March 24th: Project Icarus: Aiming for the Stars

By on March 24, 2011 in

Date: March 24, 2011

Title: Project Icarus: Aiming for the Stars

Podcaster: Maurizio Morabito with guest Kelvin Long

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Description: The Icarus Project, another step in the quest for interstellar flight.

Bio: Maurizio is an experienced electronics and computing technologist and scientist, and published journalist and technical and scientific author in English and Italian with a variety of interests, including the study of international relations, economic and social development factors, the energy sector and space technologies. Maurizio has recently been accepted as Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, the world’s longest established organization devoted solely to supporting and promoting the exploration of space and astronautics.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Omnologos Ltd, on its quest to find sponsors for a major scientific experiment on the International Space Station. And it is dedicated to Lorenzo: may you take me to the Moon, one day!


Hello and welcome to another podcast by Omnologos. My name is Maurizio Morabito. Today we’re going to talk about the Icarus project. This is the theoretical study of a mission to another star. It’s a project that is supposed to use current or near-future technology, and must reach destination within a human lifetime. It must also be flexible to allow for a variety of targets. Targets in this case are actually stars! Icarus is a collaboration between the British Interplanetary Society and the Tau Zero Foundation and a very interesting aspect of it, as we’re going to see with our guest, is that Icarus is still looking for volunteers to join and help the rest of the team design and build at least on paper, a realistic interstellar probe.

Maurizio Morabito: Our guest is Kelvin Long and Kelvin has been involved since the beginning of the project, right, Kelvin?

Kelvin Long: Yes, that’s right. The team got together back in 2009 and we had the idea of putting together a design project based upon the historical project Daedalus and that’s how Project Icarus was really born.

MM: What is your role currently in the project?

KL: I was originally the Project Leader in the beginning of the project but what we’re doing, we’re rotating the leadership of the project to make sure that everybody has a chance to actually get down into the calculation. So my current role is really the Design Lead for the vehicle configuration as well as the science payload. I’m also a Ph.D student. I mean, what we’re doing is the same as Project Daedalus in the 1970’s, we’re combining the current technologies that exist today with future technologies, say, a few decades hence. You have the find a balance between being credible and sufficiently bold, and that’s always the risk for the team, to go one way where somebody will criticise you for not having enough imagination, and others will criticise you for having too fantastic a design. So we’re thinking about a few decades hence, extrapolating technology based upon the technology of today. But it makes it very exciting and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be permitted for Icarus to do that.

MM: Don’t you think it’s a bit of a risk to base your project on a technology that is not yet there?

KL: We’ve particularly chosen fusion because really it’s one of the most credible schemes. Really, Project Icarus is a design and capability exercise, really it’s about giving people the opportunity to do the calculations, and hopefully post-project they will go on to do their own things, perhaps a solar-sail project or antimatter, but it really keeps the vision alive for interstellar travel.

MM: Icarus is notable because you want to slow down at destination. That would normally mean a large increase in the amount of fuel that is needed.

KL: One of the things we decided with Project Icarus was to force ourselves to decelerate the vehicle, and that is a real technical challenge. But if we don’t have a real technical challenge then we’re just repeating old work. So we’re looking at various ways of doing that. Reverse-thrust engine, which you’re referring to, is just one way of doing that, but the problem is that the actual propellant scales with the square of the mass ration, which mean you need a lot of propellant basically in order to do that. You can apply some reverse-thrust but you really have to think about other innovative techniques such as using “mag-sails” for example, and there are other things we’re exploring and on our project’s website we have a blog page where we talk about deceleration, and that’s at our web page for your listeners that may be interested in reading that.

MM: What is that is pushing you and all the other people involved in Icarus Interstellar into actually, you know, spending your time in this?

KL: Yes, it’s a very good question. A lot of the people that pioneered the field of interstellar travel, people such as Bob Forward, a brilliant physicist who is no longer alive, and a lot of the original Daedalus team, they are still around, but they are not young men and women any more. So we really want to reinvigorate the field. There is not much going on in interstellar travel today. We want to inspire people with the work we’re going to do and we hope we’re able to do that. It really is about inspiring the young generation, particularly young students who have lost interest in science and engineering, we want to show them that science and engineering can be very interesting, and we want to encourage people to go down that route. And also we want to inspire even the professional spacecraft designer who think about planetary mission, we want them to think where next, once we’ve colonised the planets of the Solar System, where do we go after that, and if we can go to the stars. You can speculate, but what is always lacking is hard numbers, so by producing a real engineering study, a full study with all of the integrated systems, you’re actually providing a very important reference that people might refer to. And organisations such as the European Space Agency and NASA, they use that as benchmark to actually plan their development program, because if they can see that there may be some future technology in the next few decades, they may want to add to their development program of research going on in the background, to prepare for that possibility.(pause) We are always looking for people because we have a lot spacecraft systems to actually study such as the electronics, the materials, the communication, there is a hell of a lot to study, the computer. We’re not all experts in each individual field, we all have our own speciality, and really anybody that is interested in getting involved with Icarus, I am sure we can find a role for that.

