Saturday, 2 December 2006

Acting on Impulse

Hawking prefers Matter/Antimatter to get us to the stars.
Hawking, a 64-year-old father of three who rarely gives interviews and who wrote the best-selling "A Brief History of Time", suggested propulsion like that used by the fictional starship Enterprise "to boldly go where no man has gone before" could help solve the problem.

"Science fiction has developed the idea of warp drive, which takes you instantly to your destination," said.

"Unfortunately, this would violate the scientific law which says that nothing can travel faster than light."

However, by using "matter/antimatter annihilation", velocities just below the speed of light could be reached, making it possible to reach the next star in about six years.

"It wouldn't seem so long for those on board," he said.

The problem with antimatter is not the containment - that was solved in theory anyway by the late Dr Robert Forward 20 years ago.

The problem is that antimatter takes power to make it, lots of power, E=Mc2 kinds of power. As in the complete current energy production of Earth for a Thousand years kind of power for a single small unmanned probe.

And there's a huge problem when speeds start exceeding 0.3c or so, even single atoms coming in at speeds higher than that are tricky things to deal with.

I think the way we're going to explore our near neighbourhood is more like some of the ideas from the The Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction (ITSF) study conducted for the European Space Agency. For example, the microwave sail.
Alternatives to light sails have been proposed. The microwave sail is also an idea from Robert Forward. A tiny spacecraft, the Starwisp, is propelled by microwaves transmitted from a solar-powered satellite in Earth orbit. The craft would be mostly a 1 km diameter mesh sail covered with microcircuitry, weighing only a few grams. The beam power should be 65–100 GW, pushing the 4–5 g craft to 20% of the speed of light, using a Fresnel-zone type lens to focus the microwave beam.

We could do this within 10 years.

One thing Hawking does have right though is that all our eggs are in one fragile basket. We don't even know if it's biologically possible to live and reproduce outside of a relatively benign planetary environment, but we better start finding out real soon. We do know that the biosphere of this planet periodically has some event like a whacking great asteroid doing a cosmic reset. And in the long run, stars don't last forever, if we, or the various species we evolve into, are going to be around in the medium term, we have to colonise the solar system. To be around in the long term means interstellar colonisation too.

I do so hope that Dr Hawking manages to get a flight into space on one of the Virgin suborbitals soon to be in service. Dr Forward is no longer with us, Arthur Clarke is so frail as to be confined to Earth now, but maybe Hawking will get to space.

I never did have the body to wear a Star Trek (TOS) uniform. I never will. But within this middle aged woman's dumpy body beats the heart of a Space Cadette. You see, sometimes it's possible to make seemingly impossible dreams come true. Trust me.

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