Archives for category: Space Travel


For my culminating post, I want to reflect on how my perspective on space and the future of astronomy has changed over the course of Astronomy 201. Firstly, everything I learned in this course, from gravity and planetary formation to stars and habitable zones, has given me a fundamental and scientifically realistic understanding of space and our galaxy. I think we all grow up with some part of us pondering the dark vastness of space, and how it relates to the human condition. This class allowed me to take those essential, soulful curiosities and put them into concrete terms. As much as this concreteness has solidified my understanding of mankind’s astronomical world, I still view the universe as an inescapable enigma.


Thinking about the future of astronomy for this post brings me to an interesting understanding of astronomy’s immediate importance for our civilization. I think that having a sense of the physical processes that shape our universe, and being aware of our surroundings in space (including potential dangers and possible benefits), are absolutely essential knowledge for the continuance and well being of our peoples.  For example, the ability to detect and avoid collisions with interstellar objects in an Armageddon-type scenario is no longer the sole product of Hollywood’s special effects. Although these types of events are rare, I am grateful that astronomy and technology have made us less helpless in the realm of space. More realistic, however, is our potential need for resources on other planets, or even colonization off of Earth. This point leads me to the more biological concept of Malthusian catastrophe and the idea that Earth, despite our best technological efforts, cannot indefinitely support our exponentially growing population. Although there are many ways we could lessen population strain on our planet (our negative environmental impact could arguably be included as strain), it is difficult to argue that such changes can or will be effectively pursued by Earth’s population before catastrophic occurrence. I strongly believe that astronomy is one of the few sciences that might be able to save us from catastrophe, and it may be the most promising.

The greatest barrier to human exploration of space is undoubtedly the vast distances and time lengths required to travel from one stellar body to the next. This post will outline some potential modes of interstellar propulsion:

Magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) Thrusters

As described by NASA, MPD thrusters are the most powerful form of electromagnetic propulsion. They use charged particles from ionized gas as fuel (xenon, lithium, neon), feed them into an acceleration chamber and out a nozzle to produce thrusts of up to 200,000 MPH. Unfortunately, these thrusters require hundreds of kilowatts to generate acceleration, requiring power generation on the scale of nuclear power plants.

Bussard Interstellar Ramjet

The Bussard Interstellar Ramjet propulsion system draws its fuel from space itself. Developed in 1960 by Dr. Robert Bussard, this “ramjet” uses an electromagnetic field to collect interstellar hydrogen, which is compressed in the craft’s cylinder shaped body and expelled as propellant for a fusion rocket. The speed of the craft is mostly dependent on the density of hydrogen in front of the vacuum-like Bussard Collector. Some estimate that the Bussard Ramjet could move at 77% the speed of light. (The EnterpriseD has two “Bussard Collectors” that were used as emergency fuel sources for the warp drive).

Solar Sail and Beamed Solar Sail

This technology is true to its name and very real. Solar sails use solar photons to push a hair-thin reflective carbon-fiber fabric in a fashion similar to using wind against sails to move across water. This technology has been successfully created by NASA and put to use by the Japanese. IKAROS, a Japanese solar sail, traveled to Venus in 2010, proving the technology for intrasolar missions. Solar sails to not need fuel, but are propelled via solar pressure or self-generated lasers. Because of its sail mechanics, this craft takes years to build up speed, but can reach velocities of 100,000 MPH and more. – Latest solar sail project from my hometown!