Seen the current knowledge about physics, could this technically be realized given the resources?
Yes it could. Several concepts for interstellar travel-capable propulsion systems have been proposed by serious scientists in reviewed journals such as the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Acta Astronautica and the journals of American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. These are based on known physical phenomena, nuclear fission or fusion. No need for warp drives, negative energy etc. Thus, given the time and the resources to complete the R&D work it is possible to develop a starship capable of up to 10% of light speed based nuclear fission or fusion. Using such a starship any one of the few hundred nearest stars could be reached within two centuries of travel time.
Admittedly, none of the proposed concepts have been tested in practice, but the science is solid. Moreover, knowledge gained in current nuclear fusion energy research could be put to use to build starship propulsion systems as well. Putting theory into practice will take patience, a long-term vision and a still costly development step but it should be possible. See our Tech section for more information.
Is this really important to focus on now? Are there no urgent things to spend resources on?
These long term projects will never be urgent, as they will never benefit anyone alive at the moment. There will always be more urgent matters. Therefore, it is important to start up long term thinking and now is just as good a time as any. Getting the resources for interstellar project is an issue heavily plagues by short term thinking and the presence of more urgent but in the end less important problems. Building up the required capital bit by bit is a way out of this stalemate. It allows to use 99.9% of the world's yearly produced resources for other, more urgent things. But there is a significant difference between spending none and a small fraction of a percent of the world's recourses on interstellar projects: it can make them happen. In the long run, this can mean the difference between life and death for humanity. If humanity stays bound to a single planet, it will die out sooner or later.
Why is this important?
There are many good reasons. These reasons include our responsibility towards the long term survival of life, curiosity, scientific discovery, avoiding stagnation and decadence in society, existential reasons such as giving a sense of purpose and connectedness in a cold and vast universe, general coolness and all the benefits that can come from exploring as has been shown time and time again in history. Also see our why section.
How much capital is needed? How much time?
As you might expect the cost estimations vary widely per design. To give an idea: In 1968 Freeman Dyson estimated the cost of a particular 50,000 tonne manned interstellar version of his Orion spaceship at 367 Billion USD (2340 Billion inflation-adjusted to 2012). This is more than you will ever own, but it is not more than humanity's military expenditures over a period of two years! So it is not the size of the economic system that is the problem. Furthermore, a cheaper and smaller unmanned version would certainly be adequate seen the current state of ICT technology. A coalition of developed nations could easily build ships like this if it decided to. As you will read in our technology section, the Orion starship could be build with 1960s technology, so that is no reason to wait either.
The amound of capital needed looks still very large compared to the average aerospace project. However, it could be saved up bit by bit in a fund. For example, if the amount currently put into space agencies worldwide would be put in a fund with the same annual return as that of the Nobel Prize Foundation, a trillion dollar would be available in less than 30 years.
This is of course a long period, but remember the mission time of an interstellar spaceship will also most likely be measured in centuries as well. Thus, this does not prolong the time of the project so badly. Please see our publications for more details.
What about settling on Mars?
Over the next centuries, human activity in the solar system might increase based on then economically viable activities such as asteroid mining for precious metals or space tourism for the wealthy. Also, an outpost on Mars or the Moon might be constructed. However, with an average temperature of -55 degrees C and an unbreathable, thin atmosphere (only 0.5% of Earth's air pressure) Mars is not exactly a place to live and thrive without much support from Earth, for the same reason as no people live in isolated deserts. This would certainly change if the planet were terraformed. Plans have been proposed that could allow to make it habitable for Earth life. These would entail investments of at least the same order of magnitude those required to organize interstellar missions. This is perhaps something for a second fund... or a final option for when no habitable planets will be found within reachable distances.
As of now, several planets outside our solar system have been found that could actually support life as we know it here on Earth and should be studied from close by. In orther words, they are in the 'habitable zone' of their star. Such planets really are like gems floating far away in the sky. Drawing the analogy further and comparing to Mars, it's opal versus sandstone...
What is the status of the FMF?
The FMF is still a young organisation, started Summer 2011. We are not big enough to finance substantial research yet. We do organise activities such as lectures to increase awareness of the potential and problems of interstellar spacetravel, and fundraising activities
When the day comes when enough the FMF has grown significantly in term of income, how will it spend those resources?
