Creative Challenge #50: Star Travel

The lack of news out there gives us the opportunity to present you with our greatest challenge ever. It’s explained in a recent PhysOrg article: The trouble with rockets. They say:

Space is big. Really big. It takes 10 years just to cross our solar system. The next star is 70,000 years away at the same speed. So if we’re going to get anywhere, we’re going to need more than just rockets.

They offer several suggestions, but we don’t like any of them. Obviously, we’re not going to travel faster than light, but if we could travel at some significant fraction of lightspeed, say 25% or maybe better, we can actually get to the stars within a human lifespan. Some of you have previously said that it’s not going to happen because biological creatures are too fragile, and you think it’ll be robots that have the only chance. We’re ruling that out. We want people to do it.

Oh, we’re also not keen on multi-generation ships or suspended animation. We want this to be done within a reasonable number of years — not traversing the galaxy, but at least getting to the nearest stars. And so, dear reader, we’re tossing the problem to you.

The form of today’s challenge is that you must tell us, with reasonable brevity:

What is the most realistic way to travel to the stars?

You know the rules: You may enter the contest as many times as you wish, but you must avoid profanity, vulgarity, childish anatomical analogies, etc. Also, avoid slanderous statements about individuals. Feel free to comment on the entries submitted by others — with praise, criticism, or whatever — but you must do so tastefully.

There may not be a winner of this contest, but if there is, your Curmudgeon will decide, and whenever we get around to it we’ll announce who the winner is. There is no tangible prize — as always in life’s great challenges, the accomplishment is its own reward. We now throw open the comments section, dear reader. Go for it!

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21 responses to “Creative Challenge #50: Star Travel

  1. Charles Deetz ;)

    Definitely an ark, it just needs a propulsion system. It’s a proven design for one year of self-sustaining travel, no reason it couldn’t just keep going. Bonus would be able to populate an earth-like planet.

  2. Mushroom steam ship.
    The idea is that you have a mushroom shaped ship. The cap is filled with water (we’re talking 500+ meters in diameter and several hundred meters thick). In the stalk are multiple fission plants (we don’t actually have fusion yet). These produce energy to crack the water, then accelerate the hydrogen for acceleration. Although you could envision a laser fusion system as well.

    Just behind the cap are two counter-rotating rings to provide ‘gravity’ to the participants during high speed free fall. The most dangerous phase is when the ship turns and accelerates to slowdown from near-c cruise to solar system velocities.

    It’s theoretically possible now and, depending on the actual method of thrust, may be able to get to near-by systems in 10-15 years.

  3. Intelligent design.

  4. @Ogre This is a new one to me. The laser system was proposed many years ago (the 70’s I think) if it’s the same one mainly for getting the ship out of the earth’s gravity well. You put the rocket on the pad, fuel on the bottom and fire a laser into it. Explosions push it up. (yeah, it’s just a bit more complicated than that). I believe they’ve gotten that to work on a small scale.

    Biggest problem with the “mushroom” is the weight of the water. Let’s take your 500m and several hundred meters thick. I’ll presume that’s a 500m cube block of water (250,000 cubic meters) which is about 550m kg of water, or 250,000 metric tons. The Saturn V rocket, still the most powerful ever built I think, could launch about 45 tons (give or take, depends on design parameters or actually what it got to the moon (hey, design parameters, maybe I could use a design filter to figure this out)). I’m assuming a payload more in the high middle. Anyway, that’s 5,500 Saturn V rockets to get that much water into orbit to the ship. So now we need to either colonize the moon or Mars to get the water out of a cheaper gravity well or make it out of stuff we gather in space (not sure how that work or if it does).

    Mind you, I’m all for this but the biggest problem we have is getting off this rock in the first place. I’m rooting for anti-gravity boost 😉

  5. @OgreMkV – That’s a lot of water. Probably need to tap a comet as opposed to lifting it all off the Earth, but certainly doable.

    Instead of having one set of hydrogen accelerators and needing to turn the craft around to slow down, why not have a matching set of accelerators on the opposite side? That would also provide redundancy — just in case.

    And don’t forget — if you’re traveling near-c, the trip might take 10-15 years as measured by an observer on Earth, but it would be a shorter time for the crew of the ship, perhaps only 5 years.

    Bonus for this design — all that water could be used to shield the crew from the radiation caused by running into stray hydrogen atoms in space at relativistic velocities. Nice idea!

    One caveat, though, and I don’t know the math or the physics to calculate this. But as the velocity increases approaching c, the mass of the ship and all that water increases as well, requiring more and more energy to continue accelerating (and braking). Thus, the need for a huge amount of water. We’d need a big comet for the fuel.

