Category Archives: advanced propulsion technology

PopSci: Lasers Could Send A Wafer-Thin Spaceship To A Star

Lasers and photon drives have been a staple of science-fiction for 150 years.

Now finally, laser-driven star probes are in the main-stream of science.

Lasers are now advanced enough to help launch interstellar space probes, researchers say.

Scientists calculate that a gram-sized laser-propelled space probe could reach more than 25 percent of the speed of light and arrive at the nearest star in about 20 years.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 is finally leaving the solar system after 37 years of flight at a speed of roughly 38,000 miles per hour or less than 0.006 percent the speed of light. This suggests that with conventional propulsion technology, humanity will never reach even the nearest stars, says experimental cosmologist Philip Lubin at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Lubin and his colleagues suggest that, instead, lasers could accelerate small probes to relativistic — that is, near-light — speeds, reaching nearby stars in a human lifetime. “No other current technology offers a realistic path forward to relativistic flight at the moment,” Lubin says.

The problem with all thrusters that current spacecraft use for propulsion is that the propellant they carry with them and use for thrust has mass. Interstellar spacecraft require a lot of propellant, which makes them heavy, which requires more propellant, making them heavier, and so on.

Photon drives instead involve equipping spacecraft with mirrors and depending on distant light sources for propulsion. Solar sails rely on light from the sun, while laser sails count on powerful lasers.

Lubin acknowledges that photon drives are nothing new — in a letter to Galileo Galilei in 1610, Johannes Kepler wrote, “Given ships or sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, there will be those who will not shrink from even that vast expanse.” What is new, Lubin says, is that recent, poorly appreciated breakthroughs in laser technology suggest they can now accelerate spacecraft to relativistic speeds.

Breakthroughs in laser technology suggest they can now accelerate spacecraft to relativistic speeds.

The advance that Lubin’s approach depends on involves laser arrays. Instead of building one extremely powerful laser — a technologically challenging feat — researchers now can build phased arrays that are made of a large number of relatively modest laser amplifiers that can sync up to act like a single powerful laser. This strategy also eliminates the need for a single giant lens, replacing it with a phased array of smaller optics.

The researchers envision a phased array of currently existing kilowatt-scale ytterbium laser amplifiers that can scale up gradually, adding lasers over time. For instance, a current 1- to 3-kilowatt ytterbium laser amplifier is about the size of a textbook and weighs roughly 5 kilograms.

Eventually, the scientists calculate that a 50- to 70-gigawatt array that is 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers large in Earth orbit could propel a gram-sized wafer-like spacecraft with a 1-meter-wide sail to more than 25 percent of the speed of light after about 10 minutes of illumination, which could reach Mars in 30 minutes and Alpha Centauri in about 20 years. The researchers suggest this array could launch roughly 40,000 relativistic wafer-sized probes per year — each “wafersat” would be a complete miniature spacecraft, carrying cameras, communications, power and other systems.

The same array could propel a 100-ton spacecraft — about the mass of a fully loaded space shuttle, sans rockets — with a 8.5-kilometer-wide sail to about 0.2 percent of the speed of light after about 15 years of illumination. However, it would take about 2,200 years to reach Alpha Centauri at those speeds. Lubin suggests a larger array would make more sense for a human interstellar trip in the distant future, “but I personally do not see this as a priority until many robotic probes have established a need to do so.”

A major problem with this strategy is braking — the researchers currently have no way to slow down these laser-driven spacecraft enough for them to enter into orbit around the distant planets that they are dispatched to. The first missions that accelerate to relativistic speeds may have to simply fly by targets and beam back their data via lasers, Lubin notes.

Lubin notes there are many additional uses for such a laser array other than space exploration. For example, it could deflect asteroids away from Earth, or blast debris out of orbit to prevent it from threatening spacecraft, astronauts and satellites.

They are currently testing to show that small lasers can stop asteroids from spinning.

The researchers stress that they are not proposing to immediately build the largest system. They are currently testing small lasers on asteroid-like rock samples to show that such systems can stop asteroids from spinning, work that could help one day wrangle asteroids for exploration.

If lasers are the only practical route for interstellar travel, Lubin and his colleagues suggest that alien civilization may currently use lasers to help explore the cosmos. They suggest that SETI projects should look for telltale signs of such technology.

Lubin presented his latest work in a talk on January 25 at Harvard.

Lubin however fails to mention how the Military-Industrial-Complex invested billions and billions of dollars to make lasers into a combat grade weapon, which lasers of this type obviously are.

Which begs the question of “Will the government allow space probes of this type to be used?”

And who or whom would be allowed to construct them?

Original article

Crowlspace: Journey to Planet 9

For years “planet 9” referred to Pluto.

Unfortunately, Pluto has been downgraded to dwarf-planet status, (in-spite of the spectacular fly-by of New Horizons).

Now there is much speculation that Planet 9 is a cold gas giant, perhaps even a small brown dwarf.

In this article by Adam Crowl, he dishes on potential rocket systems that could get probes like New Horizons there in decades, not centuries:

Power, Distance and Time are inextricably linked in rocketry. When leaving the Earth’s surface this is not so obvious, since all the sound and fury happens for a few minutes, and silence descends once the rocket enters orbit, free-falling indefinitely, at least until drag brings it back down. For slow journeys to the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, Mars, Venus etc. the coasting Hohmann Transfer orbits and similar low-energy orbits, are all typically “sudden impulse” trajectories, where the engines fire for a few minutes to put a spacecraft on a months long trajectory.

For trips further afield – or faster journeys to the nearer planets – the acceleration time expands to a significant fraction of the total journey time. Ion-drives and solar-sails accelerate slowly for months on end, allowing missions like “Dawn” which has successfully orbited two Main Belt objects, Ceres and Vesta, all on one tank of propellant. Given more power an electrical propulsion system can propel vehicles to Mars in 2-3 months, Jupiter in a year and Saturn in under 2. Exactly how good the performance has to be is the subject of this post.

Firstly, an important concept is the Power-to-Mass ratio or specific power – units being kilowatts per kilogram (kW/kg). Any power source produces raw energy, which is then transformed into the work performed by the rocket jet. Between the two are several efficiency factors – the efficiency of converting raw heat into electricity, then electricity into jet-power, which includes the ionization efficiency, the nozzle efficiency, the magnetic field efficiency and so on. A solar array converts raw sunlight into electricity with an efficiency of between 20-25%, but advanced cells exist which might push this towards 40-50%.

Let’s assume a perfect power source and a perfect rocket engine. What’s the minimum performance required for a given mission? The basic minimum is:

Power/Mass is proportional to (S^2/T^3)

That is the Power-to-Mass ratio required is proportional to the displacement (distance) squared, and inversely proportional to the mission time cubed. For example, a 1 year mission to Jupiter requires 1,000 times the specific power of a 10 year mission.

The minimum acceleration case is when acceleration/deceleration is sustained over the whole mission time. When acceleration is constant, it means a maximum cruise speed (i.e. actual speed of vehicle) of 2 times the average speed (defined as total displacement divided by total mission time).

Another result, from a mathematical analysis I won’t go into here, is that the minimum specific power mission requires a cruise speed that is 1.5 times the average speed and an acceleration+deceleration time, t, that is 2/3 the total mission time T.

Remember that kinetic energy is 1/2.M.V^2, thus specific kinetic energy per unit mass is 1/2.V^2.

The power required – which is work done per unit time – is a trade off between acceleration time and mission time. Say the mission time is 10 years. If all the acceleration is done in 1 year, then the cruise speed required is 1/0.95 times the average speed, but power is proportional to the speed squared divided by the acceleration time: P = (1/2).V^2/t = (1/2).(1/0.95)^2/1 ~ 0.55, whereas in the case of constant acceleration, the average specific power is (1/2).(2)^2/10 = 0.2. For the case of minimum power it’s (1/2)*(3/2)^2/(2/3*10) = 0.16875 – just 84.375% the constant acceleration case and ~31% the 1 year thrust time.

So what does it take to get to Planet 9? If we use the distance of 700 AU to Planet 9, and a total trip time of 10 years, that means an average speed of 70 AU per year. To convert AU/yr to km/s, just multiply by 4.74 km/s, thus 331.8 km/s is needed. Cruise speed is then 497.7 km/s and the specific jet-power is 1.177 kW/kg, if we’re slowing down to go into orbit. Presently there are only conceptual designs for power sources that can achieve that sort of specific power. If we take 20 years to get there, the specific power is 0.147 kW/kg, which is a bit closer to possible.

Vapor Core Reactor Schematic

Space reactor designs typically boast a specific electrical power output of 50 W/kg to 100 W/kg. Gas-core nuclear reactors could go higher, putting out 2,000 – 500 W/kg, but our applied knowledge of gas-core reactors is limited. Designs exist, but no working prototypes have ever flown. In theory it would use uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) gas as the reacting core, which would run at ~4000 K or so and convert heat to electricity via a magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) generator. Huge radiators would be required and the overall efficiency of the power source would be ~22%. In fact there’s a theorem that any thermal power source in space has its highest specific power when the Carnot efficiency is just 25%, thanks to the need to minimise radiator area by maximising radiator temperature.

More exotic options would be the Fusion-Driven Rocket or a space-going stellarator or some such fusion reactor design with a high specific power. In that case it’d be operated more as a pure rocket than powering an electrical rocket. Of course there’s the old Orion option – the External Nuclear Pulse Rocket – but no one wants to put *potential* nuclear warheads into orbit, just yet.

– See more at:

Project Dragonfly Lives!

Here is another great post from Centauri Dreams, written by Andreas Hein. Good stuff.

2089, 5th April: A blurry image rushes over screens around the world. The image of a coastline, waves crashing into it, inviting for a nice evening walk at dawn. Nobody would have paid special attention, if it were not for one curious feature: Two suns were mounted in the sky, two bright, hellish eyes. The first man-made object had reached another star system.

Is it plausible to assume that we could send a probe to another star within our century? One major challenge is the amount of resources needed for such a mission. [1, 2]. Ships proposed in the past were mostly mammoths, weighing ten-thousands of tons: the fusion-propelled Daedalus probe with 54,000 tonnes and recently the Project Icarus Ghost Ship with over 100,000 tonnes. All these concepts are based on the rocket principle, which means that they have to take their propellant with them to accelerate. This results in a very large ship.

Another problem with fusion propulsion in particular is the problem of scalability. Most fusion propulsion systems get more efficient when they are scaled up. There is also a critical lower threshold for how small you can go. These factors lead to large amounts of needed propellant and large engines, for which you need a large space infrastructure. A Solar System-wide economy is probably needed, as the Project Daedalus report argues [3].

Icarus Ghost Ship

Image: The Project Icarus Ghost Ship: A colossal fusion-propelled interstellar probe

However, there is a different avenue for interstellar travel: going small. If you go small, you need less energy for accelerating the probe and thus less resources. Pioneers of small interstellar missions are Freeman Dyson with his Astrochicken; a living, one kilogram probe, bio-engineered for the space environment [4]. Robert Forward proposed the Starwisp probe in 1985 [5]. A large, ultra-thin sail which rides on a beam of microwaves. Furthermore, Frank Tipler and Ray Kurzweil describe how nano-scale probes could be used for transporting human consciousness to the stars [6, 7].

At the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS), we wanted to have a fresh look at small interstellar probes, laser sail probes in particular. The last concepts in this area have been developed years ago. How did the situation change in recent years? Are there new, possibly disruptive concepts on the horizon? We think there are. The basic idea is to develop an interstellar mission by combining the following technologies:

  • Laser sail propulsion: The spacecraft rides on a laser beam, which is captured by an extremely thin sail [8].
  • Small spacecraft technology: Highly miniaturized spacecraft components which are used in CubeSat missions
  • Distributed spacecraft: To spread out the payload of a larger spacecraft over several spacecraft, thus, reducing the laser power requirements [9, 10]. The individual spacecraft would then rendezvous at the target star system and collaborate to fulfill their mission objectives. For example, one probe is mainly responsible for communication with the Solar System, another responsible for planetary exploration via distributed sensor networks (smart dust) [11].
  • Magnetic sails: A thin superconducting ring’s magnetic field deflects the hydrogen in the interstellar medium and decelerates the spacecraft [12].
  • Solar power satellites: The laser system shall use space infrastructure which is likely to exist in the next 50 years. Solar power satellites would be temporarily leased to provide the laser system with power to propel the spacecraft.
  • Communication systems with external power supply: A critical factor for small interstellar missions is power supply for the communication system. As small spacecraft cannot provide enough power for communicating over these vast distances. Thus, power has to be supplied externally, either by using laser or microwave power from the Solar System during the trip and solar radiation within the target star system [5].

Size Comparison

Image: Size comparison between an interplanetary solar sail and the Project Icarus Ghost Ship. Interstellar sail-based spacecraft would be much larger. (Courtesy: Adrian Mann and Kelvin Long)

Bringing all these technologies together, it is possible to imagine a mission which could be realized with technologies which are feasible in the next 10 years and could be in place in the next 50 years: A set of solar power satellites are leased for a couple of years for the mission. A laser system with a huge aperture has been put into a suitable orbit to propel the interstellar, as well as future planetary missions. Thus, the infrastructure can be reused for multiple purposes. The interstellar probes are launched one-by-one.

After decades, the probes start to decelerate by magnetic sails. Each spacecraft charges its sails differently. The first spacecraft decelerates slower than the follow-up probes. Ideally, the spacecraft then arrive at the target star system at the same point in time. Then, the probes start exploring the star system autonomously. They reason about exploration strategies, exchange and share data. Once a suitable exploration target has been chosen, dedicated probes descend to the planetary surface, spreading dust-sized sensor networks onto the pristine land. The data from the network is collected by other spacecraft and transferred back to the spacecraft acting as a communication hub. The hub, powered by the light from extrasolar light sends back the data to us. The result could be the scenario described at the beginning of this article.

Artistic impression

Image: Artist’s impression of a laser sail probe with a chip-sized payload. (Courtesy: Adrian Mann)

Of course, one of the caveats of such a mission is its complexity. The spacecraft would have to rendezvous precisely over interstellar distances. Furthermore, there are several challenges with laser sail systems, which have been frequently addressed in the literature, for example beam collimation and control. Nevertheless, such a mission architecture has many advantages compared to existing ones: It could be realized by a space infrastructure we could imagine to exist in the next 50 years. The failure of one or more spacecraft would not be catastrophic, as redundancy could easily be built in by launching two or more identical spacecraft.

The elegance of this mission architecture is that all the infrastructure elements can also be used for other purposes. For example, a laser infrastructure could not only be used for an interstellar mission but interplanetary as well. Further applications include an asteroid defense system [20]. The solar power satellites can be used for providing in-space infrastructure with power [18].

spacecraft swarm

Image: Artist’s impression of a spacecraft swarm arriving at an exosolar system (Courtesy: Adrian Mann)

How about the feasibility of the individual technologies? Recent progress in various areas looks promising:

  • The increased availability of highly sophisticated miniaturized commercial components: smart phones include many components which are needed for a space system, e.g. gyros for attitude determination, a communication system, and a microchip for data-handling. NASA has already flown a couple of “phone-sats”; Satellites which are based on a smart phone [13].
  • Advances in distributed satellite networks: Although a single small satellite only has a limited capability, several satellites which cooperate can replace larger space systems. The concept of Federated Satellite Systems (FSS) is currently explored at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as at the Skolkovo Institute of Technology in Russia [14]. Satellites communicate opportunistically and share data and computing capacity. It is basically a cloud computing environment in space.
  • Increased viability of solar sail missions. A number of recent missions are based on solar sail technology, e.g. the Japanese IKAROS probe, LightSail-1 of the Planetary Society, and NASA’s Sunjammer probe.
  • Greg Matloff recently proposed use of Graphene as a material for solar sails [15]. With an areal density of a fraction of a gram and high thermal resistance, this material would be truly disruptive. Currently existing materials have a much higher areal density; a number crucial for measuring the performance of solar sails.
  • Material sciences has also advanced to a degree where Graphene layers only a few atoms thick can be manufactured [16]. Thus, manufacturing a solar sail based on extremely thin layers of Graphene is not as far away as it seems.
  • Small satellites with a mass of only a few kilograms are increasingly proposed for interplanetary missions. NASA has recently announced the Interplanetary CubeSat Challenge, where teams are invited to develop CubeSat missions to the Moon and even deeper into space (NASA) [17]. Coming advances will thus stretch the capability of CubeSats beyond Low-Earth Orbit.
  • Recent proposals for solar power satellites focus on providing space infrastructure with power instead of Earth infrastructure [18, 19]. The reason is quite simple: Solar power satellites are not competitive to most Earth-based alternatives but they are in space. A recent NASA concept by John Mankins proposed the use of a highly modular tulip-shaped space power satellite, supplying geostationary communication satellites with power.
  • Large space laser systems have been proposed for asteroid defense [20]

In order to explore various mission architectures and encourage participation by a larger group of people, I4IS has recently announced the Project Dragonfly Competition in the context of the Alpha Centauri Prize [21]. We hope that with the help of this competition, we can find unprecedented mission architectures of truly disruptive capability. Once this goal is accomplished, we can concentrate our efforts on developing individual technologies and test them in near-term missions.

If this all works out, this might be the first time in history that there is a realistic possibility to explore a near-by star system within the 21st or early 22nd century with “modest” resources.

I remember when the original Project Icarus study came out in the 1970s and I was absolutely enthralled with it.

At last, interstellar exploration could be possible, not fantasy.

Then the Icarus came out a couple of years ago. The ship was more advanced, but the size doubled. How is that possible in this age of miniaturization?

I think it’s because people love the idea of Battlestar Galactica or U.S.S. Enterprise sized interstellar craft.

You gotta have powerful engines and weapons to cope with angry aliens, right?

Andrea Hein is being smart and paying respect to Robert Foward and Freeman Dyson by writing this study with up to date ideas which encompasses Cube Sat tech and other commercial space company technologies.

Project Dragonfly: The case for small, laser-propelled, distributed probes

Spacing Out

Here is a link to December 6, 2013s Youtube video of Jason McClellan’s Spacing Out space/UFO show. Interesting take on science and UFOs.

The Interstellar Mind of Robert Goddard

From Centauri Dreams:

Astronautics pioneer Robert H. Goddard is usually thought of in connection with liquid fuel rockets. It was his test flight of such a rocket in March of 1926 that demonstrated a principle he had been working on since patenting two concepts for future engines, one a liquid fuel design, the other a staged rocket using solid fuels. “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” published in 1920, was a treatise published by the Smithsonian that developed the mathematics behind rocket flight, a report that discussed the possibility of a rocket reaching the Moon.

While Goddard’s work could be said to have anticipated many technologies subsequently developed by later engineers, the man was not without a visionary streak that went well beyond the near-term, expressing itself on at least one occasion on the subject of interstellar flight. Written in January of 1918, “The Ultimate Migration” was not a scientific paper but merely a set of notes, one that Goddard carefully tucked away from view, as seen in this excerpt from his later document “Material for an Autobiography” (1927):

“A manuscript I wrote on January 14, 1918 … and deposited in a friend’s safe … speculated as to the last migration of the human race, as consisting of a number of expeditions sent out into the regions of thickly distributed stars, taking in a condensed form all the knowledge of the race, using either atomic energy or hydrogen, oxygen and solar energy… [It] was contained in an inner envelope which suggested that the writing inside should be read only by an optimist.”

Optimism is, of course, standard currency in these pages, so it seems natural to reconsider Goddard’s ideas here. As to his caution, we might remember that the idea of a lunar mission discussed in “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” not long after would bring him ridicule from some elements in the press, who lectured him on the infeasibility of a rocket engine functioning in space without air to push against. It was Goddard, of course, who was right, but he was ever a cautious man, and his dislike of the press was, I suspect, not so much born out of this incident but simply confirmed by it.

In the event, Goddard’s manuscript remained sealed and was not published until 1972. What I hadn’t realized was that Goddard, on the same day he wrote the original manuscript, also wrote a condensed version that David Baker recently published for the British Interplanetary Society. It’s an interesting distillation of the rocket scientist’s thoughts that speculates on how we might use an asteroid or a small moon as the vehicle for a journey to another star. The ideal propulsion method would, in Goddard’s view, be through the control of what he called ‘intra-atomic energy.’


Image: Rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard, whose notes on an interstellar future discuss human migration to the stars.

Atomic propulsion would allow journeys to the stars lasting thousands of years with the passengers living inside a generation ship, one in which, he noted, “the characteristics and natures of the passengers might change, with the succeeding generations.” We’ve made the same speculation here, wondering whether a crew living and dying inside an artificial world wouldn’t so adapt to the environment that it would eventually choose not to live on a planetary surface, no matter what it found in the destination solar system.

And if atomic energy could not be harnessed? In that case, Goddard speculated that humans could be placed in what we today would think of as suspended animation, the crew awakened at intervals of 10,000 years for a passage to the nearest stars, and intervals of a million years for greater distances. Goddard speculates on how an accurate clock could be built to ensure awakening, which he thought would be necessary for human intervention to steer the spacecraft if it came to be off its course. Suspended animation would involve huge changes to the body:

…will it be possible to reduce the protoplasm in the human body to the granular state, so that it can withstand the intense cold of interstellar space? It would probably be necessary to dessicate the body, more or less, before this state could be produced. Awakening may have to be done very slowly. It might be necessary to have people evolve, through a number of generations, for this purpose.

As to destinations, Goddard saw the ideal as a star like the Sun or, interestingly, a binary system with two suns like ours — perhaps he was thinking of the Alpha Centauri stars here. But that was only the beginning, for Goddard thought in terms of migration, not just exploration. His notes tell us that expeditions should be sent to all parts of the Milky Way, wherever new stars are thickly clustered. Each expedition should include “…all the knowledge, literature, art (in a condensed form), and description of tools, appliances, and processes, in as condensed, light, and indestructible a form as possible, so that a new civilisation could begin where the old ended.”

The notes end with the thought that if neither of these scenarios develops, it might still be possible to spread our species to the stars by sending human protoplasm, “…this protoplasm being of such a nature as to produce human beings eventually, by evolution.” Given that Goddard locked his manuscript away, it could have had no influence on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s essay “The Future of Earth and Mankind,” which in 1928 speculated that humans might travel on millennial voyages to the stars aboard the future equivalent of a Noah’s Ark.

Interstellar voyages lasting thousands of years would become a familiar trope of science fiction in the ensuing decades, but it is interesting to see how, at the dawn of liquid fuel rocketry, rocket pioneers were already thinking ahead to far-future implications of the technology. Goddard was writing at a time when estimates of the Sun’s lifetime gave our species just millions of years before its demise — a cooling Sun was a reason for future migration. We would later learn the Sun’s lifetime was much longer, but the migration of humans to the stars would retain its fascination for those who contemplate not only worldships but much faster journeys.


Goddard was obviously influenced by his contemporary J.D. Bernal with his The World, the Flesh and the Devil  which predicted Man’s spread out into the Solar System and interstellar space with artificial worlds and hollowed out asteroids.


These worlds are needed because such journeys will take hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.


Of course that brings in natural evolution and what these people inside these places will become when they eventually reach their destinations and if they’ll actually have need of them.


Robert Goddard’s Interstellar Migration






Orbital Sciences Launches It’s Antares Rocket


Orbital Sciences Corporation Sunday launched its Antares rocket at 05:00 p.m. EDT from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The test flight was the first launch from the pad at Wallops and was the first flight of Antares, which delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth’s orbit.

“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.

“President Obama has presented a budget for next year that ensures the United States will remain the world leader in space exploration, and a critical part of this budget is the funding needed to advance NASA’s commercial space initiative. In order to stop outsourcing American space launches, we need to have the President’s budget enacted. It’s a budget that’s good for our economy, good for the U.S. Space program — and good for American taxpayers.”

The test of the Antares launch system began with the rocket’s rollout and placement on the launch pad April 6, and culminated with the separation of the mass simulator payload from the rocket.

The completed flight paves the way for a demonstration mission by Orbital to resupply the space station later this year. Antares will launch experiments and supplies to the orbiting laboratory carried aboard the company’s new Cygnus cargo spacecraft through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“Today’s successful test flight of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket from the spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia, demonstrates an additional private space-launch capability for the United States and lays the groundwork for the first Antares cargo mission to the International Space Station later this year,” said John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The growing potential of America’s commercial space industry and NASA’s use of public-private partnerships are central to President Obama’s strategy to ensure U.S. leadership in space exploration while pushing the bounds of scientific discovery and innovation in the 21st century. With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit.

“I congratulate Orbital Sciences and the NASA teams at Wallops, and look forward to more groundbreaking missions in the months and years ahead.”

Orbital is building and testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. After successful completion of a COTS demonstration mission to the station, Orbital will begin conducting eight planned cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through NASA’s $1.9 billion CRS contract with the company.

NASA initiatives, such as COTS, are helping to develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program also is working with commercial space partners to develop capabilities to launch U.S. astronauts from American soil in the next few years.

Although Orbital had to reschedule three times, they got their test launch off.

Let’s hope they solved their fairing separation issues before the main Cygnus missions start.

Orbital Sciences Test Launches Antares Rocket

Declassified CIA UFO Files


(Spies, Lies and Polygraph Tape) — The now infamous MJ-12 / MAJIC / Operation Majestic 12 Eisenhower Briefing Document, allegedly created to inform President Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower of contact with extraterrestrial visitors, is dated November  18, 1952.

CIA has been busy responding to the 25 Year Automatic Declassification Rule (don’t get too excited, as there are plenty of X25 Exemption paragraphs that have been redacted from the documents). Among the various releases are the “flying saucer” documents — and some of those documents have been converted into PDF format for easy viewing and archiving.

Of particular interest are the “Deputies’ Meeting” documents, which review the various topics discussed by senior CIA officials on a daily basis.

And among the topics of discussion in late 1952? The need to brief the U.S. President (Harry Truman) on the flying saucer problem.

For those interested in pursuing the real “flying saucer” material, here are a few items of possible interest, from CIA’s website, in PDF format:

Undated 1952 memo from CIA Director Smith to Psychological Strategy Board (PSB) on the flying saucer issue.

15 March 1949 United States Government Memorandum on the flying saucer problem

1 August 1952 preliminary evaluation of flying saucer problem.

18 August 1952 discussion of OSI briefing on flying saucers in the CIA Director’s Conference Room.

2 September 1952 CIA flying saucer sighting report.

11 September 1952 flying saucer threat assessment memorandum.

14 October 1952 Memorandum for the Record on the flying saucer problem

18 November 1952, same date as the alleged MJ-12 Eisenhower Briefing Document, mentions “the original 12″ — probably not a veiled secretly coded reference to Majestic 12 members, but a nice coincidence none-the-less for hard-core conspiracy buffs.

3 December 1952 Memorandum on the flying saucer problem.

4 December 1952 discussion of preparing an estimate (national intelligence estimate or NIE) for the president on flying saucers.

9 December 1952 FCC reports no interference from flying saucers to communications.

10 December 1952 CIA Director Smith requests memorandum on flying saucers to discuss with President Truman on 12 December 1952.

12 December 1952 discussion requesting delay for briefing then President Truman on the flying saucer issue.

25 March 1955 Memorandum on flying saucers and Air Force Project Blue Book.

10 October 1955 U.S. officials report flying saucer observed during travel in the U.S.S.R.

11 June 1957 on who is responsible at CIA for the flying saucer problem.

Some of the documents look authentic because they have the authentic dating regime; ex: 18 November 1952.

I know this because at one time during my own military service I handled memorandums and other documents that used that standard.

Also these documents are still redacted, Mr. Bekkum is correct about that.

Did the U.S. government conclude that these UFOs were nuts and bolts spacecraft piloted by real aliens?

I think they surmised so, but you be the judge when you peruse these documents.

CIA files: Washington vs. the flying saucers

The Covert Mainstream


The late researcher of UFOs, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, once wrote that, “In one’s frustration it is all too easy to seize on an explanation of the “Men from Mars” variety and to ignore the many UFO features unaccounted for… We may be inadvertently and artificially increasing the significance of the conspicuous features while the part we ignore–or that which is not reported by the untrained witness–may contain the clue to the whole subject.”

I would also argue just as well that, in addition to part of the UFO enigma that remain hidden, there might be researchers in this field that do the same.

I recently attended the 2013 International UFO Congress as a speaker, as well as a panelist for a discussion with fellow researchers Stanton Friedman and Richard Dolan, where we discussed the state of ufology in the 21st century. The Congress, arguably the largest and most well-attended UFO conference anywhere in the world, is not only a proving ground for both the budding young researcher and the decades-in ufologist alike; it is also a breeding ground for new ideas and the formation of new hypotheses, which may eventually sow the seeds of new insight toward solving this enduring mystery.

International UFO Congress - Educating the World One Person at a Time

International UFO Congress – Educating the World One Person at a Time

And yet, while there is this obvious mainstream component to the UFO research community, there is another more clandestine arm of the community that is less active before the public eye… but not all things that are “secretive” are necessarily nefarious or part of some grand dark conspiracy. In truth, it may be within the humble confines of Ufology’s “Shadow Research Community” that some of the more innovative thinkers exist, working out problems behind the scenes that many point-and-click researchers of today might overlook altogether.

No doubt, a statement of this caliber might be enough to anger many prideful UFO researchers at large (although I would argue that most serious UFO researchers will learn early on to rid themselves of any pride, lest they be crushed by the seething sensationalism in the mainstream media, and their overt approach toward the UFO community in general). But again, the notion of their being an underlying academic element that persists behind the mainstream study of UFOs–if one could ever call UFO research “mainstream” at all–is nothing new.

French Ufologist and computer scientist Jacques Vallee in his book Alien Contact by Human Deception argued that there were many private UFO researchers in academic circles–perhaps a few hundred he knew and had worked with–that studied the UFO problem intently, but without doing so publicly. Vallee referred to this as being a sort of “Invisible College” that has continued serious scientific study of UFOs, despite the fact that since the late 1960s, Edward Condon and his University of Colorado UFO Project helped determine that once and for all, the UFO mystery would forever be pseudoscientific.

Hynek and Vallee

Hynek and Vallee

Indeed, the general study of UFOs has largely been pseudoscientific, in that the largest body of serious research spanning the last several decades has been carried out by civilians, and often those with little or no academic or technical training suited for study of the phenomenon. While this has often been a point of criticism by scientists the likes of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and many others, it also highlights yet another problem in the UFO field: the tendency for academics to push for debunking of UFO phenomenon or labeling it as pseudoscientific, while doing very little on their own accord to help further the serious scientific study of the phenomenon aside from waging an ongoing war of words.

