Humans have always looked at the night sky and tried to imagine what the twinkling lights were (some answers were more…creative, than others.) Thanks to the science and technology of the last century, humankind has been able to develop unprecedented insights into the celestial world. No longer do we rely on stories of gods, goddesses, and monsters to explain the motions of the night sky.
So the celestial dreams of the previous era have been swept away, a new set of dreams have replaced them. Humans have not only used technology to peer into the edges of the cosmos, but we have also projected ourselves physically into the solar system with exploration probes. We’ve managed to land humans on the moon, not once but a few times. Today, there is serious interest in not only landing humans on Mars, but establishing permanent colonies on our red neighbor.
Ambitious as all of this is, there are dreamers who see humans establishing themselves no only in our own solar system, but out among the stars. One set of dreamers, thirteen volunteers with the British Interplanetary Society, set out to determine whether it was possible to design a probe that could reach a nearby star system using near future technology. The ambitious study spanned from 1973 to 1978, and it was dubbed Project Daedalus.
Not quite science fiction
Project Daedalus had three goals:
- Design a spacecraft using current and near future technology
- It must reach its destination within a human lifetime
- It must be able to reach a variety of target stars
The heart of the Daedalus would be a fusion powered propulsion system. The proposed engine would work in two stages: a boosting stage that would last 3.8 years and a cruising stage lasting 46 years. The engine would be powered by deuterium and helium-3 pellets. These fuel pellets would be fused using an electron beam diode system, and the resulting exhaust would be directed out of the fuel nozzle by an electromagnetic “nozzle.” The pellets would detonate at a rate of 250 per minute, and accelerate the craft to 12% of light speed (22320 miles per second, if you’re curious how insanely fast that is.) The craft’s target would be Barnard’s Star, 5.8 lightyears from earth. At this speed, the Daedalus would reach its destination in about fifty years.
Once there, the probe would release 450 tons of science probes to explore the system. The main craft would continue flying, as there would be no feasible way to slow down such a huge object moving at those speeds. The probes would collect a variety of data, transmit it back to the mother ship, which would transmit the data back to Earth (the data would take another 5.8 years to reach Earth.)
As for the size of the craft, Daedalus would carry 40,000 tons of fuel for the boost phase and 4,000 tons for the second. The craft itself would be a behemoth, not only to carry the amount of fuel and the scientific machinery, but to survive the trip. It would have been about 1000 feet long. In order to survive the trip, the massive ship would have been constructed of molybdenum alloys that could withstand the incredible temperature changes the craft would experience over its journey. The nose of the ship would be constructed out of a beryllium disk that could absorb impacts from the interstellar medium (a fancy term for dust between stars.) Other objects would be deflected using a particle shield, which would be produced by a support craft called a “dust bug” that would fly 200km ahead of the main craft. The ship would be maintained by robots who would repair damage and monitor systems. It would be outfitted with telescopes and other equipment to gather data about Barnard’s star, and equipment to transmit findings back to Earth.
More than 30 years later, and still influential
A project of the scale of Daedalus would have required an unprecedented amount of cooperation among the human species to achieve, not to mention a ridiculous amount of material. The fuel alone, according to the study, would need to be mined from the clouds of Jupiter in order to secure enough (Helium-3 is rare on Earth, but plentiful on Jupiter.) Basically, the Daedalus would require the infrastructure of not one planet to produce, but that of a solar system wide civilization. Even then,, it would no doubt be a massive strain on resources.
But then the craft was not meant to be built. It was merely a feasibility study, to try and ascertain whether it was possible to build an interstellar craft. It was a starting point, a study meant to be built upon by future generations. And build upon it we have. A new iteration of Project Daedalus is indeed in the works. Dubbed Project Icarus, the study, which began in 2009, looks to design a feasible interstellar craft that, like the Daedalus, could inspire future generations. With the astounding leaps in technology humans have made in the last 30+ years, it will be fascinating to see what design the project produces.
Who knows? Perhaps in my lifetime, humans will produce a craft capable of reaching out among the stars. A guy can dream, can’t he?
O’Bousy, Richard, Icarus Interstellar. “Project Daedalus: A Plan for an Interstellar Mission.” News.Discovery.com. January 19, 2011. Discovery.com. Accessed on: February 22, 2014. Retrieved from: http://news.discovery.com/space/private-spaceflight/tau-zero-project-daedalus-icarus-110119.htm
“Project Daedalus — Interstellar Mission.” bis-space.com. February 23, 2014. The British Interplanetary Society. Accessed on February 23, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.bis-space.com/what-we-do/projects/project-daedalus
“Project Daedalus.” Wikipedia.org January 28, 2014. Wikipedia. Accessed on: February 23, 2014. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus