Generation starships: they’re not fast

Posted on Monday, January 4th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

Ross Shulman sent in this great post by (one of my favorite) current science fiction writers Charles Stross about how you might design a generational starship to handle the vast distances and time involved in space travel.  Excellent read.  (excerpt below)

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that’s the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it’s twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they’re all almost unrecognizably different. More here…

Below I also include an image to give some perspective to the distances we would have to cover.  It comes from another good piece about escaping earth in a few billion years when the sun dies (via the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab).

The distances we are talking about

The distances we are talking about

  • Bruno Grieco

    It’s an interesting discussion about Long Term administration. But for the problem of a generational starship. I can propose a simple solution.

    We don’t need to send humans as live stock. We may send just the DNA and when the ship approaches it’s destination, an automatic incubator will start the breeding process and prepare the crew for landing and colonization.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Eric

    Humans aren’t really made of strong enough stuff for interstellar travel. It would be better to develop an AI or download someone’s mind (about as possible as a giant starship) that could be switched off until close to the destination. Much more efficient, easier to use sunlight or nuclear power for energy, and less likely to go crazy or loose sight of the goal over the long term.

  • Chris Rauchle

    Agreed, AI would be better suited to the journey and you could use something more compact like a Project Orion or Project Daedalus starship to get there in about 50 years instead of 500. If you use a compact starship you could build many and spread your risk by going to several systems. It might be that the only way we will see a report back from another star in our life times would be to send a sophisticated probe (probably post Kurzweil’s Singularity event around 2050). There are two important things to remember: some environments hostile to humans might not be so for a post singularity AI probe and what would the AI do when it got to the system being explored? If the answer is colonise the system by building more copies and setting up shop there then it may be that the only way humanity gets to the stars in the absence of some sort of light speed drive would be as downloaded AI…

  • Lars

    Reseeding using auto-gestated humans made from stored DNA rears two big ugly problems:

    1. The high-maintenance nature of even the simplest PCR machines after sitting around for 4 and a half centuries (much less the gestation technology).

    2. A storage solution that would keep DNA viable after 450 years (cryogenic storage degrades viability, and any sort of live-storage vat would be subject to mutation).

  • poezii

    you are aware that the “other good piece” map, while it could be accurate, is quoted from an article that is a joke, a 1st of April joke to be more accurate…

  • Evan

    “…escaping earth in a few billion years when the sun dies”

    Since this site is about deep time… I’ve noticed that people usually assume four light years as a fixed distance to the nearest star, but it isn’t. Stars move. Barnard’s Star, for example, will be closer to us than Alpha Centauri in a bit less than 10,000 years. Vega will be in our neighborhood in about half a million.

    Neither of them are going to be close, exactly (Barnard’s Star’s closest approach will only be a half a light year closer than Alpha Centauri is now), but I’m just saying, there may come a time before the sun has rendered the earth uninhabitable when interstellar travel becomes somewhat cheaper than it is now. I don’t know, but it seems possible.

  • Andy Johnson

    Even assuming that is is technically possible to transport DNA over interstellar distances and successfully incubate it at the other end, the result would be beings that are biologically humann but not culturally human.

    Presumably some kind of AI, together with transported artefacts (written works, recordings, etc), would be needed to raise, educate, and enculturate the colonists – so that the society they would hopefully build would have some kind of continuity with ours.

    This seems to me to be a _much_ harder problem than getting the DNA there intact.

    And what would a community of people raised by AIs be like?

  • Louis

    “We choose to NOT go back to the Moon and do the other things such as sheltering illegal immigrants, paying lazy Americans not to work and give away stuff like our national heritage.” U.S. Pres. Barak Obama, 2010, echoing John. F. Kennedy

    Heck, we lack the leadership (see above) to take us back to the Moon so I can’t believe such a spacecraft and voyage ever possible. Perhaps once we rid the planets of luddites and navel-gazing leaders, humanity will accomplish this herculean task.

  • Orion

    Well…if you have a ship that can maintain its population indefinitely as a “generational ship” would have to you wouldn’t have a “ship” anymore: it’d be something more like a “planet”. And then you realize there’s no need to send the colonists all the way off to a planet in a distant star system: Just park them in orbit around your own sun and start selling real estate. Then what you eventually wind up with is a “Dyson swarm”: like a Dyson Sphere, only with individual colonies instead of one big colony clogging up the solar wind.

    Only if your sun starts to fail do you go to the trouble of moving to another solar system and then you don’t really care if there are any habitable planets. You’re only going to mine any you find for raw materials.

  • HiroProtagonist

    How do you actually get the generation starship up to cruising speed (and decelerate at the other end) without totally wrecking the interior (centrifugal “gravity” gets messed up, water sloshing out of lakes, etc.)?

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