Hitching a Ride on an ‘Evolving Asteroid’ to Travel to the Stars

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The interstellar asteroid spaceship concept that would contain all the resources required to maintain a generations of star travelers (Nils Faber & Angelo Vermeulen)

When ʻOumuamua visited our solar system last year, the world’s collective interest (and imagination) was firing on all cylinders. Despite astronomers’ insistence that asteroids from other star systems likely zip through the solar system all the time (and the reason why we spotted this one is because our survey telescopes are getting better), there was that nagging sci-fi possibility that ʻOumuamua wasn’t a natural event; perhaps it was an interstellar spaceship piloted by (or at least once piloted by) some kind of extraterrestrial — “Rendezvous With Rama“-esque — intelligence. Alas, any evidence for this possibility has not been forthcoming despite the multifaceted observation campaigns that followed the interstellar vagabond’s dazzling discovery.

Still, I ponder that interstellar visitor. It’s not that I think it’s piloted by aliens, though that would be awesome, I’m more interested in the possibilities such objects could provide humanity in the future. But let’s put ʻOumuamua to one side for now and discuss a pretty nifty project that’s currently in the works and how I think it could make use of asteroids from other stars.

Asteroid Starships Ahoy!

As recently announced by the European Space Agency, researchers at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, are designing a starship. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill solar sail or “warpship.” The TU Delft Starship Team, or DSTART, aims to bring together many science disciplines to begin the ground-work for constructing an interstellar vehicle hollowed out of an asteroid.

Obviously, this is a long-term goal; humanity is currently having a hard enough time becoming a multiplanetary species, let alone a multistellar species. But from projects like these, new technologies may be developed to solve big problems and those technologies may have novel applications for society today. Central to ESA’s role in the project is an exciting regenerative life-support technology that is inspired by nature, a technology that could reap huge benefits not only for our future hypothetical interstellar space fliers.

Called the MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) program, scientists are developing a system that mimics aquatic ecosystems on Earth. A MELiSSA pilot plant in Barcelona is capable of keeping rat “crews” alive for months at a time inside an airtight habitat. Inside the habitat is a multi-compartment loop with a “bioreactor” at its core, which consists of algae that produces oxygen (useful for keeping the rats breathing) while scrubbing the air of carbon dioxide (which the rats exhale). The bioreactor was recently tested aboard the International Space Station, demonstrating that the system could be applied to a microgravity environment.

Disclaimer: Space Is Really Big

Assuming that humanity isn’t going to discover faster-than-light (FTL) travel any time soon, we’re pretty much stuck with very pedestrian sub-light-speed travel times to the nearest stars. Even if we assume some sensible iterative developments in propulsion technologies, the most optimistic projections in travel time to the stars is many decades to several centuries. While this is a drag for our biological selves, other research groups have shown that robotic (un-crewed) missions could be done now — after all, Voyager 1 is currently chalking up some mileage in interstellar space and that spacecraft was launched in the 1970’s! But here’s the kicker: Voyager 1 is slow (even if it’s the fastest and only interstellar vehicle humanity has built to date). If Voyager 1 was aimed at our closest star Proxima Centauri (which it’s not), it would take tens of thousands of years to get there.

But say if we could send a faster probe into interstellar space? Projects like Icarus Interstellar and Breakthrough Starshot are approaching this challenge with different solutions, using technology we have today (or technologies that will likely be available pretty soon) to get that travel time down to less than one hundred years.

One… hundred… years.

Sending robots to other stars is hard and it would take generations of scientists to see an interstellar mission through from launch to arrival — which is an interesting situation to ponder. But add human travelers to the mix? The problems just multiplied.

The idea of “worldships” (or generation ships) have been around for many years; basically vast self-sustaining spaceships that allow their passengers to live out their lives and pass on their knowledge (and mission) to the next generation. These ships would have to be massive and contain everything that each generation needs. It’s hard to comprehend what that starship would look like, though DSTART’s concept of hollowing out an asteroid to convert it into an interstellar vehicle doesn’t sound so outlandish. To hollow out an asteroid and bootstrap a self-sustaining society inside, however, is a headache. Granted, DSTART isn’t saying that they are actually going to build this thing (their project website even states: “DSTART is not developing hardware, nor is it building an actual spacecraft”), but they do assume some magic is going to have to happen before it’s even a remote possibility — such as transformative developments in nanotechnology, for example. The life-support system, however, would need to be inspired by nature, so ESA and DSTART scientists are going to continue to help develop this technology for self-sustaining, long-duration missions, though not necessarily for a massive interstellar spaceship.

