With Divya Shankar.

From 1987 to 1989, seven First Class Midshipmen at the US Naval Academy embarked upon a study to design an interstellar spacecraft aimed our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. This project represented the United States Naval Academy’s participation in the NASA/USRA University Advanced Design Program. The seven Midshipmen- Keith Beals, Martin Beaulieu, Frank Dembia, Joseph Kerstiens, Daniel Kramer, Jeffrey West, and James Zito- performed this work in the Aerospace Engineering Department (Astronautics track) classes EA 439, Special Design (fall semester 1987) and EA 470, Spacecraft Design (spring semester 1988). The faculty advisers were Assistant Professor Walter K. Daniel and Professor George F. Pieper. The NASA representative from Goddard Space Flight Center was Dr. Stephen Paddack, who was also a Naval Academy Visiting Professor at the time. Visiting Professor Fred Mobley from the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory participated in the design courses.

The report specified an unmanned spacecraft that could reach the Alpha Centauri  in 100 years using technology available during the length of the study. The spacecraft, to be launched early in the 21st century, would carry a probe designed to gather three types of information:

  1. Properties of the interstellar medium
  2. Characteristics of the three-star Alpha Centauri system, and
  3. Astrometry.

The primary enabling technology for the spacecraft was a pulsed fusion microexplosion drive, capable of a specific impulse of 1, 000, 000 seconds. While many propulsion choices were considered, the fusion drive was considered to be the only technology capable of achieving the mission within a reasonable timeframe, with a reasonable technology readiness level.

While the study was great on its own, it has been over 20 years since its completion. Technological innovations in spacecraft systems engineering between then and now have warranted an update of this study. The students designers of Project Icarus- Divya Shankar, Tiffany Frierson, Brandon Vernon and Christopher Pickard- have volunteered to  embark upon this task as a subproject of the Icarus study. This update, tentatively entitled “Longshot: The Next Generation,” will not completely do away with the wonderful design of the original study. To the contrary, it will hopefully make it stronger, and  inspire even more students to embark upon design studies of future interstellar spacecraft. Stay tuned to the Icarus blog for updates on the progress of this new project!


Credit: Project Longshot graphics by Christian Darkin (commissioned by Kelvin Long).