In the short run, with limited available capital, we would launch contests, scholarships and prizes to encourage students and researchers to work on one of the many aspects of interstellar travel.
In the longer term, an obvious sequence of events would be that the fund would help to finance (in order or priority):
(1) The discovery of destination planets able to support life. Work on this is already going on now by astronomers around the globe, and many interesting targets are already identified.
(2) The development of the necessary propulsion technology for interstellar travel.
(3) Sending robotic probes for close range observation.
(4) Seeding life on planets that can support life but do not have lifeforms of their own.
(5) The development of ships able of supporting life for a period of over a century.
(6) If any habitable planets are found the transport of settlers from Earth.
Launch costs to low earth orbit also need to be reduced significantly. However, as there is profit to be made here this will probably be achieved by private companies relatively soon. Recently, companies such as SpaceX and Reaction Engines Limited have been making great progress in this field.
Will humanity even last for a century?
We live in troubling times, but so did almost all the preceding generations. Each century has its dramas and its successes, its adventurous explorers, optimistic entrepreneurs, its visionaries, its sages and its doomsday prophets. We thoroughly believe in the ability of humanity to overcome the hurdles of the 3rd millennium just as it did for those of the past millennia.
Would interstellar settling be a solution to overpopulation on Earth?
Seen the cost of sending even a few hundred or thousand settlers, no.
Would it not be better just to wait until the warp drive is invented?
No, you will wait forever. As far as we can say based on well proven theories such general relativity, any of these exotic SF inspired propulsion tools would require energies that would require converting entire planetary masses into energy, plus strange undiscovered things such as negative matter. Furthermore, the universe might not allow any faster than light travel as it conflicts with causality, things happening before their cause.
Plus, there is something named the correspondence principle: any "new" physics law discovered will still need to give the same answers as the old theory where the old theory has been confirmed by experiment. And the existing theories are proving to be correct at scales and energies well above those attainable by humanity. And these theories have been around for a surprisingly large amount of time now, sorry my dear exponential progress enthusiasts...
No need to feel bad. Why sitting idly if even our current knowledge of physics allows to develop propulsion systems that will do the job?
Exploration is wonderful, but are there ethical concerns on settling on other planets? What if there is life already there?
If you don't like humanity or life on earth it will not seem a very good idea to spread it around the universe in all cases. If you do, you might still have concerns on dropping fauna and flora from earth on another rock.
Personally we do not have problems with spreading earth life on planets containing primitive single-cell lifeforms of their own already. This is what life does all the time on Earth. Spreading simple lifeforms such as bacteria and algae, able to replicate under a wide range of conditions, is actually the only way we see it possible to make a planet suitable for settlement seen the cost of interstellar travel. Still, the process would take thousands of years.
Seen the required resources, trying to settle on planets already containing sentient life would be off limits and also plainly stupid.
By the way, at this moment we know that planets are plentiful in the universe but about the abundance or scarcity of life not much fact-based can be said. We only have one experimental sample: Earth. We know it took not so long on an evolutionary scale for protozoic (simple uncompartmented single cell creatures) life to develop after the oceans of the primitive Earth had formed, only a few hundred million years. On the other hand, the first complex land creatures only appeared about 3.5 billion years after. The genus homo is only about 2 million years old.
An semi-educated guess is therefore that a large percentage of planets suitable for human settlement might have only simple life forms on their surface, or no life at all.
Suppose you land on a planet with an oxygen atmosphere and simple, small lifeforms and start walking around. Would you have to worry about infections as your immune system has never seen similar threats? Or would you be immune to the microorganisms there?
Very specific pathogens such as viruses would probably be no threat as they co-evolve with the cells they prey on. On the other hand, cell-size parasites (or bigger) could do much harm, assuming life out there would have the same molecular basis (i.e. would be based on the same amino acids, sugars etc.) You would be good food to them, just as you are for earth-borne parasites with the surplus you have at least some immunoresistance for those.
On the other hand, if life on the alien planet would be based on different basic organic molecules, it would not be compatible. You would not be able to feed on it and vice versa. Put bluntly, such alien life would be only good to serve as heating fuel and construction material. So yes, it is important for interstellar settlers to bring with them enough species to construct a viable ecosystem of their own. If they're organic lifeforms, that is.
