It is here that the German military initiated the world’s first large-scale rocket development programme in the first half of the 20th Century.
This programme led to the development of the infamous V-2 rocket, used by Germany against the allies during World War II.
“Where’s my jetpack?”
Three words to strike fear in the hearts of futurists and SFnal types everywhere. Fed into google, it returns 59,600 hits, including – aptly enough – this xkcd comic. A paleo-futuristic emblem of faded dreams and disappointment.
Now, finally, an answer – “!!FUSIONMAN!! has it.”
Last week, The Guardian reported on how FUSIONMAN (also known as Swiss aviator-inventor Yves Rossy) had been preparing for an attempted crossing of “the English Channel propelled by a jet-powered wing” with a number of test flights;
“Yves … jumped from a plane above the Swiss town of Bex and reached speeds of up to 180mph during his 12 minutes of jet-powered flight before landing at an airfield in Villeneuve. Rossy first unveiled his jet-powered wing in May with an 8-minute aerobatic display over the Alps.
“Everything went well, it was awesome,” said Rossy after the flight. “It’s my longest flight with this wing. If there are no technical problems, it’s OK for the English Channel. I can’t wait for this next challenge!”
His attempt had originally been thwarted by a collection of technical failures, including a leaking gas tank and two aborted flights during which the engines stopped within seconds of jumping from his support plane. He blamed these failures – which forced him to deploy his parachutes early – on “electronic interference problems”.
The successful flight involved him jumping out of the aircraft at 2,300m, flying horizontally under jet power from a height of 1,700m and then switching off the jet engines before deploying two parachutes at 1500m and 1200m.
The wing does not include moving parts such as flaps to control direction, but Rossy is able to steer by shifting his weight and moving his head.
When he reached the ground he still had 2 litres of fuel left in his wing, suggesting that he would have some margin for error during the cross-channel flight.”
The cross-channel attempt is scheduled for the 24th September (weather-permitting), and will be streamed live on the National Geographic Channel.
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Well, if not impossible, then extremely difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Rocket boffins at the 44th Joint Propulsion Conference in Hartford, Connecticut believe that it would be nearly impossible to reach the stars within a human lifetime, as reported in Wired:
The major problem is that propulsion — shooting mass backwards to go forwards — requires large amounts of both time and fuel
Even the most theoretically efficient type of propulsion, an imaginary engine powered by antimatter, would still require decades to reach Alpha Centauri, according to Robert Frisbee, group leader in the Advanced Propulsion Technology Group within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
And then there’s the issue of fuel. It would take at least the current energy output of the entire world to send a probe to the nearest star, according to Brice N. Cassenti, an associate professor with the Department of Engineering and Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That’s a generous figure: More likely, Cassenti says, it would be as much as 100 times that.
It’s tempting to cite Clarke’s First Law and point out the number of times in history when esteemed scientists have claimed that something is impossible until it is actually accomplished.
However what is really being said by Professors Cassenti et al is that travelling to nearby stars is merely massively expensive in terms of time and energy, to the point of being infeasible.
There are a couple of points I can think of that might be relevant to the discussion of the possibility of interstellar space travel:
1: Increased longevity – if people live longer they may change their perceptions as to what constitutes a worthwhile scientific endeavour. Waiting several decades before we receive any useful scientific information about other solar systems may be unacceptable now, but if engineered negligible senescence is achieved then that perspective might change.
2: Increased wealth – as the global economy increases in size and people (hopefully) become richer the vast amounts of investment needed to travel between the stars will become less of a barrier.
3: As Professor Cassenti says: “We just can’t extract the resources from the Earth … They just don’t exist. We would need to mine the outer planets.” Presumably after exploring and developing the solar system we would be in a better position to launch an interstellar mission – a case of learning to walk before we run.
4: If you were aiming for a one-way unmanned interstellar mission then it is likely that the ongoing miniaturisation of space technology, as exemplified by developments in micro-spacecraft described here, might help reduce the mass of any interstellar probe to the point that it becomes a cheaper prospect.
Dr Robert Frisbee describes what might be entailed by an interstellar spacecraft:
Frisbee’s design calls for a long, needle-like spaceship with each component stacked in line to keep radiation from the engines from harming sensitive equipment or people.
At the rocket end, a large superconducting magnet would direct the stream of particles created by annihilating hydrogen and antihydrogen. A regular nozzle could not be used, even if made of exotic materials, because it could not withstand exposure to the high-energy particles, Frisbee said. A heavy shield would protect the rest of the ship from the radiation produced by the reaction.
So the general conclusion seems to be that interstellar travel is hideously expensive, time-consuming and technically challenging, but hopefully just short of being impossible, as Dr Frisbee points out:
“It’s always science fiction until someone goes out and does it”
Well, it’s high time – a special committee of MPs has recommended that the UK government reverse its ban on manned spaceflight, lest we fall so far behind everyone else that we can’t catch up. So we’ll be needing some sexy-looking space suits … either Louise
Riofrio’s design, or this oh-so-retro space leisure-wear from MIT perhaps. While we’re at it, we could probably find any number of uses for rocket engines with a variable throttle. But then again, maybe we should go the other way, and abandon subtlety in favour of an
updated version of the Orion Project – space vehicles propelled by dropping nuclear bombs beneath themselves.