Thursday, June 17, 2010

Project Orion and The Verne Gun

Imagine a world where we already had spaceships carrying hundreds of crew to Mars, Saturn and beyond. A world where an interstellar probe was already on its way to an alien star system.

That was the dream of Project Orion and it's founders and proponents Frederick de Hoffman, Theodore Tyler, and Freeman Dyson - and they wanted to do it last century. They thought the could - and they might have...

For those space buffs out there, you may already know what Project Orion was. A nuclear powered space craft propelled by pulsed nuclear explosions. Sound crazy? Arthur C. Clarke and Freeman Dyson didn't think so. In fact, there were scale models built using conventional explosives that demonstrated that pulse propulsion was absolutely feasible - with the technology already available in the fifties and sixties.

Of course it's primary disadvantage was fear of fallout and radiation that ultimately doomed the project, despite it's inherent feasibility. To put things in perspective however, thousands of people die every year from air pollution, while even the largest of proposed Orion ships (crewed by hundreds and weighing more than the Great Pyramid) would only have resulted - ultimately - in a dozen or so extra deaths. But just as we happily burn coal while vilifying nuclear power...

So, ultimately it was the fear of radiation (despite the much greater threat to health of coal fired electrical plants), along with the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty that doomed the project.

But that doesn't mean the idea is dead. It was resurrected in the 1970's British Interplanetary Society's Project Daedalus which proposed using clean nuclear fusion to power a similar pulse drive for an interstellar probe to Barnard's Star. Unfortunately, controlled fusion remains - just over the horizon as much today as it did in the 50's and 60's. However, there is also a new British Interplanetary Society and Tao Zero Foundation joint project called Project Icarus which is modernizing and reworking the original design plan in light of modern and projected technological advances.

Science Fiction fans will  recognize the concept from numerous books, including Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's epic alien invasion adventure Footfall. In fact, it was Neal Stephenson's book Anathem that started this post - in a way. I was recommending the book to a good friend of mine, and describing the Orion type ship it describes  (more particularly the way one of the main characters spots the ship as it orbits his sun using a camera obscura) and as often happens, we started off on a tangent argument about Footfall when another of our friends asked what the hell the Orion project was.

That started a whole 'nother conversation, and argument over whether the initial project had proposed ground launches or space launches (it proposed ground launches) and subsequent research on my part.

Turns out that the Brian Wang and the folks over at The Next Big Future have been seriously talking about the Orion Project and a way to get it done without fallout and without waiting for a breakthrough in controlled fusion...and they've come up with a pretty ingenious proposal.

Karl Schroeder calls it the Verne Gun. In short, you create a giant atomic cannon by digging a really, really deep shaft into an underground salt chamber and use an underground nuke to launch a really, REALLY big payload into space - jump-starting space colonization, asteroid defense, and cheap orbital solar power at the same time. And maybe you even start mining the asteroid belt at the same time...

Unfortunately, it would probably take a serious asteroid threat (if not an impact) or alien invasion to get enough people behind the idea - BUT IT WOULD WORK. 

Check out this excerpt from the BBC's "To Mars by A-Bomb" (2003), with footage of the "hot rod" tests and comments by Arthur Clarke...

 


And this TEDTALKS presentation by George Dyson




And this cool artists conception (by Rhys Taylor) of what an Orion Ship might look like if it were built today...

3 comments:

Pat Galea said...

Nice post!

Just a tiny correction. The BIS project in the 1970s was called Project Daedalus. There is now a new project which has just started called Project Icarus. This is a joint Tau Zero Foundation project with BIS. (I'm one of the team.)

http://www.icarusinterstellar.org

By the way, I'm an Anathem fan.

Morgan S. said...

Thanks for the correction. Duly noted. And thanks for the feedback generally...

Morgan S. said...

And yes, Anathem is a great book. In my humble opinion, Stephenson is probably the best sci-fi writer going, though I might call it a draw between him and Ian M. Banks...