Posts Tagged ‘Starwisp’

Torygraph Journo’s Book on Interstellar Travel Through Artificial Black Holes

August 10, 2017

The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry (London: Jonathan Cape 1977).

No, not the Iron Sky, which was a Finnish Science Fiction film that came out a few years ago, in which the Nazis secretly colonized the Moon, and fight an interplanetary war with an America governed by a female president, who bears a certain similarity to Sarah Palin. This is the Iron Sun, a book in which Telegraph journalist Adrian Berry explains his theory that it should be possible to explore space using artificial Black Holes to travel faster than light. Berry was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a Senior Member of the British Interplanetary Society, and a member of the National Space Institute of America. According to the potted biography on the back flap of the dust jacket, he also covered two of the Moon Landings from Cape Kennedy and Houston. Along with this book, he also wrote The Next Ten Thousand Years and The Great Leap.

The latter book was published in the 1990s, and is also about interstellar travel and exploration. It’s a good book, though marred by Berry’s Libertarian politics. Towards the end of the book, he devotes an entire chapter to argue for Von Hayek’s daft and destructive economic ideas. So did a number of other space and extreme technology groups at the time. The transhumanists, the crazy people, who want to transform themselves into cyborgs, explore the Galaxy, and ultimately achieve immortality by uploading themselves into computers, were also very much into Von Hayek and Libertarianism. I have a feeling that this has gone by the way now. A friend of mine, who was also into it, told me a year or so ago that the Austrian economist is rather passe now. One of the leaders of the movement has said that Hayekian economics was just something they were into at the time, and they’re now distancing themselves from him, so that his ideas aren’t synonymous with the movement as a whole.

In this book, after taking the reader through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and explaining what Black Holes are, Berry then advances his book’s central idea. This is that humanity will be able to use a fleet of automated Buzzard ramjets as cosmic bulldozers to create an artificial Black Hole of a particular size one light year from Earth. The Buzzard ramjet was a type of spaceship devised in the 1970s. Instead of taking its fuel with it into space, like conventional rockets and spacecraft, the ramjet would scoop up the necessary hydrogen for its nuclear fusion engines from the surrounding interstellar medium, in the same way that a high-performance ram jet sucks in the air it needs to reach supersonic velocities from the Earth’s atmosphere. It was an immensely popular idea amongst space scientists, SF fans and advocates of the human colonization of space, as it appeared a practical way of creating a spacecraft that could reach the very high speeds approaching that of light needed to cross space to the nearest stars within a few years, or tens of years, rather than centuries and millennia.

Berry believed that strong electromagnetic fields could be used to collect and push the necessary hydrogen atom ahead of the spacecraft. Once in place, the hydrogen and other gaseous material would be forced together into a single mass, until it was so large that it collapsed under its own gravity, forming a Black Hole.

It was Carl Sagan, who first suggested the possibility of using Black Holes as cosmic subways to travel across the universe faster than the speed of light. Einstein, Rosen and other scientists hypothesized that the gravity inside Black Holes was so massive, that not only did it crush matter out of existence, but it also created a wormhole through space and time to, well, elsewhere. An object, including a spaceship, could enter a Black Hole to travel through the wormhole, to exit from a White Hole somewhere else in the universe, or even in a different universe altogether.

The Black Hole would be built a light year away, as this would be a safe but accessible distance. The construction ships would be automated as they would not be able to pull back once construction of the Black Hole was underway, and would be allowed to fall into it.

Berry admits there is one problem with his scheme: no-one knows how far away, nor in what direction, the resulting wormhole would extend. He therefore argues that the first astronauts to use the new wormhole would also have their own fleet of construction vessels, in order to build another Black Hole at their destination, which would create the White Hole needed for them to return to the Solar System. The process would take about forty years.

He explains the details of his proposal in a fictitious interview. There’s also an epilogue, and three appendices, in which he gives further information on Black Holes, including the navigable apertures created by Black Holes of varying sizes.

It says something for the optimism about the future of spaceflight in the 1970s that Berry considers that we should have the capability to do all this sometime around 2050. The 1970s were the decade when it seemed almost anything was possible after the Moon Landings, and astronomers and writers like Sir Patrick Moore seriously predicted that by now we’d have bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, holidays in space, orbital habitats at the L5 points, as suggested by Gerald O’Neill, and would be gradually expanding into the rest of the Solar System.

If only that had happened!

Despite the formation of public groups, like the Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, for the colonization of space, humans so far seem stuck in Low Earth Orbit. There have been plans over the past few years for crewed missions to return to the Moon, and to Mars, but these haven’t materialized. NASA is planning an expedition to the Red Planet in the 2030s, but I’m really not confident about that every happening. And if it’s a struggle for us to get to Mars, sixty or seventy years after the Moon Landings, it’s going to be impossible for us to build a Black Hole.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of building a viable Buzzard ramjet. After the idea was proposed, someone worked out that the interstellar medium was so rarified that the vehicle would need a ramscoop 3,000 miles long to collect all the gas it would need. I’m not sure if this makes it completely impossible – after all, firms like the Hanson Trust back in the 1980s tried selling themselves to the general public with commercials telling the world that they made enough plastic chairs to go round the Earth so many times. And it might be possible to develop superlight materials for the scoop so that it would not be impossibly heavy. Such a material would similar to the mylar suggested for the solar sails for the Starwisp mission. This is a suggested mission to send a 50 kilo instrument package to Alpha Centauri in a journey lasting thirty years or so. And the construction of a space elevator, which would have to be of a light material strong enough to take the weight of cable cars and carry them tens of thousands of mile into space out of the Earth’s gravity well seems to me to present even greater problems. But even if a ramscoop of that size isn’t impossible, it would be very, very difficult and extremely expensive.