Angela Joiner

Angela Joiner

To the credit of the academicians, it should be noted that to openly and publicly embrace the study of UFOs most often becomes equivalent to academic suicide in the Western world. There are many instances where professionals have been forced to choose between studying fringe subjects and maintaing a career by more conventional standards. Scientists such as Dean Radin, who lost his teaching position for openly discussing parapsychology, comes to mind, as well as members of the media like Angelia Joiner, who famously reported on the Stephenville, Texas UFO flap several years ago; the latter was eventually pinned into a position where she felt she had to resign as a reporter for the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, in order to be able to continue following the UFO story.

Altogether, the problem here is that UFO research, by virtue of the fringe or “kooky” subject matter it has often become directly associated with, warrants blacklisting among professionals (especially scientists, university professors, etc). In my own experience, I’ve had numerous interactions with those in academia who reach out to me, often under aliases at first, to express interest not just in UFO research, but to share their own ideas and findings (albeit covertly) from an academic standpoint. The reasons these individuals would reach out to ufologists at all most often has to do, in my experience, with a hope for finding someone who will allow them to plead their case, but also that they might be able to influence or steer with their own professional observations. On both counts, this is usually a good thing, as it allows the academics to find others who won’t be so openly critical with the treatment of fringy subject matter, but the less technically skilled civilian researcher also gains insight from members of the scientific community.

Thus, while there is certainly a “trickle down effect” with regard to academics who occasionally reveal tidbits of insight to the publicly known UFO researchers, it could be argued that some of the most plausible and interesting insights into the field of ufology may exist behind the scenes, in what Vallee dubbed a so-called “Invisible College.” Today, could we ever get a serious, ongoing academic discourse on UFOs back into mainstream scientific circles… or is this even something that could ever be afforded the modern UFO research community, with an ever-growing divide that is occurring between the “believer” and “skeptic” diametric?

I actually don’t find it odd that there are some “mainstream” scientists working on the UFO mystery on their own time. After all that is what Jacques Vallee and Stanton Freidman did before devoting their studies of UFOs full-time .

The late J. Allen Hynek was a little different, he waited until he had a government pension before becoming a convert to studying UFOs on a full-time scientific basis.

Believe it or not, it is this “covert mainstream” that is fueling SETI, astroarcheology, astrobiological and advanced propulsion technology research.

Or perhaps, it’s the “science-fiction” collective consciousness?

Behind The Scenes: Ufology’s Shadow Research Community

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Worldships and Planetary Chauvanism

From Centauri Dreams:

The assumptions we bring to interstellar flight shape the futures we can imagine. It’s useful, then, to question those assumptions at every turn, particularly the one that says the reason we will go to the stars is to find other planets like the Earth. The thought is natural enough, and it’s built into the exoplanet enterprise, for the one thing we get excited about more than any other is the prospect of finding small, rocky worlds at about Earth’s distance from a Sun-like star. This is what Kepler is all about. From an astrobiological perspective, this focus makes sense, as we want to know whether there is other life — particularly intelligent life — in the universe.

But interstellar expansion may not involve terrestrial-class worlds at all, though they would still remain the subject of intense study. Let’s assume for a moment that a future human civilization expands to the stars in worldships that take hundreds or even thousands of years to reach their destination. The occupants of these enormous vessels might travel in a tightly packed urban environment or perhaps in a much more ‘rural’ setting with Earth-like amenities. Many of them would live out their lives in transit, without the ability to be there at journey’s end. We can only speculate what kind of social structures might emerge around the ultimate mission imperative.

Moving Beyond a Planetary Surface

Humans who have grown up in a place that has effectively become their world are going to find its norms prevail, and the idea of living on a planetary surface may hold little interest. Isaac Asimov once wrote about what he called ‘planetary chauvinism,’ which falls back on something Eric M. Jones wrote back in the 1980s. Jones believed that people traveling to another star will be far more intent on mining asteroids and the moons of planets to help them build new habitats for their own expanding population. Stephen Ashworth, a familiar figure on Centauri Dreams, writes about what he calls ‘astro-civilizations,’ space-based cultures that focus on the material and energy resources of whatever system they are in rather than planets.


Ashworth’s twin essays appear in a 2012 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (citation below) that grew out of a worldship symposium held in 2011 at BIS headquarters in London. The entire issue is a wonderful contribution to the growing body of research on worldships and their uses. Ashworth points out that a planetary civilization like our own thinks in terms of planetary resources and, when looking toward interstellar options, naturally assumes the primary goal will be to locate new ‘Earths.’ A corollary is the assumption of rapid transport that mirrors the kind of missions used to explore our own Solar System.

Image: A worldship kilometers in length as envisioned by space artist Adrian Mann.

An astro-civilization is built on different premises, and evolves naturally enough from the space efforts of its forebears. Let me quote Ashworth on this:

“A space-based or astro-civilisation…is based on technologies which are an extension of those required on planetary surfaces, most importantly the design of structures which provide artificial gravity by rotation, and the ability to mine and process raw materials in microgravity conditions. In fact a hierarchical progression of technology development can be traced, in which each new departure depends upon all the previous ones, which leads ultimately to an astro-civilisation.

