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Interstellar Travel: Dreams and Reality
Written by Dr. Tibor Pacher & Dr. Kinga Lorencz   

The historical flight of Sputnik-1 were followed in the 1970ies by humankind's first interstellar emissaries, the Pioneer and the Voyager probes. Fifty years after the beginning of the space era more and more studies are published about the practical realisation of interstellar spaceflight and the first organizations dedicated to this topic are forming themselves as well.

When the stone age man had looked up to the starry skies, perhaps he had thought he sees some campfires on the heavenly fields, far-far away. It is impossible to know for sure whether he had imagined that similar beings like him were sitting around the fires in those distant camps – but we believe that it is man's ancient dream to get close to the stars.

Today in our world these dreams come to live in various phantastic saga: just think of the galactic theatre of Star Wars or Space Patrol Orion; the Star Trek series is 40 years old and the Enterprise has been traveling in interstellar space in 726 episodes (and the 11th cinema movie is already in work), and gave his name to the Space Shuttle prototype - developed in 1976-77 – as well.

Such phantastic movies are suggesting that star travel is not a big deal – it is enough to ask Han Solo and we are already on the way with the Millenium Falcon. However, the real difficulties of such an endeavour – in the figurative sense as well – was already formulated by Seneca: „per aspera ad astra” - through hardships to the stars.

It is hard to imagine the actual order of magnitude of the scientific and technical obstacles of starflight, but using the adjective „astronomical” is not overemphasized at all. The following example is a good illustration: Voyager 1 is leaving our Solar System with round 17 km/s. With this velocity the probe would need almost 74,000 years to reach Sun's closest neigbour, Proxima Centauri, would it coast in that direction. Proxima Centauri is merely 4.24 light years away; to compare, the centrum of the Milky Way is about 25,000 light years from us, similarly to the distances to the nearest galaxies. To get there cruising with Voyager's speed would take several hundred million years.

It is then easy to see that such huge distances demand extraordinary velocities, if we want to shorten travel times. (Voyager flies with a mere 0.0057% of light velocity, which represents the speed barrier according to our current knowledge.) To achieve this goal we have to find radically new propulsion technologies. 

Project Daedalus, led by Alan Bond, was conducted during 1973-1978 under the wings of The British Interplanetary Society. It is still one of the most detailed feasibility studies about interstellar spaceflight. The goal was to investigate the reality of practical interstellar travel, doomed to impossibiility by conventional wisdom in the scientific and technical community in that time. Daedalus would be an unmanned interstellar craft, driven by a fusion rocket, using small deuterium/helium-3 pellets, 250 of them detonated in a second. Mission target was  Barnard's Star, about 6 light-years from the Sun; the Daedalus flyby with 12% light velocity would happen after 50 years journey.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 16 April 2009 )
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