A group of scientists, with a project called Icarus, are exploring the possibility of harvesting gas from Uranus to fuel a theoretical mission to another star.
Helium-3 is the gas they are after — the Earth’s supply ran out many moons ago — and it holds great potential for clean and efficient fusion power. In addition to fueling a very powerful engine that could send a probe to another star, Helium-3 could be a useful gas to have on hand on Earth — you’d need only 14,000 tons to power the entire planet for a year.
Daedalus and Icarus were characters from ancient Greek mythology. In an attempt to escape the labyrinth prison of King Minos, Icarus father Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings for both himself and his son made of feathers and wax. But Icarus soared through the sky joyfully and flew too close to the sun melting the wax on his wings. He fell into the sea and died after having ‘touched’ the sky. Project Icarus aims to ‘touch’ the stars and escape from the bounds of mother Earth. Over three decades have passed since Daedalus and now is a good time to revisit the design study, in light of scientific and technological advancements.
The Icarus project is a 21st century theoretical study of a mission to another star. Icarus aims to build on the work of the celebrated Daedalus project. Between the period 1973-1978 members of the BIS undertook a theoretical study of a flyby mission to Barnard’s star 5.9 light years away. This was Project Daedalus and remains one of the most complete studies of an interstellar probe to date. The 54,000 ton two-stage vehicle was powered by inertial confinement fusion using electron beams to compress the D/He3 fusion capsules to ignition. It would obtain an eventual cruise velocity of 36,000km/s or 12% of light speed from over 700kN of thrust, burning at a specific impulse of 1 million seconds, reaching its destination in approximately 50 years.
Daedalus has three stated guidelines as follows:
1. To design a credible interstellar probe that is a concept design for a potential mission in the coming centuries.
2. To allow a direct technology comparison with Daedalus and provide an assessment of the maturity of fusion based space propulsion for future precursor missions.
3. To generate greater interest in the real term prospects for interstellar precursor missions that are based on credible science.
4. To motivate a new generation of scientists to be interested in designing space missions that go beyond our solar system.
Following on from this historical work, the purpose of Project Icarus is as follows:
1. The spacecraft must use current or near-future technology.
2. The spacecraft must reach its destination within a human lifetime.
3. The spacecraft must be designed to allow for a variety of target stars.
Similarly, the terms of reference for Project Icarus are:
1. To design an unmanned probe that is capable of delivering useful scientific data about the target star, associated planetary bodies, solar environment and the interstellar medium.
2. The spacecraft must use current or near future technology and be designed to be launched as soon as is credibly determined.
3. The spacecraft must reach its stellar destination within as fast a time as possible, not exceeding a century and ideally much sooner.
4. The spacecraft must be designed to allow for a variety of target stars.
5. The spacecraft propulsion must be mainly fusion based (i.e. Daedalus).
6. The spacecraft mission must be designed so as to allow some deceleration for increased encounter time at the destination.