Hyperbolic Space Rocks, Batman!

Though interesting, my reservation about the whole thing is simple: even if we did build an asteroid spaceship, how the heck would we accelerate the thing? This asteroid would have to be big and probably picked out of the asteroid belt. The energy required to move it would be extreme; to propel it clear of the sun’s gravity (potentially via a series of gravitational assists of other planets) could rip it apart.

So, back to ʻOumuamua.

The reason why astronomers knew ʻOumuamua wasn’t from ’round these parts was that it was moving really, really fast and on a hyperbolic trajectory. It basically barreled into our inner star system, swung off our sun’s gravitational field and slingshotted itself back toward the interstellar abyss. So, could these interstellar asteroids, which astronomers estimate are not uncommon occurrences, be used in the future as vehicles to escape our sun’s gravitational domain?

Assuming a little more science fiction magic, we could have extremely advanced survey telescopes tasked with finding and characterizing hyperbolic asteroids that could spot them coming with years of notice. Then, we could send our wannabe interstellar explorers via rendezvous spacecraft capable of accelerating to great speeds to these asteroids with all the technology they’d need to land on and convert the asteroid into an interstellar spaceship. The momentum that these asteroids would have, because they’re not gravitationally bound to the sun, could be used as the oomph to achieve escape velocity and, once setting up home on the rock, propulsion equipment would be constructed to further accelerate and, perhaps, steer it to a distant target.

If anything, it’s a fun idea for a sci-fi story.

I get really excited about projects like DSTART; they push the limits of human ingenuity and force us to find answers to seemingly insurmountable challenges. Inevitably, these answers can fuel new ideas and inspire younger generations to be bolder and braver. And when these projects start partnering with space agencies to develop existing tech, who knows where they will lead.

Intercontinental Travel Is Impossible…

(Imagine an island long, long ago, in an ocean far, far away…)

“Intercontinental travel will never happen. The nearest shore is thousands of miles away. This means that even if we had the ability to row five miles per day from our little island, it would take years to get there!

To rub (sea) salt into the wound, the nearest shoreline is probably not a place we’d want to visit anyway. We’ve heard that beasts of unimaginable horror lurk over the horizon. Even worse, what if that undiscovered country is a desert-like place, or a disease-ridden tropic? Perhaps water doesn’t even flow as a liquid! Imagine trying to live in a land covered with ice. What a thought!

To put it bluntly, our little island is quarantined from the rest of the world. But it’s not a quarantine where we are locked inside an impenetrable room, we’re quarantined by a mind-bogglingly vast expanse of ocean. We live here with only a rowing boat for transportation — you can do some laps around the island in that rowing boat, but that’s all.

Forget about it. Don’t look at those distant shores and think that some day we’ll be able to build an engine for that rowing boat. A little outboard motor wouldn’t get you very far — you’d likely run out of gas before the island is out of sight! Heck, you’ll probably starve before then anyway.

Just go home. Why are you still planning on building a big boat — that sci-fi notion of a metal-hulled “ship” no less! — when you should be worrying more about your little island? We have problems here! Our resources are dwindling, people are starving! Your dreams mean nothing in our everyday lives.”

What am I talking about? Read my Discovery News op-ed to find out…

Astroengine Live CANCELLED… Until Next Week

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Apologies for the break in Astroengine Live service. Due to some uber-technical problems, I’m going to have to re-launch the show this time next week. Stay tuned for updates.

For now, check out my Astroengine Live archives and enjoy!

***

Earlier post:

It’s been a while, but Astroengine Live is back on the air, TODAY! It’s been a fascinating few weeks, so I want to share some of the stuff I’ve come across. I especially want to go into the current Wide Angle over at Discovery Space, “Surfing Spacetime”.

So tune in to the Badlands Radio feed at 4pm PST/7pm EST and all the timezones in between and far away

I’ll also be tweeting throughout the broadcast, so feel free to interrupt me on @astroengine.

Warp Drives and… Black Holes?

Could warp drives be a bad thing for Earth?

