The X Prize Foundation is working to bring regular folks up to the edge of space, NASA is aiming for the moon, and the Mars Society is pushing for trips to the Red Planet. So who's focusing on the incredibly far frontier beyond the solar system? Scientists and dreamers from NASA and elsewhere have established a new foundation to focus on the real-life prospects for interstellar flight.
The Tau Zero Foundation, which takes its name from Poul Anderson's science-fiction novel about a near-speed-of-light odyssey, focuses on the subject of "practical starflight." Here's a description of the group's mission from one of its founding fathers, Marc Millis, who keeps tabs on breakthrough propulsion physics at NASA's Glenn Research Center:
"The Tau Zero Foundation will establish itself as the dependable venue through which the visionary goals of interstellar flight can be advanced through imagination coupled with intellectual rigor. The allure of undiscovered breakthroughs will be used to inspire and educate the public, and in turn, these educational ventures will promote the Foundation. To advance science and technology, the Foundation will channel financial support to credible risk-takers within legitimate establishments, selected largely through competitive processes. To stay poised for capitalizing on ancillary benefits, the most promising developments will be aimed toward revenue-generating products and services."
In a follow-up comment, Millis talks about the range of technologies to be studied:
"The strategy of the Foundation will be to cover the whole span of ambitions, but with cycles of short-term, affordable investigations that target the most important questions. This span includes the seemingly simple concept of solar sails to the seemingly impossible goal of faster-than-light travel, to hedge the bets."
As Millis relates in his manifesto, the foundation draws together a variety of scientists, engineers and authors who have delved into the facts and fiction surrounding interstellar flight. Several work at NASA, a couple work at Edwards Air Force Base, and others come from familiar corners of the aerospace industry.
The organization's charter contains a call for philanthropic backing, based on the model set by the SETI Institute (which was a hit) and the Biosphere 2 project (which didn't quite work out the way its founder planned).
Les Bossinas / NASA
|This artist's conception shows a
fanciful spaceship approaching the
speed of light.
Millis draws a sharp line between his work at NASA and his interest in the nascent foundation - so much so that he declines to discuss the foundation from his desk at Glenn Research Center. However, Millis says there's plenty to talk about from the NASA side of things, even though funding for his Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project was discontinued in 2002.
"My center is covering my time on the center's overhead to maintain awareness of the project, keep up on the research and publish assessments as things come up," Millis told me last week.
In a recent assessment, published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Millis looks at way-out ideas ranging from antigravity (not viable, Millis says) to the Woodward effect (unresolved) to faster-than-light travel (a candidate for future research). Here's a PDF version of the paper published by NASA.
At one time, NASA itself conducted some research into a purported antigravity phenomenon known as the Podkletnov effect, but Millis said that's now pretty much a dead issue as far as he's concerned. He pointed to later research that found "no evidence of a gravity-like force" using an apparatus that would have been 50 times more sensitive than the original Podkletnov device.
Millis is more interested in research into the Woodward effect - "a transient inertia effect" that could eventually have implications for propulsion, if verified - as well as a more recent study of "a fairly large gravitomagnetic effect, too large to be explained with general relativity as we understand it so far."
He cautioned that "we're not talking about an immediate propulsive effect, and it might be a measuring artifact." But at least the research illustrates that there are still mysteries out there that could someday turn those science-fiction dreams into practical starflight.
"The bottom line," Millis said, "is that there are no breakthroughs that appear imminent, but there are definitely small steps that can be taken to continue to look into these things."