Brief report from the 62nd International Astronautical Congress, Cape Town, South Africa
by Milos Stanic
I apologize in advance from writing this blog from a very personal point of view, but if you ever experienced Africa, you know it cannot be described in purely objective terms, though I will try my best.
This was my first encounter with the African continent, which is appropriate in a way as this was the first International Astronautical Congress (IAC) on African soil. As South Africa did a great job of organizing the last football (soccer) World Cup, so they did again, organizing a truly splendid congress at the Cape Town International Conference Center, in the very downtown of Cape Town, right next to the touristy Waterfront area.
During the opening ceremony (which was an experience all by itself), one of the speaker mentioned a number of over 2000 attendees being present at this year’s IAC. Technical sessions were numerous and well distributed, with this year’s accent being on the development of African space industry, Africa’s role in international space relations and education of youth, which continues to be a burning topic across the globe. When I wasn’t networking and “selling” fusion and Icarus stories to the numerous people I met, I was attending some of the sessions that I found interesting. Unfortunately, not a lot of sessions were dedicated to highly advanced propulsion (essentially none). However, SETI sessions did of course include interstellar discussions and few interesting ideas were proposed. One of them being “teleportation of DNA”. Not really teleportation as we know it, but the idea is essentially to equip the robotic probe with DNA replicating technology, which could clone humans and so no manned interstellar would be required. Once the probe reaches its target destination we can “e-mail” the DNA code, which could be then multiplied and used as a seed for colonization of other planets. Though raising severe ethical issues, I find this idea very interesting as it overcomes a number of technical hurdles. Other useful idea that I heard was actually in same technical session as my work and it revolved around utilizing some of the neighboring stars as a gravitational lens for galaxy exploration. The paper was well presented (though original author R.Lenard was absent), with analysis of systems that could make the best lens and some considerations of potential interstellar propulsion. The target stars they came up with were Sirius and Procyon and “weapon of choice” for the propulsion was a hybrid solar-magnetic sail, partially propelled by a laser at later stages of the flight. I think the general idea of cosmological mapping via gravitational lens is quite neat as they claim that with using stars for a “telescope” we could visually explore worlds that are thousands of light-years away. Sun would make a poor lens because of the size of the corona, so interstellar mission is a must for this. Another interesting talk on concept of which I am particularly fond was given by Mark Hempsell of Reaction Engines, UK. The concept is Skylon, which is a single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft, designed to significantly lower the cost of space flight while allowing more frequent missions and thus providing a regular, fairly cheap, access to space for both cargo and humans. What pleased me the most was to see that the guys from Reaction Engines are making serious progress and that their funding is so far stable, which provides confidence that they might pull this off. Interestingly enough, the head of the company is non-other than the Daedalus-man himself, Alan Bond. If they manage to build Skylon, it could potentially help revolutionize space activities and it would certainly put everything else aside in engineering terms, since the level of awesomeness of this vehicle is mind-shattering! More info on: http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/ Aside from that, my presentation went well I think, though one engineering question was asked regarding the temperatures in the nozzle (due to GW of waste power). Fair question I believe as it shows the amount of engineering effort that will need to be put into developing and interstellar mission. You can see the presentation at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdHrh671bXo
I hope I was a good representative of Icarus as I gave my best to spread the word among the astronautical community.