March 23, 2005 1:44 PM PST

Let's colonize space for fun, noted physicist says

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March 23, 2005
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--Humans must continue to explore space, implored famed physicist Freeman Dyson, if simply for entertainment.

Speaking at Flight School, an offshoot of the PC Forum conference taking place here this week, the Princeton University Institute for Advanced Study professor emeritus sketched out a possible future, in which humans colonize asteroids and genetically engineer potatoes that can grow on Mars. (PC Forum is run by News.com publisher CNET Networks.)

Part of the motive to go into space will be dictated by the need for more room on Earth and an unpolluted environment. But there will be more mundane motives, too, Dyson said.

"You'll have people who go who dislike the tax collector or dislike their mother-in-law. The primary reason is that it hasn't been done," he said.

In the more immediate future, the United States will likely reinvigorate its manned spaceflight programs over the next 15 years because the Chinese have set their sights on the moon.

"It is an international sporting event. It is fun. The public likes the Olympics, and it likes football, and the public likes manned space exploration," Dyson said.

Getting there, however, will require some technological breakthroughs in propulsion. "What you need is a launch system that stays on the ground," he said.

One option is laser propulsion. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have shown that they can propel an object weighing 5 ounces 300 feet into the air with a laser. A real-life version that could launch people in a vehicle "about the size of a Volkswagen" would require a 1,000-megawatt laser located on top of a mountain, he said.

Technically, that can be accomplished, but to make it commercially viable, a vehicle would have to be launched once every five minutes, which comes out to 100,000 vehicles a year.

Another option is the Slingotron. "It is a huge slingshot affair that accelerates your payload on a spiral track and then, zoom--off to outer space," he said. It would kill humans but could be used for cargo.

A third option is the space elevator, a large structure made of customized molecules that could spring people into outer space, according to proponents.

"I am on record in saying that it won't work, but I love to be proven wrong," Dyson said, noting that the elastic energy would have to be equal to the chemical energy required to send a rocket to space. "If it tears in one place, it is likely to be a disaster."

Dyson himself worked on Orion, a project to land people on Mars, in the 1950s and 1960s. Orion, which would have been built by a submarine company in Connecticut, would have literally been a spaceship.

"We were going to walk on Mars with our notebooks and draw pictures of everything. It would have been true 19th century exploring," he laughed.

To propel it out of orbit, however, would have required exploding 3,000 atomic bombs, one every two seconds. The bombs would have been tossed out of a hole in the plate in the ship, delivered by "essentially what was a glorified coke machine," he said.

Engineering prototypes and simulations showed that the project would work, and it would have cost far less than Apollo. The original plan was to get to Mars by 1965 and the moons of Saturn by 1970.

"The fatal flaw of this scenario, of course, was radioactive fallout," he said, the ill-effects of which were being discovered at the time. "Technically, it worked very well, but it was political death."

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"3k Atomic bombs"
These atomic bombs would have been small, and low in their radiation contamination due to tehir non-weapon nature. Of course this rocket wouldnt have been launched near populations, probably in the middle of the sahara desert. I think the small radiactive contamination in the middle of the desert would have been worth a few trips to mars.
Posted by wazzledoozle (288 comments )
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not true
Not that anyone cares at this point, but this is entirely not true.
The radioactive fallout is not greatly affected by the non-weapons
nature of the devices. Radiation content is related to U-235
content, which is determined NOT by the nature of the device, but
by the need for critical mass. The amount of U-235 in 3000
thermonuclear devices would be large, exacerbated by the fact that
they would be ejected on a steadily rising trajectory, taking it into
upper atmospheric convective currents. Dyson was not stupid.
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
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Space Elevator and Liftport
"A third option is the space elevator, a large structure made of customized molecules that could spring people into outer space, according to proponents."I am on record in saying that it won't work, but I love to be proven wrong," Dyson said, noting that the elastic energy would have to be equal to the chemical energy required to send a rocket to space. "If it tears in one place, it is likely to be a disaster."

All respect to Dyson, either he was misquoted or he is mis-informed. I suspect the latter.

No springing involved. A space elevator - at least as the term is commonly used - is a fixed tether between an anchor point on or near the equator and GEO. To ascend, the climber uses mechanical energy to work it's way up the ribbon.

As for it being a disaster .. maybe yes, maybe no. The ribbon material would be .. must be light along it's length - a 100 meters of the stuff will be feather light. Part the cable along it's length, the bits below the break will come down, some to burn up, some to seperate into pieces. The bits above the break will ascend into orbit.

A mess, to be sure, but not a disaster.

See the following links for more information

Liftport FAQ at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.liftport.com/faq.php" target="_newWindow">http://www.liftport.com/faq.php</a>

NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts Phase II Space Elevator Final Report at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.liftport.com/files/521Edwards.pdf" target="_newWindow">http://www.liftport.com/files/521Edwards.pdf</a>

Brian Dunbar
Systems Administrator
Liftport
brian dot dunbar at liftport dot com
Posted by (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oops
When I said

"All respect to Dyson, either he was misquoted or he is mis-informed. I suspect the latter."

I meant to say

"All respect to Dyson, either he was misquoted or he is mis-informed. I suspect the former."

Small difference there. Sorry about that.
Posted by (8 comments )
Link Flag
Strewth!
I was going to make the same correction but I think you know more on the subject than me. To think that I thought it was just a good idea in a book. I hope it does happen in my lifetime!
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
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SSI pres
Good to see the SSI.org president still going on with O'Neill's High Fronteir concept.

Maybe someday we'll build rather than destroy. Now if we can just divert 10% of this trillion dollar a year global arms race into space colinization ....
Posted by (13 comments )
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Reagan (1988): our manifest destiny is to colonize galaxy.
President Reagan in 1988 made a similar call to colonize the galaxy, in an optimistic appeal to fulfill our manifest destiny. Reagan said, It is only in a universe without limits that we will find a canvas large enough for the vastness of the human imagination.

read the speech:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://theklugblog.blogspot.com/2006/12/reagan-1988-anticipates-hawking_03.html" target="_newWindow">http://theklugblog.blogspot.com/2006/12/reagan-1988-anticipates-hawking_03.html</a>
Posted by googabit (1 comment )
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