Not all scientists are convinced that it should be possible to use wormholes in this manner anyway. Philip’s Astronomy Encyclopedia state that one particular type of Black Hole, rotating Kerr Black Holes, which don’t have the singularity that eventually destroys all the matter passing through it, ‘have fascinating implications for hypothetical space travel to other universes’. (‘Black Holes, p. 57). However, the entry for ‘Wormholes’ states that, although they’re predicted by Einstein, ‘such wormholes cannot exist in reality, since the occurrence of white holes is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.’ (p. 440). On the other hand, Russian physicists have shown that it’s possible to create a wormhole a few light years in extent, though this would take more energy than is currently available in the universe.

I hope that it may one day be possible to construct such wormhole subway routes through the cosmos, as suggested by Sagan. I also wonder if the book may also have influenced comic writer Pat Mills in the creation of the Black Hole and White Hole bypasses for Termight – Earth thousands of years in the future – in the Nemesis the Warlock Strip in 2000 AD. This was an artificial Black Hole and its White Hole counterpart, constructed by Earth’s engineers to provide instantaneous access to space. ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ appeared about 1979, and while it’s definitely Science Fantasy, Mills actually did some reading in science as research for the comic. He said in an interview nearly four decades ago that he shocked the comic’s management because he bought a whole stack of books on science and then invoiced the comic company for them as research. He was annoyed that the attitude to comics at the time was so low, that the idea of doing basic research for them was looked upon with horror. Ah, how things changed after Frank Bellamy and ‘Dan Dare’. Bellamy’s studio for Britain’s greatest space hero, with the exception of Judge Dredd, included a model maker and researchers. Unfortunately, this was all cut away as an unnecessary expense when the Eagle changed hands. Sales had fallen, and the comic was then making a loss. Hence the decision to cut down the number of staff in the studio. But it does show the initial commitment to quality of strip’s creators, and Dare and Bellamy’s superb artwork are still admired as one of the greatest pieces of British comic art and literature.

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Cameron Scraps Solar Power – Another Setback for Science

October 4, 2015

My last blog post was about David Cameron’s decision to ‘cut the Green crap’, as he called it, and remove the subsidies from solar power. Presumably this was becoming a bit of nuisance to his backers in the petrochemical and nuclear industries. Plus, now that he’d won a second term, he clearly didn’t think he needed to deceive the public anymore with the line that his was ‘the Greenest government ever’. That whopper was disproved the moment he started promoting fracking.

Cameron’s scrapping of solar power might be another blow to scientific research in this country. The potential of solar energy as a cheap, practical source of power has been known from the 19th century. I’ve blogged before about the French scientist and engineer, Pifre, who at an exposition in Paris ran a newspaper press power by steam generated from a parabolic mirror about 18m in diameter.

Pifre Steam Press

Scaled down, the principle has also been applied to create ‘solar ovens’ that can cook food by focussing the sun’s rays. One such device was featured a little while ago on The Gadget Show, along with the other weird and wonderful doohickies and thingummies.

Solar panels have been used for a long time to provide power for spacecraft, but light from the Sun could also be used to provide propulsion for spacecraft. It’s been suggested that a spaceship propelled by a sail catching light from the Sun, called ‘Starwisp’, could take a 50 kilo instrument package to the nearest star Proxima Centauri, at about a third of the speed of light. If so, it would mean that the journey there would take only about twelve years or so, as opposed to the tens of thousands that a journey by a conventional spacecraft using chemical rockets would take.

It’s also been suggested that sunlight could also be used as the ignition system for a ‘solar thermal’ rocket. In this spacecraft, light from the sun would be focussed on the chemical propellant through mirrors, igniting it to create the force to move the vehicle through space. At the moment this is highly speculative, and there are a number of problems that need to be solved, but it’s a possibility.

I’ve also heard from my father that down in the south of France giant mirrors were used in one of their iron and steel plants. I don’t know whether this is true, and just one of those rumours. Given the investment the French have made into new technology, like carrying on with rocket research long after we gave up, it’s certainly possible.

Steam Rocket Cart

Two members of the Sacramento Rocketeers working on a steam rocket-powered go-cart

And I wonder if solar energy also couldn’t be used to drive cars. There are already experimental vehicles using solar panels, but I also wonder if you could use it to heat steam and provide a motive source that way. In the 1960s the US government had a programme to promote rocket experiments in schools as a way of getting children enthusiastic about space travel and help them to catch up on the Russians. One of the projects schoolchildren could make were steam rockets. These could also be used to power go-carts. There’s a picture in one article on the American schools’ rocketry programme, which shows a line of such steam buggies in a race.

Now anything involving rockets, combustible materials and hot gases is not something you try at home without the experience of someone, who knows exactly what they’re doing. But I wonder if someone couldn’t use a system of parabolic mirrors or lenses to run a steam engine to power a small vehicle. There’s certainly an opportunity there for research.

And this is possibly why Cameron wanted to scrap government subsidies for solar power. There’s so much potential there, that it really wouldn’t surprise me if this had frightened Cameron’s paymasters in the oil industry. So Cameron wanted it scrapped. Not only is this bad for the environment, but it’s also potentially damaging the kind of science that could lead to better, cleaner, more environmentally friendly and efficient vehicles. And take us to the stars.

And Cameron can’t allow that.