The technology development Ashworth is talking about is a natural extension of planetary methods, moving through agriculture and industrialization into a focus on the recovery of materials that have not been concentrated on a planetary surface, and on human adaptation not only to lower levels of gravity but to life in pressurized structures beginning with outposts on the Moon, Mars and out into the system. Assume sufficient expertise with microgravity environments — and this will come in due course — and the human reliance upon 1 g, and for that matter upon planetary surfaces, begins to diminish. Power sources move away from fossil fuels and gravitate toward nuclear and solar power sources usable anywhere in the galaxy.

Agriculture likewise moves from industrialized methods on planetary surfaces to hydroponic agriculture in artificial environments. Ashworth sees this as a progression taking our adaptable species from the African Savannah to the land surface of the entire Earth and on to the planets, from which we begin, as we master the wide range of new habitats becoming available, to adapt to living in space itself. He sees a continuation in the increase of population densities that took us from nomadic life to villages to cities, finally being extended into a fully urbanized existence that will flourish inside large space colonies and, eventually, worldships.

An interstellar worldship is, after all, a simple extension from a colony world that remains in orbit around our own star. That colony world, within which people can sustain their lives over generations, is itself an outgrowth of earlier technologies like the Space Station, where residence is temporary but within which new skills for adapting to space are gradually learned. Where I might disagree with Ashworth is on a point he himself raises, that the kind of habitats Gerard O’Neill envisioned didn’t assume high population densities at all, but rather an abundance of energy and resources that would make life far more comfortable than on a planet.


This reminds me of an old Analog article I read back in the 1970s by Larry Niven titled “Bigger Than Worlds” in which Niven gave several examples of structures that evolved into massive structures from interstellar vessels to Ringworlds and Dyson Sphere, all of which were safer than natural planets.

Of course this goes by the assumption if human goes by the “expansion” route, or the “evo devo” route proposed by Jon Smart.

Toward a Space-Based Civilization



America’s Not So Secret Flying Saucer


In September 2012, Michael Rhodes, a technician at the National Declassification Center (NDC) in College Park, Md., donned white cotton gloves, entered a climate-controlled room, and opened a cardboard file box. It was time for the report inside—”Project 1794 Final Development Summary Report 2 April—30 May 1956″—to become public. Rhodes’s job is to read such documents, catalog them, and make them available to historians, journalists, and the curious. The paper was crisp, like new. Rhodes began to read. He soon realized that the file box contained highly unusual material. “As I was processing the collection, I glimpsed this weird red flying-disc icon in the corners,” Rhodes says. Inside the box was a trove of oddities: cutaway schematics of disc-shaped aircraft, graphs showing drag and thrust performance at more than Mach 3, black-and-white photos of Frisbee shapes in supersonic wind tunnels. The icon was a flying saucer on a red arrow—the insignia of a little-known and strange sideshow in aeronautical design. Rhodes was leafing through the lost records of a U.S. military flying saucer program. A Canadian aviation firm began developing a disc-shaped aircraft for the U.S. military in the mid-1950s, and, though the details were secret, the project itself was not unknown. POPULAR MECHANICS mentioned the Air Force’s “vertical-rising, high-speed” craft in 1956 and published a photo in 1960. In the decades since the program was canceled in 1961, aviation buffs and UFO researchers have unearthed technical papers written near the end of America’s flying saucer experiment, but the document that originally convinced the government to invest in a military flying disc has languished in the NDC under the SECRET designation. This recently discovered report describes in previously unknown detail how aviation engineers tried to harness what were then cutting-edge aerodynamic concepts to make their improbable creation fly. Although Avro’s saucer never completed a successful flight, some of the most sophisticated aircraft flying today adopted many of the same technologies. In 2001, U.S. Air Force personnel cleared the document cache for public release, according to Neil Carmichael, director of the declassification review division at the NDC, which is run by the National Archives and Records Administration. But it took 11 years to crack open the boxes in College Park and glimpse the saucer secrets within—the staff is buried in a backlog of nearly 2 billion pages of declassified material, some of it dating to World War II. “These records probably have been classified since their creation,” Carmichael says. “It’s like somebody emptied out a filing cabinet, stuck it in a box, sealed it, and sent it off to the federal records center.” In pop culture, flying saucers are the ride of choice for extraterrestrials. What the newly released documents show is that they actually came from Ontario, Canada. That’s where a visionary aeronautical engineer at the now-defunct Avro Canada convinced his bosses to support the unlikely project. “During the Cold War the Army, Air Force, and Navy were experimenting with all sorts of things,” Carmichael says. As the NDC releases its declassified documents, “the records are going to tell the rest of those stories.” The most sensational of the disclosures so far—Project 1794.

The Canadian Avro Car hasn’t been secret for years, many TV documentaries have been broadcast about it on the Discovery and History Channels for well over a decade, perhaps longer.

But as the article states, the mainstream NASA Apollo and most recently the Orion (MPCV) capsules can trace their ancestry to the old saucer designs like the Avro Car. Believe it or not, the saucer designs have proved to shed interplanetary velocities in Earth’s atmosphere very efficiently.

Whether these were originally extraterrestrial or Nazi designs have yet to be proven.

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.


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