We Can Travel to Another Star System by 2100


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IN 1939, INTREPID engineers at the fledgling British Interplanetary Society proposed a daring mission into outer space. They conceived of a starship designed for ferrying explorers to the moon.

The plan was exquisitely detailed, describing a rocket propulsion system that would be fired in stages, as well as a method of landing on, and taking off from, a world "without air."

Unfortunately, the technology of the time wasn't ready to be wielded for such an ambitious endeavor, and a new world war would soon see firey rockets aimed at Earth's surface rather than the stars above.

Though the plan was permanently grounded, it was far from worthless. According to legendary science communicator Carl Sagan, “That design suggested that a mission to the moon might one day be a practical engineering possibility.”

Thirty years later, such a mission wasn't merely possible; it happened.

THE BRITISH INTERPLANETARY SOCIETY (BIS) is still around today, still dreaming stellar dreams. And they're not the only ones. BIS has been joined by groups like 100 Year Starship and Icarus Interstellar, dedicated to a collective purpose: seeing mankind travel amongst the stars.

It may seem a far-flung possibility, but we've got a better chance than you might think of actually venturing to another star system before the turn of the century. Alpha Centauri is a measly 4.4 light years from the center of our solar system, which means that if we found a way to travel at just 10% of the speed of light, we could get there in roughly 44 years!

Admittedly, we've got some work to do. The fastest object mankind has ever crafted is the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which just recently left our solar system (we think). Its maximum speed is 38,610 miles per hour. The craft we'd have to build would need to travel 18,628 miles per second.

That speed may seem absurd, but not only is it not out of the question, it's entirely conceivable to achieve with current technologies. A brutish, yet feasible solution was actually brought up back in the 1960's. A team of engineers and scientists led by physicist Freeman Dyson devised a spacecraft called Orion. The spaceship would carry hundreds, perhaps even thousands of nuclear bombs and detonate them against an inertial plate, which would provide thrust for the craft.

“Each explosion applying a kind of ‘put put,’ a vast, nuclear motorboat in space," Carl Sagan described.

But the 1967 Outer Space Treaty laid Project Orion to rest. The accord forbid the use of nuclear weapons in space.

"Personally, the Orion Starship is the best use of nuclear weapons I can think of," Sagan remarked.

ANOTHER OPTION WOULD require technology beyond our current capability: controlled nuclear fusion power. Unlike nuclear fission, which cleaves atoms, fusion combines them, releasing a boatload of energy in the process. The Sun accomplishes the feat easily, but human beings have yet to maintain a stable, self-sustaining fusion reaction.

If we figure fusion out, it won't only power the Earth for millions of years, it could also propel us to the stars. The British Interplanetary Society drew up a fusion-powered spacecraft in the mid-1970s. Dubbed Project Daedalus, the craft would be constructed and launched in near Earth orbit. The 190-meter ship would be capable of 12% the speed of light and come equipped with sets of optical and radio telescopes, smaller probes, and robot "wardens" for repairing any potential outer damage. Sounds straight out of sci-fi, doesn't it?

IS ANY OF this possible? Yes. But we have our work cut out for us, and that's an understatement. These efforts will need to be championed not just by small, dedicated groups, but by governments, almost certainly collaborating with private enterprise. Fusion power will have to become a goal, not just a sideshow. Heck, we'll probably need a space elevator, and an orbiting station that dwarfs the ISS. In short, it might take an entire world.

So what are we waiting for? If we want to reach Alpha Centauri by 2100, we'll need to launch our ship by 2056. Time's a wastin'!

(Image: Shutterstock)

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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