Why "Tennessee Valley" for a conference in Alabama? Look at a map. The mighty Tennessee River meanders into northern Alabama on its way west. What with Knoxville, Huntsville, and Oak Ridge, the upper Tennessee River valley is quite the high-tech corridor. Just the place to plan how to send a probe to Alpha Centauri some time in this century.
This is the fifth year for the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, and this year marks a unification of sorts, since the TVIW is hosting the Starship Century project and the Tau Zero Foundation — two other groups with the same goal. All three organizations have decided that actually planning, building, and launching a real starship is more important than infighting and turf-guarding, so they're joining forces.
We began Tuesday night, with a welcome reception hosted by Baen Books, one of the sponsors of the conference. Science fiction luminaries present included Gregory Benford, Geoff Landis, Larry Niven, Allen Steele, Mary Turzillo, and Toni Weisskopf. (And MEE!) That was fun, and there were probably some private gatherings afterwards, but I was too wiped out from a day spent on planes, so I knocked off at the end of the reception and went off to bed.
Today began promptly at 8 a.m. with welcome addresses by Les Johnson, the conference chairman, and James Benford of the Starship Century project (which was hosting today's program). We then heard from Pete Cooper of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, who gave us an overview of the Breakthrough StarShot project. He was followed by Kevin Parkin, who provided a more detailed breakdown of how much the StarShot is likely to cost, and how the mission architecture was largely determined by what could be done on a budget of ten billion dollars.
Ten billion is a lot, but it's not an impossible amount. That's an aircraft carrier. That's about an eighth of Bill Gates's fortune. Get a couple of dozen Silicon Valley tech billionaires excited enough, and that becomes a reasonable sum.
In the case of StarShot, ten billion gets you a giant laser launcher (which can double as a huge telescope) capable of firing off ten-meter sails to Alpha Centauri, hauling payloads about as massive as your phone's processor chip. Doesn't sound like much, but think about all the things your phone can do. Now imagine doing all those things in an alien star system: taking pictures, sending messages home, and piloting itself through a flyby.
Best of all, the really expensive stuff stays on Earth, so you can keep launching probes as long as you like. Their "cruise speed" would be something like 20 percent of the speed of light, so you'll only have to wait about thirty years to get the first data back.
After that optimistic start, we took a sobering look at some of the technical hurdles. Robert Fugate, a laser expert, talked about the tricky job of getting the giant laser to work properly (and by giant, I mean really giant: an array of lasers and optics about half a kilometer wide, pumping out 100 gigawatts with each shot). He was followed by Jim Benford, describing the still-unanswered questions of whether a sail could actually survive the laser launch at all, and stay centered on the beam long enough to accelerate up to a fifth of light speed. Finally David Messerschmitt described the difficulties of getting any data back across interstellar distances from a probe with about as much onboard power as your watch.
The conference broke for lunch, then we split up to watch some shorter presentations in two tracks. I watched Richard London discuss the hazards of interstellar gas and dust, and possible strategies for coping (short version: slender, streamlined spaceships are due for a comeback).
After that I saw a talk by Stacy Weinstein-Weiss, a NASA planner involved in devising the agency's own interstellar probe mission concept. If you thought the visionaries and geeks in Huntsville were the crazy ones, you're mistaken. The real wild-eyed maniacs are at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They want to use a laser-powered sail to send a half-ton science lander to some suitable exoplanet within 15 light-years, and have planned for a launching laser using petawatts of power over months or years of acceleration. A petawatt is a quadrillion watts, and right now the world's electrical generating capacity is less than one percent of that. Obviously more research is called for.
(By contrast, the StarShot requires a relatively modest $8 million's worth of electricity, delivered in a single 20-minute pulse.)
In the late afternoon I joined my "Working Track," led by Scott Guerin and Ken Wisian, discussing how to educate the public about SETI and interstellar exploration by means of a museum exhibit. The team came up with some neat ideas, and only occasionally drifted off into philosophical debates about the nature of life and intelligence.
After a quick dinner at the Schnitzel Ranch up the street, I attended the art show, featuring drawings, prints, and paintings by Chris Wade. His work shared space with some science "poster sessions," and a string quartet.
I've got twelve pages of notes and that's just the first day.
If you prefer to read about something completely unrelated to starships, check out my new ebook Monster Island Tales!