in rings and accelerators and so on. There is no fuel to be burned, and the energy to circulate the fluid could theoretically be battery stored from solar cells. Radiation from suns is somewhat more aggressive in space where there is not magnetic field or atmosphere. Also, I read an article a few years ago (in New Scientist? an ESA Web page?) about ion exchange based propulsion for satellites and deep space probes. It doesn’t take much to keep an object moving in space once the momentum is achieved (of course, breaking gravity should one encounter any large celestial bodies is going to be expensive.)
    Reference:
    Fundamentals of electric propulsion: ion and Hall thrusters By Dan M. Goebel, Ira Katz.
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=superfluid-can-climb-walls
    http://www.enterprisemission.com/anti-grav.htm
    http://www.slate.com/id/2072733/

  10. Regarding Anti-gravity and gravity shielding (and manipulation etc.), apparently Dr Ning-Li has gone ‘missing’.

    “Buried in the obscure “Annual Report on Cooperative Agreements and Other Transactions Entered into During FY2001″ – a report required by law – the US Army Aviation and Missile Command awarded funds to experimentally test superconductors for the manipulation of the gravitational field. Heading this effort was Dr. Ning Li and her company AC Gravity Inc. ” (Source [you have to pick through the woo a little bit…]]: http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread331108/pg1)
    http://www.thelivingmoon.com/49electric_universe/03files/Gravity_001.html

  11. I think we must find a way to refuel that starship that is less energy needed. But i guess they already think of that, they just can’t find a way yet. Well, Lets see what will happened Next.

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