Project Icarus: Laying the Plans for Interstellar Travel


Andreas Tziolas is drafting a blueprint for a mission to a nearby star. Here, he discusses how we'll get there -- and why we try.


We humans have known for a very long time that going to the stars will be difficult, if not impossible. The motto of NASA, Per Aspera Ad Astra, a latin phrase meaning "through hardship to the stars," comes down to us all the way from Seneca the Younger, a contemporary of Nero. Even today, when our metaphors of exertion and ambition are many --"swing for the fences," "go for gold" -- when we strain to capture the difficulty of a task, or the enormity of an achievement, "reach for the stars" is the first and most natural phrase that comes to mind. Our hierarchy of the ultimate human accomplishments is in this sense remarkably stable at the top.

And with good reason, because interstellar travel is in fact very difficult. With today's best propulsion technology, chemical rockets, it would take between 50 and a 100 millennia to reach Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun. The ideas we have about how to expedite such a journey are just that: ideas. They belong to the realm of speculation. Nonetheless, they are beginning to take on an empirical glow. To be sure, the bundle of technologies that could conceivably send a spacecraft to another star won't be here within the decade, or even within several, but neither are those technologies mere magical realism -- indeed, planning for their development has begun in earnest.

In September of last year DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, convened a conference in Orlando, Florida, to discuss and promote one of its newest and most intriguing research projects: The 100 Year Starship Study. According to DARPA, the study is intended to "develop and mature a technology portfolio that will enable long-distance manned space flight a century from now." To that end, DARPA is now negotiating a grant of $500,000 to ex-astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, whose personal foundation will team up with Project Icarus, a division of Icarus Interstellar, to seed the plans for an interstellar mission that could span several centuries.

Project Icarus, which will focus on the mission's technological challenges, is a theoretical engineering study that was launched in 2009 by the British Interplanetary Society with the purpose of designing an interstellar spacecraft. It brings together an international group of volunteer aerospace engineers from government space agencies, universities and the private sector with the purpose of generating technical reports on the engineering layout, functionality, physics, operation, and mission profile of an interstellar probe. You can think of it as a kind of repository for bleeding-edge thinking about interstellar travel.

Project Icarus takes its inspiration from Project Daedalus, a five-year study launched by the British Interplanetary Society in 1973 to determine whether interstellar travel was feasible at all. Project Daedalus ultimately concluded that interstellar was possible, but acknowledged that the technical challenges were significant. Icarus aims to pick up where Daedalus left off, by trying to chip away at some of those technical challenges. Andreas Tziolas, a former research fellow at NASA who holds a Ph.D. in Gravitation and Cosmology, is the Project Leader for Project Icarus. Yesterday I spoke to Tziolas about how and, more interestingly, why we might someday send a mission to the stars.

How did you first get interested in interstellar travel?

Tziolas: I've been interested in interstellar travel ever since I was a young boy. I'm not ashamed to say that I was a child of Star Trek. When I was growing up in Greece, I remember Star Trek would come on very early on Sunday mornings, but that didn't stop me from watching -- I never missed an episode. My mother used to joke, "if only you would get up for school with the same excitement that you get up on Sundays."

When it came time to choose a career, I knew it had to be this, because for something like this to get done someone has to say "I'm going to dedicate my life to this, to this thing that is difficult, this thing that is on the fringe of science, so that we can put down a kind of stepping stone, and the next generation can step on it in order to enter into this interstellar culture."

And that's what I've been doing these past 25 years. My first degree was in spacecraft engineering, after which I worked on several space missions for NASA. I worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, the Galileo Mission to Jupiter; I worked on the Mars Pathfinder, and on the Mars Polar Lander. And after a pretty intense period of involvement, I realized that from an employment perspective, these projects were kind of tenuous. When you work on a space mission, especially a planetary explorer, you're generally out of a job once you make it to launch. Maybe two or three people out of the twenty working on the mission will stay on as support staff, with the rest looking for work elsewhere. So it's not the best way to pursue a career. At the time I was interested in more analytical and computational physics, so I went back and did a Ph.D. in Cosmology at Baylor University. In doing this, I was trying to balance my capabilities, both the theoretical and technical capabilities, and I think it worked, I think it gave me an advantage.

When Project Icarus was first started, one of the main reasons we thought it was important was that people the original Daedalus team, and several of the very important researchers in the field of interstellar engineering had been slowly passing away, or else retiring. Suddenly you had this situation where there wasn't a new generation of interstellar engineers on the market. There was no one working on this.

When we started up, one of our first objectives was to raise up this new generation of interstellar engineers -- we wanted volunteers, anyone, whether they are Ph.D.'s or garage inventors, or just people who are passionate, people who spend every evening reading about interstellar exploration. There are several people around the world who have extraordinary technical expertise, but don't necessarily look good on paper, and so they don't have an opportunity to contribute to NASA or ESA or any of the other major space agencies. And so where do those people go? They end up working in I.T. or they end up working as clerks, but in their hearts they have this burning fire to do research. So what we do is corral all of those people with that fire and we organize them, and we organize the research in a detailed way, so that we can harness the power of inclusiveness in doing this kind of research. 

In Greek, Daedalus means "cunning worker," and in Greek mythology of course Daedalus is this master craftsman, the mythical embodiment of man as a maker of technology. But his son Icarus was another story. He's famous for ignoring his father's warnings about flying too close to the sun, and for drowning as a result of that. So why Icarus?

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Ross Andersen is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. He is based in California.

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