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Seth Shostak and his Nuclear Probes

We all know Seth Shostack right?

He is Mr. SETI…the Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. He is the host for the SETI Institute’s excellent weekly radio program and podcast “Are We Alone?”. He is also an author; most recently of: Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Seth recently had a very intriguing OP-ED in the New York Times called Boldly Going Nowhere.



He opens with:
“It’s a birthright proffered by science and prophesied by “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica” and a thousand other space operas: We’re destined to go to the stars. Our descendants will spread beyond this nondescript solar system and seek adventure and bumpy-headed pals in the stellar realms.”

The only problem though is that this is a “pipe-dream” as Seth calls it. The distances to other solar systems are so immense that even our adjectives aren’t up to the task. Our technology as well has similar failings.

Chemical combustion rockets can get to the moon in days and mars in months but a journey to the sun’s closest stellar companion, Proxima Centauri, would take 800 or so centuries.

What would be better than our best chemical rockets which can go maybe 10 miles per second. Ion Beam probes are a relatively new technology which have flown in space with great results. They accelerate charged particles out the back of the ship, slowly accelerating it to respectable speeds of even  50 miles per second. Nuclear powered craft are another near-term technology that could probably go 20 times faster than that.

This is undeniably wicked fast but still it would take many (even super-sized) lifetimes to get people to another star.

It looks like we need some really exotic technology to get to other suns in a manageable timeframe. Something like worm holes or antimatter drives. Now I won’t go into detail about the feasibility of these methods, suffice it to say we won’t be seeing this tech anytime soon.

Until this tech arrives, Seth’s idea is to forget the humans entirely.  Instead of sending them to other solar systems, send the solar systems back to us using telepresence.

Telepresence is a rapidly improving technology that essentially floods your senses with information to create the convincing illusion that you’re at another real location. You may think that this is just an immersive virtual reality and it is true that they are very similar and use much of the same technology. The key functional difference though is that with telepresence the “thing” at the other end of the line is a real environment and not a wholly computer-generated one. This has been done with the hi-res data we’ve collected from Mars. Have any of you seen any of the Mars Imax movies? They’re incredible. They can really make you feel like your there.

The idea then, and I love this idea, is to resurrect and update NASA’s development of nuclear-powered rockets and use this technology to send micro-bots into deep space at about 1/10th the speed of light. With no humans to take care of and bring home, these probes can be very small.



So, depending on the financing and international cooperation, we could conceivably launch these probes before the end of this century which means we could have images and other information from the nearest known planetary system, Epsilon Eridani by the middle of the next century.

Seth says:
”These microbots would supply the information that, fed to computers, would allow us to explore alien planets in the same way that we navigate the virtual spaces of video games or wander through online environments like Second Life. High-tech masks and data gloves, sartorial accessories considerably more comfortable than a spacesuit, would permit you to see the landscape, touch objects and even smell the air…to walk a landscape that basks in the light of another star, to hear the whistle of an alien planet’s wind and feel its sting on our faces”

Current telepresence technology cannot yet simulate all human senses with the fidelity that Seth describes above but by the time this information arrives back at earth in next century things will be a little different. Barring a disaster of the natural or cultural kind, I’m sure it will be trivial to hook the information up to our femto-tech nervous systems and transport ourselves light years away to experience other worlds with all our senses (and a bunch we don’t have yet)

5 comments to Seth Shostak and his Nuclear Probes

  • dcardani

    There’s still a big problem with telepresence. Isn’t the nearest star 4 light years away? That means it would take 4 years for video to get from that star back to us, and then another 4 years for our commands to go from Earth to the probe. And another 4 years to see the results! So there’s this 8 year latency between doing anything and seeing if it worked. I mean, it’s better than waiting 800 centuries (or even only 8 centuries), but it still seems like it will make things difficult.

  • Thanks for the comment dcardani,

    I agree that a 8 year latency would be pretty silly. This scheme would work by creating a database of information about the entire surface of the planet. This entire database would then be beamed back to earth. We could then explore the whole planet at our whim in real time; kind of like google earth but it would be even more immersive.

  • Of course you must realize that all this talk of Nuclear Rockets will lend cache to UFOlogist Stanton Friedman. Isn’t that his chief claim to credibility? He worked on Nuclear Rockets & other unconventional aircraft?

  • The Blind Watchmaker

    Actually, Carl Sagan pointed out in “Cosmos” that it may be feasible for a human to travel long distances due to relativity. The tremendous amount of time it would take (as measured) on Earth, would be much smaller to the astronaut if enough speed could be generated with the nuclear engines.

    The problem is that it would likely be a one-way trip. Even if return was possible, Earth would be much older and different upon return.

  • That is absolutely correct.
    Time dilation could allow one to circumnavigate the known universe; no freezing or multiple generations required. Of course earth would be a burned-out cinder when you came back.

    Nuclear engines don’t have the oomph for this though. For significant relativistic effects to occur, you need to get pretty close to the speed of light. Something like 85% or higher. Matter/antimatter engines might be able to do this.

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