The Alpha Centauri Prize: Taking Volunteer Research To A New Level
by Kelvin F. Long
Project Icarus is a theoretical design study for an unmanned interstellar probe based upon the historical BIS Project Daedalus. The main motivation for starting this project was (1) a designer capability exercise (2) to re-energize the field of interstellar studies (3) to inspire the public and national space agency mission planners to be bold in their proposals. The progress with Project Icarus to date suggests that the model has worked. Can the model of Project Icarus be replicated on a larger scale to incentivize progress in interstellar research? It will be argued that it can, but first, we must understand the model that is the basis of Project Icarus. It contains several fundamental elements: 1. That an international design team can be assembled to work on a specific and visionary engineering problem. 2. Focus on a design solution that is a balance between being sufficient bold and being sufficiently credible. 3. Adoption of techniques which are academically rigorous and adherence to accepted engineering practices and physical laws. 4. That most of the engineering design work can be facilitated and organized via the World Wide Web and with heavy reliance on web based tools, including for communication. 5. That the bulk of the team is volunteer enthusiasts although appropriately qualified, using a team for which many members may never have met or ever meet. 6. Use of a team that is international from a diversity of cultural, ethnic, demographic or environmental backgrounds. 7. Adoption of a flat, dynamic and transparent management structure 8. Supported by non-profit organization(s) as a foundation base. 9. Team networked into external space mission designers involved with actual space missions, to facilitate mentoring. 10. Attendance and presentation at international conferences where possible to facilitate the occasional design workshop and engage with ones peers. Can we encapsulate the essence of Project Icarus in a short paragraph, here is one attempt: “Project Project Icarus can be defined as a cultural exercise in fun and pursuing personal happiness focused on a specific and visionary engineering problem for the purposes of an educational exercise whilst adding intellectual value to knowledge. It is inspired, through optimistic visions, by the potential of science and technology to allow international participation in the exploration of space and find relevance and meaning to the apparent complexity of our lives. It is led and organized by an enthusiastic group of self-motivated volunteers with a shared set of ideas, hopes and common goals, operating an innovative (Web based) management model whilst communicating the inspiration through media, marketing and education”. In May 1996 Peter Diamandis set up the now famous Ansari X-prize competition based upon the model used for the 20th century flight across the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh. The X-prize competition set out to open up Earth orbit to the greater population of the planet and Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites using the SpaceShipOne space plane eventually won it in October 2004. The X-prize has shown that this sort of model is an excellent incentive for spurring technological innovation and replaces the incentive of competitive overtures towards nation state warfare – the motivation behind the eventual moon landings. Could such a model be adopted, inspired by Project Icarus, for spurring innovation in the field of interstellar research? The answer is yes and this is how such an ‘Alpha Centauri Prize’ would work. The Alpha Centauri Prize is a proposal for an international design competition to facilitate interstellar research towards a front-runner design. It contains several important elements: 1. Announcement of competition rules per cycle, which constitutes the engineering requirement to be completed. For Project Icarus this is called the Terms of Reference. 2. International team, using a similar model to Project Icarus. 3. Teams compete for a cash award every two to three years, to include second place and third place runner up cash prizes to motivate re-entry. 4. Submission of a team (full systems) engineering design report encompassing all the key spacecraft systems. 5. Addressing both unmanned and manned interstellar mission scenarios depending on the competition requirement of each cycle. 6. Demonstration of a novel technology or experiment that forms part of a sub-system that would be included in the design, to facilitate evolution of Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). The Alpha Centauri Prize would be an international competition that has the function of incentivizing research, contributing technical knowledge, developing designer capability whilst inspiring the public towards the vision of interstellar flight. It is proposed as an extension to Project Icarus. It is one of the best ways to advance the prospects for interstellar travel, and to have separate design studies, which could be derived, iterated and improved. Over time, the concept would be worked upon by future generations and ultimately lead to a direct design blue print for an interstellar probe after several decades of running. Like Project Icarus, it is the hope that other teams around the world would be assembled to work on specific proposals investigated historically such as NERVA, Starwisp, Vista, Longshot, AIMStar, Orion or one of the many others. This way, the technological maturity of different propulsion schemes can be improved over time and the case could be better made for precursor missions to the outer solar system and one day to the nearest stars. In such work all propulsion systems would be considered from nuclear fusion, solar sails, laser beaming, pellet stream, mass drivers, antimatter, antimatter catalyzed fusion to breakthrough propulsion physics concepts. Instead of historical redesigns, the competition would also facilitate complete new and innovative design concepts. The competition would in essence be an academic one, so would be run by a non-profit organization and it could be held every two to three years. This would allow a sufficient time between design studies so as to allow some technological advances and scientific discoveries to be made and allow this new knowledge to be folded into the design work. The output of the studies would be an engineering design study report along the lines of the standard presented by the historical Project Daedalus and eventually for Project Icarus, but perhaps less ambitious in scope due to the shorter timescales for completion. In order to maximize design capability and ensure that all the appropriate systems would be assessed the teams would have to be of a minimum size (e.g. 6-10 designers) with a clear Project Leader and with each person delegated a specific role in the design work. The teams would also consist of members from more than one country so as to increase international co-operation in designing such missions and bringing together a world community behind such a vision. The work would not be completed as part of any official