Second star to the right, and straight on till morning…

The warp drive news this week reminded me of a much older idea. I remember reading about Project Daedalus when I was just a kid. It’s still a good example of a concept for an interstellar craft. While it’s construction was never even considered, and would likely be prohibitively expensive, as an idea it still seems perfectly sound.

Dreamed up by the British Interplanetary Society in the 1970s, Daedalus was an idea for an unmanned interstellar space probe. It was to be powered by a nuclear fusion rocket, using a rocket engine bell larger than St Paul’s Cathedral. With an initial mass of 54,000 tonnes, including 50,000 tonnes of fuel, the idea was to construct Daedalus in orbit and send it towards Barnard’s Star. 5.9 light years away, Daedalus would have been able to attain velocities high enough to get it to its destination within 50 years.

A two stage design, the huge first stage would fire continuously for two years, reaching a speed of 7% the speed of light. That first stage would then be jettisoned to lie derelict somewhere in the Oort cloud, leaving the second stage to fire for a further 1.8 years, boosting Daedalus up to 12% the speed of light. It would then simply cruise to its destination star, using onboard telescopes to survey the star system for any planets or other interesting targets, using the engine bell of the second stage as a communication dish to send findings back to Earth. Ingenious. In flight, the payload of scientific instruments would be protected by a lightweight beryllium shield, and a group of robot “wardens” would autonomously carry out any repair or maintenance work necessary. Finally, on arrival, it would jettison a number of sub-probes to specific targets. With no way of slowing down, these would then scream past their objects of interest at 12% the speed of light, and transmit their findings back home.

I have to say, I always liked the idea of Daedalus. Personally, I’d have sent it to Alpha Centauri though. As local star systems go, Alpha Cen is far more interesting than Barnard (even though Barnard was, at the time, expected to have planets). Even so, just the ability to send something to another star system within a human lifetime would be pretty amazing.

Who knows. Warp drives notwithstanding, maybe the future might still see craft like Daedalus travelling to nearby star systems – the idea had so much merit that it subsequently spawned Project Icarus, a foundation to achieve interstellar flight by the year 2100.

(That’s the same Icarus Interstellar which Richard Obousy, who I quoted in the previous article, is on the board of directors for).

Image credits: Adrian Mann/Icarus Interstellar

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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4 Responses to Second star to the right, and straight on till morning…



  3. Project Daedalus remains appealing to me, but I’d much prefer a probe that could decelerate and examine a particular system at length. How much information could be extracted from a vehicle flying by at 0.13c?

    • invaderxan says:

      It’s a good question. 0.13c is fast enough that most data would probably be spectroscopic rather than imaging. That said, with the much closer range, the signal-to-noise on any data recorded would be incredible.

      A quick estimate would be… Voyager 1 is literally on the edge of the solar system right now, which puts it about 13 light hours away. Doubling that and ignoring the 8 light minutes from Earth to the Sun, gives 26 light hours. Travelling at around 0.1c would give a probe 260 hours to play with – which is a lot of time to collect light with a suitably large telescope.

      What’s more, we can get some impressively detailed images of the outer planets from here on Earth. If we’re sending something that large to another star system, I think equipping 10 metre telescopes as standard would be fairly trivial by comparison. :)

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