Why do all roads seem to lead to black holes? Man made black holes are supposedly going to be produced by the Large Hadron Collider, swallowing Earth (or, at least, a large fraction of Europe), so it seems only logical that something like a warp drive — a technology of the uber-future requiring uber-energies — would also generate a black hole, right?

Yes, we are talking about a vastly theoretical technology, but according to Italian researchers, the spaceship propulsion device popularized by Star Trek could have grave consequences for Planet Earth.

Over the past week, I’ve been deep inside the science behind faster-than-light-speed propulsion and time travel as a part of the Discovery Space Wide Angle: Surfing Spacetime, and I feel well versed in the astounding physics that could make warp speed a possibility in the future. All this started when interviewing one of the leading authorities on warp drive propulsion, Dr Richard Obousy, who is not only upbeat about the possibilities of the futuristic warpship, he’s done the math to prove that a sufficiently advanced civilization could “surf” on a spacetime wave.

However, there’s a catch. Well, two.

Firstly, we need to develop an understanding for dark energy. And second, we need a gargantuan energy source.

Dark energy is a cosmological theory that explains the continued expansion of the universe. This energy pervades all of the cosmos, explaining everything from the grouping of galactic clusters to the faster-than-light-speed inflationary period immediately after the Big Bang. There’s a lot of indirect observation of dark energy and its effects on spacetime. It’s out there, but it’s a tough proposition to think we might be able to harness it someday. But then again, we said that about electricity once, who knows what technological revolutions await us in the decades and centuries ahead.

Assuming we find a way of harnessing dark energy, how can we use it? This is where visionary physicists like Dr Obousy come in. Skipping over the superstring small-print of extra-dimensional theory, we basically need a huge amount of energy to manipulate the universal dark energy, thereby shrinking and expanding vanishingly small dimensions beyond our three dimensional universe.

So how much energy is needed warp spacetime, allowing a futuristic spaceship to zip through space? “Some back of the envelope calculations I performed last year indicated approximately the mass energy contained within the planet Jupiter,” Richard told me.

This sounds like a lot of energy! However, there’s a trend, the rest mass energy of Jupiter is actually an improvement on previous warp drive calculations. “The very early warp drive calculations indicated that one would need more mass energy than was available within the entire universe… that’s TRILLIONS of Jupiters!

This improvement is down to recent developments in superstring theory and quantum dynamics. It would appear that the energy requirements for a warp drive improves with developments in physics. If this trend continues, we may find other energy saving ways to make a warpship a reality.

However, there are some practical issues putting the breaks on travelling at warp speed. Only recently, I reported on a study focusing on quantum fluctuations as the warp “bubble” (containing our warpship) blasts through the light speed barrier: the occupants could get roasted by Hawking Radiation.

Today, another problem has surfaced from the extreme warp equations: black holes (who would have guessed?). Italian physicist Stefano Finazzi of Italy’s International School for Advanced Studies has crunched the numbers and wondered about what would happen when the energy runs out. It’s all very well generating a Jupiter’s rest mass-worth of energy, but how will it be sustained by the warp drive? What will happen when all the energy is depleted?

Eventually the energy would run out. The [warp] bubble would rupture, with catastrophic effects. Inside the bubble the temperature would rise to about 1032 degrees Kelvin, destroying almost anything on the bubble.Eric Bland, Discovery News

It gets better, Finazzi also predicts a fair amount of doom outside the warp bubble, too. “We know that the warp drive will be destabilized,” he added. “But we do not know if it will in the end explode or collapse to a black hole.”

Don’t go running out of gas any where near Earth is all I say

Although these implications of doom and gloom should have given Jean Luc Picard a panic attack whenever he said “engage!” or “make it so Number One…”, we have to remind ourselves warp drive propulsion isn’t even close to being a reality. Dr Obousy and warp scientists before him are only just beginning to assemble a theoretical framework around the sci-fi notion of warping spacetime, so to already be predicting warp speed fail seems a little premature in my opinion.

In response to the Hawking Radiation problem, Dr Obousy pointed out that if we get to the point of generating vast quantities of energy, harnessing the spacetime warping power of dark energy, we should be able to at least have a stab at finding solutions to these potential warp drive problems.

Objections are good, but usually we find smart ways of circumventing problems. Humans are good at that,” he said.

I agree.