  6. It seems the GreenPoisonFrog and I were writing at about the same time. So what we could do is construct the containment vessel for the water and the hydrogen accelerators in space, attach all this to the International Space Station along with expanded living quarters, then add some conventional chemical rocket engines to the ISS for the trip to a convenient comet. It’s a snap! Of course, it would cost a couple trillion dollars in today’s money, but what the heck — it’s only money! Make Mexico pay for it!

  7. Just invest in Bitcoin and in a few years your money will multiply thousands of times!

  8. Turn the sun into a rocket engine and then the humans just go along for the ride as we are now. Went close enough use other rockets to get to the planets we pass. This will work as good as any other system.

  9. retiredsciguy worries: “as the velocity increases approaching c, the mass of the ship and all that water increases as well, requiring more and more energy to continue accelerating …”

    The relativistic effects kick in very gradually. There’s not much of a problem even at 50% of lightspeed. You gotta be doing better than 80% of c before there’s any noticeable time dilation and mass increase. Here’s a graph of the relationship between velocity and mass. Velocity (as a % of c) is the horizontal axis. Time dilation is the reciprocal of mass increase.

  10. Whatever you devise, we’re going to need a factory and launch platform in space, preferably low g (just enough to keep the crew and all the bolts and nuts from floating into space).

  11. Warp Drive and WormHoles seem to have the most physics and research behind them. HyperDrive and other FTL methods are slower. A NASA researcher has been modeling Warp Drive since 2012 and Hawking claims WormHole travel is theoretically possible. Both methods are thought to be consistent mathematically with Einstein’s relativity equation.

  12. My favorite “space drive” (and I can’t remember which SF writer it came from) requires that at some point science will master the manipulation of gravity in the same way we have electro-magnetism.
    At that point your space drive can create a momentary, artificial black hole some number of kilometers ahead of your ship, and the ship “falls” into it (thus allowing multiple Gs of acceleration without squishing the fragile flesh-o-poid passengers).
    Bootstrap-like, the artificial black hole regenerates itself over and over out ahead of the ship, providing ever increasing velocity.
    Managing traffic to avoid rear-end collisions will be a high priority…

  13. Wikipedia’s article on Interstellar travel seems to be all-inclusive. Nothing they mention appears to be a near term possibility, but one never knows what could pop up tomorrow.

  14. I’ll the fastest and safest method known: my imagination. I’m sure that it will be as effective as the other methods proposed here.

  15. Is it possible that there are natural short-cuts in space which could take us to some distant place?. Not necessarily useful to going to places of choice. But just going to anywhere at stellar distance, even if it is mostly empty space, is worth the trip.

  16. Ceteris Paribus

    “What is the most realistic way to travel to the stars?”

    I say – Ah, faggetaboutit! Let them stars travel to us!

    We all know that Terra Firma [dry earth] won the extra terrestrial race for first in show at the start of the grand universe pageant, 6,000 years ago. We have a place here at the Ark Park that would dazzle the eyeballs out of any denizens of stars or solar system that remain. [modest entrance fee required]

  17. B Ark.

    Let’s start building it now!

  18. Pete Moulton

    “B Ark” as distinct from Hambo’s BS Ark, I take it.

  19. Sort of… From the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

    Golgafrincham was a planet, once home to the Great Circling Poets of Arium. The descendants of these poets made up tales of impending doom about the planet. The tales varied; some said it was going to crash into the sun, or the moon was going to crash into the planet. Others said the planet was to be invaded by twelve-foot piranha bees and still others said it was in danger of being eaten by an enormous mutant star-goat.

    These tales of impending doom allowed the Golgafrinchans to rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population. The story was that they would build three Ark ships. Into the A ship would go all the leaders, scientists and other high achievers. The C ship would contain all the people who made things and did things, and the B ark would hold everyone else, such as hairdressers and telephone sanitisers. They sent the B ship off first, but of course the other two-thirds of the population stayed on the planet and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were all wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

  20. I read a sci-fi story about a ship sent to another star where an Earth-like planet had been discovered. 1000 year voyage, suspended animation, the whole nine yards. Well, when the ship arrives it turns out that faster than light travel had been discovered 500 years ago and people had already colonized the Earth-like planet and had been there 500 years with a “story” that an ancient ship might someday arrive. Turns out the original ship was totally irrelevant in technology and sociology and the ancient humans had nothing in common with the current population. Hashtag SAD.

  21. Doc – title of book?