SPOKANE, Wash. — Is there a better way to power a spaceship? The basic tools of the rocket trade have been refined over the course of nearly nine decades, but there’s only so far the physics will take us. If we ever want to send anything to another star system, as described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s newly published book “Aurora,” we’ll have to come up with new technologies.
Some of those technologies were laid out at Sasquan, the world science-fiction convention playing out this week in Spokane, during a session on the art and science of spaceships. And it turns out many of those technologies have a Seattle spin. Here’s a quick rundown for six research areas, with links to the local connections:
Ion drives: These are the engines that provide the “impulse power” for starships on “Star Trek,” but the technology is science fact, not fiction. The current generation of solar-powered ion thrusters provide only enough push as a piece of paper weighing down on your hand — but they figure prominently in NASA’s Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta and the future mission to a near-Earth asteroid. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond office plays a key role in electric propulsion development.
Light sails and plasma sails: Solar sails can use the pressure of photons from the sun to drive a spacecraft through the solar system (or beyond) without on-board propellant, just as a sailboat is driven across a lake. The latest test of the technology was conducted earlier this year, using the Planetary Society’s Lightsail prototype. Someday, directed beams of laser light or plasma particles could be employed to provide more push for interstellar flight (as described in “Aurora”). The University of Washington’s Advanced Propulsion Lab has looked into creating “mini-magnetospheres” for plasma to push against.
Nuclear fusion propulsion: Decades ago, researchers talked of using nuclear power to blast spaceships to distant destinations. (Just look up “Project NERVA” or “Project Orion.”) “Aurora” assumes that we’ve figured out how to harness fusion power in space by the 26th century, but companies such as Redmond-based MSNW are aiming to do it long before that. (MSNW is also working on an electromagnetic thruster that calls to mind the current controversy over the EM Drive.)
In-space assembly: What if you could build up a spaceship from Tinkertoy-style, carbon-fiber struts that are 3-D-printed in orbit? That’s exactly what Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited wants to do with its SpiderFab system. “We’ve made tens of meters of truss out behind our lab,” founder Robert Hoyt says. The next step is to test SpiderFab technology in space test the system in space. Hoyt says robotic “trusselators” and “spinnerets” could build large-scale antennas for radio astronomy, or solar arrays for space-based power systems. (Tethers Unlimited has also developed tethers for propulsion and deorbiting, and is working on a solar-powered, water-based propulsion system.)
In-flight refueling: Robert Winglee of UW’s Advanced Propulsion Lab says he’s devoting more attention to the idea of fueling future spacecraft with resources extracted from near-Earth asteroids. That’s the sweet spot for Redmond-based Planetary Resources, which aims to start mining asteroids by 2025. “You look at the energetics and the costs … and you come to the conclusion that you have to do in-situ resource utilization,” Winglee says. “The smart money is on Planetary Resources.”
Space elevators: The first five technologies are designed to work once you put a spaceship in orbit, but how do you get there? For now, chemical rockets are still the only way — but someday, payloads could ride a railway into the sky, as described in local author Neal Stephenson’s latest science-fiction opus, “SevenEves.” Hoyt advised Stephenson while the book was being written. “For the most part, he got all the tether stuff very well,” Hoyt says. You can get in on the ground floor this weekend at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, where the 2015 Space Elevator Conference is under way.