MM: I suppose you all work using the internet rather than meeting up in person?

KL: Yeah, it’s a really interesting way of doing it. We do meet up as well, and we’ve met up in four occasions now, in London, in Prague at the International Astronautical Congress, we had key members attend the University of Colorado’s Advanced Propulsion Workshop, we had key members going out to New York to present at the Solar Sail meeting. But we do get together [online] as well, and we do use the internet, our site, planning chats, and of course, e-mail and it’s all very important. The team is very international, we have a member in Australia, we have a student based in India, we have several people in America and the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, and really the benchmark that we want to be aiming for is to make this an international team because if you’re going to try and build an interstellar probe decades in the future likely because of the costs involved you will do it as a planet rather than a single nation and that cooperation I think in space exploration is the key to the future.

MM: Now to conclude this brief chat that we’re having, if I can ask you a few guesses, first of all when are you going to select your target?

KL: Ah, that’s a very good question. We deliberately left that quite late in the project because we want to capitalise on all the exoplanets discoveries that are being made currently. Project Daedalus they chose Barnard’s star quite early on, and later on measurements have shown that aren’t in fact no planets there. We don’t want to do the same mistake. Our target is likely to be within 15 light years. We really have to choose that later in the project and it is not going to stop us with all the designs and calculations.

MM: So your guess for the decision date is?

KL: Oh, the date? We’re probably talking about sometimes in 2013 for our selection. The project is due to end in about 2014, so about a year before we finish, that’s when we think we’re going to select our mission’s star.

MM: So after 2014 the first mission to a thousand astronomical units?

KL: Thousand astronomical units? Ok, so this is not an interstellar vehicle, that would be a “precursor mission”. So first of all you have to demonstrate a few hundreds’ astronomical unit mission, that has been planned for quite some time. There is also the possibility of launching that in the 2025 timeframe. For a thousand astronomical units mission, you’re probably talking about the 2030-2040 timeframe, and really will have to wait for propulsion development to come along, which is moving along very fast. It could be ion propulsion, it could be solar sails, that is possible. And once you’ve demonstrated your mission you can really launch into an interstellar attempt.

MM: I think that the nearest star is in the region of 200,000 or even more astronomical units.

KL: Yes it is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years away, that is about 270,000 astronomical units.

MM: I suppose the last 70,000 are immaterial if we can cover the first 200,000

KL: Yeah.

MM: So…do you expect it next century or the century after that?

KL: I think, getting to those sorts of distances, of hundreds of thousands astronomical units, we really talk about at least a century away before you could even launch a mission, possibly it could even be two centuries away, and lots of numbers from people do estimate that. Once you’ve achieved those sorts of missions, they themselves may take decades long. You can then think of more ambitious missions to perhaps 10 light-years away and that’s the future for our species, to reach out for the Galaxy, and hopefully meet people such as ourselves, and we can learn about their culture and their civilisations.

MM: OK thank you very much Kelvin and all the best for the project. I hope many will contact you and your team and will help finally reach for the stars.

KL: That’s great. Thank you very much for taking an interest.

MM: Bye bye.

KL: Bye bye.

MM: Thanks everybody for listening and goodbye from Omnologos.

End of podcast:

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2 Responses to March 24th: Project Icarus: Aiming for the Stars

  1. Hugh Parker May 15, 2011 at 5:49 am #

    Here is a specific technical challenge that may be helpful.

    If a probe similar to the proposed Icarus Project probe enters our Solar System at .1 c “a few decades hence,” what would be needed for the probe to settle into an orbit in our Solar System’s habitable zone?

    Consider the technologies and planet assists that will be available at 20 and 30 years after March 24, 2011.

  2. Gary Wilson (earthgecko) April 16, 2011 at 5:46 am #

    A few questions.

    Interestingly enough if the timeline for Icarus is not a defined date in the project ToRs, however Kelvin did make reference to “a few decades hence”, a few being > 2.

    Under that permise, then that could mean that the second purpose of the project:

    2. The spacecraft must reach its destination within a human lifetime.

    Could be a changing variable as well. As the average human lifetime in a few decades could possibly be much longer than it is today (or shorter if every goes wrong along the way).

    So, if you are hedging on projected future technologies in the context of the craft design itself, is that being considered from other aspects as well? Such as a possible significant increase in the average human lifespan.

    Have you found in the past 15 months that here been any new very innovative ideas in related fields that have changed something in your design plans already? Thinking along the lines of advancements in meta-materials, etc – nothing in specific, just interested?

    Keep up the good work, it is always useful to design dreams.