DARPA offers $500k to seed business model for interstellar travel R&D in 100 years

When it comes to research and development, NASA and DARPA are encouraging organisations to reach for the stars. Or at least, work out how to get there.

So, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are half way through a 100-Year Starship Study, to examine the business model necessary to develop technologies that would enable long-distance manned spaceflight within a century.

No really.  They also plan to hand over $US500,000 to an organisation willing to bear the interstellar R&D standard alone.

Quite aside from the fact that DARPA’s website is a gold mine for tech nerds (albeit a slightly scary, militarily-focussed gold mine) containing such gems as planes that could utilise lasers to protect against Surface to Air attacks, DARPA has a bit of a history for out-there projects.

It was partly responsible for creating the Internet, after all, and we all know how that turned out. 

It’s also behind the project building an Internet simulator, complete with software that mimics human behaviour, to practice cyber warfare, a project much more deserving of Skynet comparisons than certain other recent events.   The planning of the simulator, called the National Cyber Range, resulted in grants worth a combined $55 million.

But the Starship study is just so much more.

It aims to develop the business model necessary for the sustained research and development of technologies that will enable manned spaceflight, 100 years from now.  DARPA and the NASA Ames Research Centre say they seek to inspire multigenerational R&D and in May released a request for information soliciting ideas and information to support the programme.

DARPA coordinator for the study, Paul Eremenko said in a news release that the 100-Year Starship study was about more than building a spaceship.

“We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations across a myriad of disciplines such as physics, mathematics, biology, economics, and psychological, social, political and cultural sciences, as well as the full range of engineering disciplines to advance the goal of long-distance space travel, but also to benefit mankind.”

No surprises, DARPA anticipates that any advancements would have  “substantial relevance” to the Department of Defense mission areas, including life support, propulsion and energy storage.

The year-long study launched in January with a Strategic Planning Workshop which brought together a diverse set of people, including aerospace engineers and science fiction writers (so possibly Carl Sagan’s ghost?)

Over the course of two days, the members discussed requirements for seeding research that would enable interstellar flight, and addressed issues such as why humans should visit the stars, the risks involved, and the economic obstacles.

DARPA tactical technology office director Dave Neyland said the organization hoped to inspire a generation not yet born when man first walked on the moon.

“We picked the 100-Year Starship name because it would require a long-range sustainable effort to get our species to other stars.”

There's also a symposium coming up in September and October, for which NASA and DARPA are soliciting ideas and papers on subjects such as time-distance solutions, religious and philosophical considerations and destinations (probably not Mos Eisley then, that hive of something-and-something)

And the New York Times has reported that the research and development arm of the United States military would offer $US500,000 in seed money to an organization willing to go it alone (that’s right, DARPA’s handing over the keys at the award event on November 11, the culmination of the study) in developing the technology required for the interstellar vision.

The problems, of course, are large – the nearest known star, Proxima Centauri, is still light years away and even the fastest outward bound spacecraft, Voyager 1 (Sagan reference counter: 2), would take about 72,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. 

$US500,000 is a small drop in the ocean of funding needed for R&D into interstellar travel, but maybe it’s enough to get something started in the next 100 years, something which just might (wait for it) live long and prosper.

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