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Project Icarus is an ambitious five-year study into launching an unmanned spacecraft to an interstellar destination. Headed by the Tau Zero Foundation, a non-profit group of scientists dedicated to interstellar spaceflight, Icarus is working to develop a spacecraft that can travel to a nearby star. Dr. Robert Adams, study lead in the Advanced Concepts Office at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Lead Designer for the Mission Analysis and Performance Module for Project Icarus, explains the realities behind getting an interstellar spacecraft to its destination.

The optimistic 50 year trip time projected for an Icarus type of craft traveling at 15 percent of the speed of light just to reach our nearest neighbor, Alpa Centauri, 4.4 light years away, is still far too long a time for a mission to even remotely be considered practical.  And that doesn't include the 50 year trip back to Earth. Does the ship's crew simply die of old age, and the ship's AI bring the ship back to Earth?  Things get really complicated when travel times are so long. Still, the Icarus Project is a worthwhile theoretical exercise. But to actually complete and launch such a project would be a monumental waste of resources, IMO. Such a high level intellectual effort would be better spent developing the revolutionary propulsion and materials physics breakthroughs necessary to substantially reduce absurdly long travel times by greatly increasing the speed of the spacecraft, e.g., to at least above 50 percent of the speed of light.  Star travel will never be plausible if it is not practical.

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Category: Science