On a side note, the (dis)similarity of the molecular basis of alien life to that of our own planet would be a good indication of the value of panspermia theories (i.e. Earth life was seeded from space). Another good reason to explore other star systems.
Are travel of up to two centuries not prohibitively long, especially for human astronauts?
Many aspects of interstellar travel require a long term vision unseen in normal policy or daily life. It is something we humans are not instinctively inclined to but, as we are partly rational beings after all, should be perfectly capable of.
In all certainty, the first explorer ships sent would be robotic explorers. Only if a destination promising a reasonable survival chance has been found sending settlers can be considered, possibly only after seeding that world with life from Earth. The fact that these settlers would have to travel through hostile outer space for decades or even centuries has been explored thoroughly in interstellar exploration literature. Some of the more realistic proposed solutions could are (a combination of):
• Suspended animation. Many animals hibernate, saving resources and aging more slowly. This could be induced in humans as well, allowing a relatively large population to travel in 'sleeper ships'.
• Sending (some of) the settlers as embryos / DNA. This allows a genetically more diverse population to be transported for the same cost. Of course, humans are much more than their genes alone, thus a way to raise and educate the embryos once they are born is vital as well. The most straightforward way is sending at least a few dozen adult settlers as well.
• The use of so-called 'generation ships', city-sized starships in which a viable population can survive and live a meaningful live for several generations until the destination planet has been reached. This will take a very large amount of resources to build, probably only available to a civilization spread out over the solar system.
• Life extension. It could very well be possible to increase human lifespan significantly. At this moment, several companies and research centers are investigating life extension treatments.
Suppose the Foundation succeeds in helping to establish a settlement in another star system. How will society look like over there?
We have no illusion in the ability to control a group of people over such distances or the desire to do so. Communication latencies will be measured in years if not decades and bitrates will be small. The fund and its sponsors will only influence who goes on these missions and what tools, knowledge, wisdom and organizational structure goes with them. After departure it will be for the brave settlers themselves to make the best of it. Complex industrial societies are based among others on heavy specialization and devision of labor. Seen the limited amount of people that can probably be transported the society of the settlement will probably be rather simple in the beginning, revolving around agriculture and bare survival.
Could we not just wait until the Earth's GDP has grown to such heights that interstellar travel can be financed readily, i.e. without having to save up for it?
Until the industrial revolution, humanity was in a Malthusian trap situation and the GDP per person was almost constant. The industrial and scientific revolution saved us from that trap as it brought along an exponential rise in productivity and GDP much faster than population growth.
However it is very well possible that this still ongoing exponential growth will not be continuing for a very long time.
Some of the earth's resources (atmosphere, areable land, water, ...) are already overstretched and a correction might be coming. In an optimistic eco-centered scenario the economy will switch to sustainable energy sources and agriculture, and the earth will foster a more or less stable population that is able to live in relative wealth in balance with nature. This probably does not entail indefinite GDP growth so saving up would probably be necessary for enabling interstellar travel. Furthermore, an ever larger fraction of the economy will be service-based, so a higher GDP does not automatically main a higher support capacity for heavy industrial space projects.
In a more Kardeshev-like growth scenario based on humans being universal predators and adaptors humanity or, after a fourth industrial revolution, its AI successor will continue to expand until almost all the energy sources of the planet or even the solar system are captured and used. Building a starship would then be peanuts but the world it would come from would be not so cosy anymore, rather a machine than an ecosystem.
These are of course just a few of the plethora of possibilities. We don't know how history will turn out eventually. If it were for most individuals to decide, a future still human and in balance with nature would be preferred. Given these considerations is seems to us that saving up is a more preferable strategy for bringing humanity to the stars.
Will people be motivated to contribute to something that they will not see completed in their lifetimes? Are there any examples from history?
We like to compare the organisation of interstellar travel to the construction of the great cathedrals in late medieval Europe. For example, in 1386 AD Giangaleazzo Visconti, duke of Milan, ordered the construction of a great cathedral fully knowing it would take hundreds of years and he would not see its completion. The Duomo di Milano was not fully completed until 1965, almost 600 years later.
By the way, not many centuries-old organisations are still around. Most are of religious nature, having a great ideal that has a meaning stretching out to eternity. May the quest for interstellar exploration be of similar inspiration...