Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Project Daedalus: Possibility or Hubris?

Project Daedalus, which is just within our current technological grasp, will be powered by a pulsed fusion engine (think of thermonuclear bombs). Pellets of deuterium (antimatter) mixed with helium-3 (common matter) will be ignited by a ring of electron lasers (high-energy focused electricity basically) and fired out the back of the engine, where a series of magnetic field coils (magnets) will create a magnetic nozzle to focus the thrust (simply put, to aim the blast for steering control). The primary boost (acceleration) phase would last two years (petal to the metal, that is), and then most of the craft would be jettisoned (removed since it's not useful anymore), and secondary stage would fire for an additional two years (accelerate even more!). At this point, Daedalus would be traveling at about 12% of the speed of light (80,473,996 mph), and would go into cruise mode for 46 years before flying past Bernard’s Star in the space of just a few hours since it won’t be able to slow down. No brakes!

The 50,000 tons or so of deuterium (antimatter) fuel pellets in the spherical "gas" tanks would use more helium-3 (to ignite the antimatter) than could be comfortably produced on Earth, so 20 years before launch, a flotilla of robotic hot air balloons would be sent to Jupiter to harvest helium-3 from its atmosphere.
This monster is 50,000 tonnes and
almost 20x the weight of the Saturn V
The Star ship study was conducted between 1973 and 1978. Over a dozen scientists and engineers led by Alan Bond worked on the project and operated under the guidelines of the Space Study Meeting stating that:
1) The spacecraft must use current or near-future technology.
2) The spacecraft must reach its destination within a human lifetime.
3) The spacecraft must be designed to allow for a variety of target stars.
The idea of the craft being able to reach its destination within a human lifetime (a flight time of 50 years was allocated) was in order to allow the engineers who had launched the project to see it through and thus a sense of continuity would be maintained. As such, the target chosen was Barnard’s Star, 5.9 light years away, which at the time was believed to possess at least one planet (the evidence on which this belief was based has since been discredited). However, the design was required to be flexible enough that it could be sent to any of a number of other target stars. So, it can pretty much go anywhere...if it's ever built that is.
Daedalus specifications
* Overall length: 190 meters
* Propellant mass first stage: 46,000 metric tons
* Propellant mass second stage: 4,000 metric tons
* First stage empty mass: 1,690 metric tons
* Second stage empty mass: 980 metric tons
* Engine burn time first stage: 2.05 years
* Engine burn time second stage: 1.76 years
* Thrust first stage: 7,540,000 newtons
* Thrust second stage: 663,000 newtons
* Engine exhaust velocity: 10,000,000 m/s
* Payload mass: 450 metric tons
Daedalus would be constructed in Earth orbit and have an initial mass of 54,000 metric tons (nearly 20 times the weight of the Saturn V), including 50,000 tons of fuel and 500 tons of scientific payload. Due to the extreme temperature range of operation required (from near absolute zero to 1,600 °C) the engine bells and support structure would be made of beryllium, which retains strength even at cryogenic temperatures.
Ten thousand of
these behind your
buttocks and I'm
pretty sure you'll
just die...

As a final comment, let me put the true scope of what "thrust" is for this massive, ugly eyesore. When these scientists say the word thrust for rocket propulsion, they have a tendency to under illustrate things. A few thousand or more of the explosions to the left more accurately illustrates what the astronauts of Project Daedalus will be flying in front of.
Here's the catch. We can make this ship, but is it truly possible to control "this"? Can any metal within God's mighty universe truly withstand and steer the force of 5000 atom bombs? (yes that number is correct!) Or should I say, control the force of several volcanoes? Because they are equivalent. A hurricane raging for an entire day will produce less destructive force than one of these explosions against your tone, tight buttocks. Sadly, I picture a sad-but-true fate for Earthlings. We can build star ships. We know we can. We've known that we could build star ships like these since the 1970s, but what looks good on paper often does not match the real world, unless you're Einstein. He discovered more of the universe with a chalkboard than any person/people or probe to this day.

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