government space agency work. The team would complete the study in a submitted report to the judging panel within one year of the official competition opening and the theoretical destination/engineering requirement revealed. The technical requirements for the competition would be along the following lines: • The team must produce an engineering design study that meets the requirements specified by the competition cycle (i.e. target distance, mission duration, payload mass…). • The probe design would be based upon current or near-future technology (linearly extrapolated few decades hence only) and designed to be launched within a 50-100 years of the study report delivery. • The study must cover all of the major spacecraft systems, including propulsion, environmental, structure, materials, navigation and guidance, fuel, science and payload. • The report must also include a reliability analysis and technology readiness measurement as well as cost assessment. The key milestone timescale required for launching of such a mission should also be defined. • The precursor mission roadmap would be defined, the sort of missions required to lead up to the main interstellar mission launch. • The mission architecture for design, build, assembly and launch would be defined. • The vehicle design may be a combination of propulsion schemes but a single propulsive mechanism should be responsible for approximately 80% of the thrust generation during the boost phase so as to maximize the optimality of that system. • Additionally, the study would result in at least one novel form of test-rig level technology which is included in the final design solution. This could be a ground test, rocket flight or the placement of some hardware into Low Earth Orbit. It should demonstrate the operating principles of a key engineering component for the design. The specification of an experimental component to the study is to facilitate gradual progression on the Technology Readiness Level scale. This will ensure that as well as theoretical advances new experimental advances are being made towards the ultimate vision of sending a probe towards another star. Some of this technology may someday be used in an actual interstellar mission. It is more desirable to have ten teams producing ten radically different design concepts with some overlap, rather than having ten replica designs, which would be a waste of resources, and for this reason the propulsion option would be left as a variable on each cycle, also to ensure maximum innovation. The target destination would be changed each time to avoid duplicate design solutions from previous cycles as well as to challenge the design team with difficult missions. The name ‘Alpha Centauri Prize’ does not necessarily imply that the target will always be this star system, although on the first occasion it is run this may be appropriate, being our nearest star. Examples of the Bi-annual competition would include the task to design a probe to reach Alpha Centauri carrying a 1 ton science payload and limited to 50 years total mission duration. Another example would be to design a probe to reach Barnard’s Star carrying a 10 kg science payload and limited to 200 years total mission duration. Alternatively a mission to a Brown Dwarf. The competition would be assessed by an appropriately qualified judging panel and the decision would be made on the following criteria: • Demonstration of a credible and realistic design solution that meets the project engineering and mission requirements set for the challenge. • Demonstration of a rigorous assessment of all the spacecraft systems. • Derivation of a credible vehicle and mission performance profile. • Demonstration of basic consideration for all spacecraft sub-system requirements. • Completion of the study according to accepted laws of physics and standard engineering practices. • Assumption of current technology or near—future technology based upon reasonable extrapolation techniques. • Has provided a good description of the physics operating principles, engineering mechanisms and economic costs. • Submission of a report to high academic standards. • Has provided graphical visualization of the spacecraft design concept and mission profile. • Demonstration of innovative and/or novel elements in the design. • Demonstration of management of the project consistent with how major projects are organized. • Has demonstrated an international element to the project. • Demonstration of sufficient media coverage of the concept. • Demonstration of an educational activity pertaining to the concept and its relation to interstellar travel. The winner of the competition would be awarded a cash prize, somewhere in the region of $50,000 – $100,000 provided by a philanthropic donor or the non-profit body organizing the competition. The academic competition would focus interstellar research towards specific design studies and the ultimate objective of the competition is to increase the technology readiness of different interstellar propulsion schemes. After running the competition for two decades we may find that what may emerge is not a single choice for going to the stars in the coming centuries, but instead a realization that it is a combination of approaches with highly optimized engineering designs that will be the way to go. This may suggest hybrid propulsion schemes and could for example be along the lines of a fusion-based drive with anti-proton catalyzed reactions but using a nuclear electric engine for supplementary power and perhaps a solar sail and MagSail for solar system escape or upon arrival. From the two decades of research will develop reliable engineering studies, practical progress of the technology and several clear front runner designs to focus initially divergent research options towards the proper investment into the clear front runner designs by a process of gradual down select. Human beings need a challenge to force us to progress technologically and push our ideas out from just being theoretical concepts. The Alpha Centauri Prize is a research incentiviser, technology enabler, inspiration driver and educational motivator. A competition of the sort proposed here would represent a major step forward for interstellar research laying the seeds for the first probe to be sent towards another star. Arguably one of the most famous competitions in history was the space race for the Moon. Although motivated by nation state rivalry, it did bring about tremendous advances in technology and a sense of optimism that humankind can accomplish the seemingly impossible. Turning interstellar research into a competition will be one sure way to ensure we get to the stars sooner, rather than later, whilst producing many reliable reference studies along the way. When in competition, mankind is at his best – to accomplish the seemingly impossible dream of interstellar flight we must embrace our nature and shoot for the finish line, even if the marathon is a century long. We’re in this for the long haul, but we can shorten the journey by facilitating faster progress today by competitive, but peaceful tools. The Alpha Centauri Prize is one way to accomplish this.