Andreas Tziolas spends a lot of his time thinking about how we can go to the stars.
As a child in Greece, he became obsessed with Star Trek. Every Sunday at 7 A.M., he would flip on the TV and marvel while Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock zipped across the galaxy, bouncing from star system to star system.
“I never missed an episode,” Mr. Tziolas said.
Today, Mr. Tziolas and about 50 other volunteers are working to build their own version of the USS Enterprise under the auspices of Icarus Interstellar and Project Icarus. Their mission is to send an unmanned, fusion-powered probe to Alpha Centauri by 2100.
According to Tziolas, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Icarus Interstellar is full of highly qualified scientists willing to slog through the countless math and design questions presented by an interstellar mission.
” I don’t think interstellar travel isn’t feasible, it just requires dedication,” Mr. Tziolas said.
Prior to becoming Project Lead at Icarus, Mr. Tziolas worked on the Mars Express/Beagle-2 mission to Mars. He holds multiple degrees in physics, gravitation and cosmology. Other members of Icarus Interstellar include Vinton Cerf, Vice President at Google and co-inventor of the architecture and basic protocols of the Internet.
I spoke with Mr. Tziolas about the mission of Project Icarus and what we could expect to gain from an interstellar mission.
What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Listen to the entire interview below.
Why should we be going to the stars?
Because we can. Recently, over the last 30 years, we have been developing the technology and physics that would allow us to go to another star. As a civilization, we are at a stage where we can pursue this avenue of thought. As a culture we have the responsibility to create the opportunity for our race to survive in space and perhaps on other planets and solar systems. Although the possibilities are small, there’s still a chance that Earth can fall pety to a global catastrophic event. So number one reason is to preserve the survival of our race.
A kind of backup plan?
That’s what my argument pertains to. There are other reasons. The need for exploration is a strong motivator. The technology we would develop in the duration of pursuing such a program would project us into a completely new realm of thought and give us a new technological baseline. It would change completely the way our life on earth would look. There’s also the never-ending question of whether we are alone in the universe. If we don’t start reaching out to other stars, we’ll never be able to answer that question.
How long might it take to reach the nearest star?
The best we could do using current technologies – like fusion – would get us to Alpha Centauri with deceleration in about 50 years. And that’s the best case scenario.
Explain what you mean when you say deceleration. That’s unique to this project, right? I know there’s been projects before like Project Daedalus, which wanted to do a fly-by of a star and they’d zip by at like 10 percent of light speed, take a few snapshots and that’d be it. But this is different, you actually want to slow down and orbit the star?
Exactly. Project Daedalus proved for the first time that interstellar flight was possible. Their objective was to put together the physics, do the hard math and devise the mission profile that would allow us to travel to another star in the first place. All they were trying to do was get there and the encounter time with the target star (Barnard’s Star) was only about a week-and-a-half. Now that we are redesigning the mission, we are taking on some broader challenges and trying to answer more difficult questions. The first is what is the tangible scientific outcome?
The only way to maximize the science is to decelerate the spacecraft on arrival and engage in a multi-year target solar system study. If we used Alpha Centauri, for instance, we are considering landers, orbiters, and penetrators that would do some subsurface work as well as a system of telecommunication relays to facilitate further missions. We’re hoping [Icarus] would create a base station.
So that’s when we get there. But what about the trip out there? We are talking about a journey which may be 100 years. That’s longer than the history of the space program. How do you upkeep the ship on its journey?
There are several philosophies for approaching this. One is build it so that it doesn’t fail. Build it with enough redundancies so that you can assure a 99.99 percent success rate on arrival. A hundred years is probably not even that bad in terms of a journey. Voyager has been working for almost 50 years already. We are getting to a point where we can amass enough statistical information from existing missions to say there is a valid case to keeping these things operating.
But we are designing a starship so we do indulge in using some more far out concepts. One of them is developing viable machine intelligence that would run Icarus. This would be a network of computers and sensors and decision making processes that continuously assesses the current state of the spacraft and decides whether something needs replacement.
We would need something very clever. We want to make sure that when the Icarus ship decelerates at Alpha Centauri, if there is a derelict alien spacecraft in orbit we want to make sure it doesn’t just ignore it.
How do you program for that? How do you give Icarus eyeballs?
There are certain types of structures and certain types of elements that are common in solar systems that you expect to see. Anything that has a shape that doesn’t conform with the geometry you expect in a certain place is definitely a curiosity. Say there is a survey of asteroid belt objects and one of the objects there is perfectly spherical. It’s probably either a small planet or if it is of a certain size and metallic than perhaps it is a structure of some type.
It’s obvious you are passionate about this. When did you get interested in the question of interstellar flight?
[laughs] I grew up in Greece. I remember being a fanatic Star Trek fan. It used to be on Sunday mornings at 7 o’clock. It was amazing to me that none of my friends caught it, but they probably didn’t because it was on at 7 o’clock in the morning. But I never missed an episode.
When I was growing up, I had the notion in my mind that if we want this to happen – that this is a future I would like for my children – then someone has to start pushing. Someone has to dedicate their life to the hard work and solve all these problems. I don’t think interstellar travel isn’t feasible, it just requires dedication.
There is a very dedicated community when it comes to this stuff. I’m wondering if NASA or mainstream academia – if we want to use that term – addresses interstellar travel. I think I remember back in the late 1990s Dan Goldin, who was one of the NASA administrators, said we need to send a robotic probe somewhere. And then it just sort of fizzled out. Are places like NASA or Harvard working on things like this? Or is there just not the interest?
People have these interests, but the funding isn’t there to support the research. When the funding isn’t there, you have to move on to something that can sustain you. As the funding moves around, people’s interests move around. Recently, we’ve been very fortunate that there’s a massive drive toward exoplanet searches. We’ve got Kepler and a lot of ground based telescopes doing planetary transit studies looking for exoplanets.
Thousands are being detected, many of which are terrestrial planets. When we detect a terrestrial planet with a nitrogen oxygen atmosphere. Is there any doubt in your mind that there would be interest and the funding to pursue interstellar flight? I mean this is another world, potentially. When that happens we believe we will see a shift toward interstellar exploration and Icarus will be there having done a lot of work. A lot of the people that are working for NASA that already have very good ideas, many universities, a lot of independent researchers from all over the world will come together to contribute toward this grand plan.
Explain the name Project Icarus.
Project Icarus was the follow up to Project Daedalus. Mythologically, Daedalus was Icarus’s father. Daedalus was a great inventor that created these wings out of feathers and wax and he constructed them so that he could escape Minas’ labyrinth, which is where the minotaur was being held. Icarus flew too close to the sun on these wings and in doing that he fell to the ocean and was never seen again.
There are two takes on this myth. One is that Daedalus played it safe. He didn’t test the limits of the technology, but Icarus was continually pushing the limitations of the technology and identified a flaw. The next time those wings would be designed that flaw would be identified and the machine would be improved on. That is almost exactly what Project Icarus is doing right now. We are identifying the flaws in Daedalus design and improving it.
In terms of Icarus’ “failure,” I like putting a personal twist on that – and I’m inspired by so many Hollywood movies and sequels – I believe Icarus didn’t fall to the ocean and perish. He washed up on a Greek island somewhere. He reflected on what happened and after searching for his father in the skies, decided he was going to build another pair of wings for himself that would be stronger and better and he would soar to the heavens and reach his destination on his own.