NASA Developing Tech to Reach and Colonize Other Worlds
If human space exploration is going to extend to celestial bodies farther away than the moon or even Mars, we need to develop a tremendous amount of new technology in order to do it. At this weekend’s Long Now-sponsored “Long Conversation” event, NASA Ames Director Simon “Pete” Worden outlined what the agency is doing to create that future.
“The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds,” Worden explained. “Twenty years ago you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired.” Worden himself was fired by President George W. Bush.
The most important near-term development is electric propulsion. The chemical rockets we use to launch shuttles into space are too expensive and inefficient for longer trips; the current generation of propulsion devices we use for deep-space probes and satellites are too slow.
“Within a few years we will see the first true prototype of a spaceship that will take us between worlds,” Worden said.
Worden also thinks development of a high-power, high-efficiency electric propulsion system could have huge implications for air travel here on earth. Given the rapidly accelerating growth of travel in the developing world and the environmental impact of current airplane technology, the status quo is unsustainable.
“The long-term answer is a ‘Tesla in the air’,” Worden said, “using high-density batteries powered off ground-based solar grids, so your airliner stays plugged in overnight, and it’s got an electrical engine rather than a chemical engine. I think within ten years we’ll have small-scale business-level ones, and within 20, they’ll be the airliners. If we don’t, I think aviation’s through.”
Other technology in NASA Ames’s research pipeline (both near- and long-term) includes microwave thermal propulsion, to remotely generate power that can be transmitted to a spaceship using 140 GHz beams; synthetic biology to help human beings survive on other planets; and a new DARPA-funded “Hundred Year Starship” program to develop long-distance space travel technology.
“We also hope to inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred Year Starship fund,” Worden added.
One of those billionaires might be Google’s Larry Page, who is keenly interested in space travel and NASA Ames’s research.
“Larry asked me a couple weeks ago how much it would cost to send people one way to Mars and I told him $10 billion, and his response was, ‘Can you get it down to 1 or 2 billion?,’” Worden told the Long Now audience. “So now we’re starting to get a little argument over the price.”
Image: Microwave Thermal Propulsion. Credit: NASA Ames / Kevin Parkin. Story via Kurzweil AI. Thanks, Meredith!
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