NASA to be ordered to literally aim for the stars in House funding bill

It turns out that the mandate for NASA to return astronauts to the moon is not the most exciting part of the space agency’s funding bill now moving through the House. The same bill suggests that NASA start to research propulsion technologies that would be used to send the first probe to Alpha Centauri, according to a Monday story in Science. The idea is that the first expedition to the nearest star to our solar system would depart in 2069, the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The language seems to have been included in the bill by Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, the chair of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.

“Current NASA propulsion investments include advancements in chemical, solar electric, and nuclear thermal propulsion. However, even in their ultimate theoretically achievable implementations, none of these could approach cruise velocities of one-tenth the speed of light (0.1c), nor could any other fission-based approach (including nuclear electric or pulsed fission). The Committee encourages NASA to study and develop propulsion concepts that could enable an interstellar scientific probe with the capability of achieving a cruise velocity of 0.1c. These efforts shall be centered on enabling such a mission to Alpha Centauri, which can be launched by the one-hundredth anniversary, 2069, of the Apollo 11 moon landing.’

The list of possible technologies that NASA ought to look into reads like something that comes out of science fiction.

“Propulsion concepts may include, but are not limited to fusion-based implementations (including antimatter-catalyzed fusion and the Bussard interstellar ramjet); matter-antimatter annihilation reactions; multiple forms of beamed energy approaches; and immense ‘sails’ that intercept solar photons or the solar wind.”

At first blush, one cannot fault the House members for lacking a sense of boldness. Nor is their call for NASA to literally look to the stars that far outside the box. A group of private investors are already working on their own expedition to Alpha Centauri, using microprobes propelled by laser propelled sails.

Oddly, two propulsion technologies now being examined by Eagleworks, a lab at NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center, were not mentioned in the bill. One is the so-called EM drive, a controversial device that alleges to use microwave energy to produce thrust. The other is a Star Trek-style warp drive, which modern physics suggests is theoretically possible.

In any case, the bill requires NASA to deliver an assessment report for interstellar propulsion technologies within a year of its passage.



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