Dreams of NewSpace: Interstellar Flight in 100 Years
DARPA's 100-Year Starship Initiative aims to make human space travel beyond our solar system possible within 100 years.
50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech at Rice University challenging America to send a man to the moon within a decade. If Kennedy were alive today, he would probably be amazed at the audacity of a new project that is light years more ambitious: DARPA's 100-Year Starship Initiative, which aims to make human space travel beyond our solar system possible within 100 years.
To get this project off its feet, the non-governmental organization 100 Year Starship is hosting a public symposium in Houston this week, from Sept. 13 through Sept. 16. Bill Clinton has signed on as the event's honorary chair.
What's the Big Idea?
"The moon is the first milestone on the road to the stars."
- Arthur C. Clarke
If you think that interstellar flight is the stuff of science fiction, you have good reason to. After all, the distances needed to be covered are difficult to even comprehend. The closest star outside of our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years away. That means it would take over four years to get there traveling at the speed of light, or approximately 186,000 miles per second. We can't go that fast. The journey would take what is currently our fastest spacecraft, Voyager, about 80,000 years.
That's obviously not a realistic time scale for a manned interstellar flight. So what should we aim for? A 100-year journey -- representing something closer to a human lifetime, rather than many generations -- is obviously a more reasonable goal for such a mission. Others who argue against manned missions say the decision should be governed by the growth rate of technology, and not be bound by the human lifespan at all (machines could always build custom humans in an alien environment, anyway). And so the technology-driven argument for unmanned starships goes like this: how many Voyager-type crafts do you want to send out there, lumbering along at only 35,000 mph, only to be passed by a faster craft in 50 years?
This debate underscores the monumental nature of the challenge, which will require dramatic innovation in various sectors, from energy generation and propulsion systems to AI and robotics to life-support systems and an advanced understanding of human health and development.
To this end, DARPA has provided seed funding for "a viable and sustainable non-governmental organization for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible."
What's the Significance?
Like Apollo, there could be numerous earthly benefits from breakthroughs in the fields mentioned above. And it is certainly heartening to space exploration advocates that a politician as prominent as Bill Clinton is publicly touting those benefits. "This important effort helps advance the knowledge and technologies required to explore space," Clinton said in a statement, "all while generating the necessary tools that enhance our quality of life on earth."
Beyond those worldly rewards, interstellar travel is essential if we hope to contact or even cohabitate with other intelligent life. There are currently over 800 planets identified as Earth-like candidates outside our solar system. What good is the SETI mission if all we can do is offer a distant wave to another civilization?
If we are to actually become an "interstellar civilization," we will need to make advances in many other fields as well, such as philosophy and ethics (we're talking about a one-way trip, after all). The Houston symposium plans to tackle these big issues in a multidisciplinary framework. They will also need to answer the question of how to plan an unprecedented 100-year project and set the right research priorities? More short-term goals include securing investors and getting the word out to the public. The presence of LeVar Burton from Star Trek won't hurt.
In the meantime, we're interested to get the chance to review the engineering ideas that will be showcased at 100YSS. The winning proposal to DARPA was submitted by The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence along with interstellar hardware developer Icarus Interstellar.
This public symposium should also be an opportunity to dust off other science fiction-sounding concepts such as the so-called "space elevator." Dr. Michio Kaku says such a concept is within the laws of physics, and could be possible within 100 years given the enormous progress we are making with carbon nanotubes and graphene. Dr. Kaku explains:
The problem with going to the stars is only the first few hundred miles. If you can negotiate the first few hundred miles and get off the gravitational well of the planet earth, you’re well on your way to going to the stars themselves. That’s why a space elevator could literally revolutionize space travel.
Watch the video here:
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.