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Criteria & Rationale for a Near-term Interstellar Mission
Written by John Hunt   
If we hope to see a true interstellar mission within our lifetime then we need to set aside concepts which should best left to science fiction and the distant future. We should focus now on the criteria for the first interstellar mission not ones in the far distance. By highlighting the need for humanity to escape xRisks of it's own making we can make the case to proceed with an interstellar mission in the forseeable future.

An Interstellar Mission within Our Lifetimes

Wouldn't it be wonderful to see a true interstellar mission launched within your lifetime? But it has been 40 years since we went to the moon and we haven't sent people back since. Let's get real. Unless we can figure out an interstellar mission plan using current technology, within approximately current space budgets, and with a good rationale for spending that money…then it ain't gonna happen! Not within our lifetimes.

Mission designs that won't happen near-term

So when I think about interstellar missions I can't afford to think about missions that rely upon uncertain physics or which are implausible from a cost, risk, and rationale standpoint such as:

  • trillion dollar multi-generation ships
  • multi-ton ships using exotic fuel and fusion which we haven't even been able to get to work on Earth
  • life-extended astronauts whose life-support systems prone to break down repeatedly
  • science probes requiring extensive launch architecture competing with much less expensive discovery missions in Sol system
  • wormholes, etc.

Realistic near-term criteria

So what sort of mission design would meet the requirements I list in the first paragraph?

  • Push the travel time out to what equipment can survive
  • Use the fastest propulsion method that doesn't require too expensive an architecture
  • Keep craft mass as low as possible
  • Travel at speeds where collisions with dust and micrometeorites are survivable
  • Try and avoid anything like prone-to-fail life-support systems.

The rationale for a near-term mission

But even then there is the issue of rationale - a huge issue. A near-term interstellar discovery mission won't get funded for two reasons:

  • there's a lot of less expensive discovery left in Sol system, and
  • a later mission traveling faster negates the earlier mission.

So the only imperative I see for a near-term interstellar mission is the survival of the human species.

It is reasonable to fear that in the next few decades we may face an existential risk (xRisk) due to self-replicating technologies such as chemical, biologic, nano-tech, or AI.

But perhaps one could survive an xRisk without having to travel to a nearby star. (i.e. underground ark, lunar base, etc). Here's where I appeal to Fermi's Paradox. Where are all the other civilizations who survived their xRisks? Can't say that we see them. Sure, there are alternate explanations to Fermi's Paradox but nobody has convincingly ruled out the universal self-extinction of intelligent civilizations prior to interstellar space colonization. So long as this explanation remains, it behooves us to shoot for the stars in the near-term even if that Coke can has to take 10,000 years to arrive.

But including frozen embryos, automated gestation, childrearing, and life support systems at destination increases the complexity of an interstellar mission immensely. True. But it would seem as though all of these technologies are within reach especially if included in the development budget of the mission.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 07 December 2008 )
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