Science fiction likes to imagine interstellar vehicles as sleek, aerodynamic ships. But there’s no air in space, and voyaging to the stars will require something that looks much different than an oversized jet.
Imagine a starship—a vessel capable of ferrying human beings from one solar system to another. Would it have wings and a cockpit? Or would it look like an aircraft carrier hauled out into the void and fitted with flame-belching rockets and glowing ion drives?
Science fiction has offered us all sorts of visions of interstellar spacecraft, from avian-inspired Klingon birds of prey to hulking masses such as the Borg cube. In general, sci-fi leans toward sleek designs with lines borrowed from planes or cars, since those are the kinds of looks we’ve been conditioned to think of as "fast." But if there’s no air in space, why make things aerodynamic? Does it matter what a spacecraft looks like?
Yes, it turns out, and it depends upon what kind of space travel you’re looking to undertake. The reality of starship design is more complex than anything Hollywood has dreamed up and implanted in our collective unconsciousness.
While a manned interstellar mission isn’t exactly on NASA’s upcoming schedule, researchers haven’t abandoned the topic to science fiction. In fact, the 100 Year Starship initiative—which began as a DARPA-funded contest to lay the foundations for a flight across the stars, gathering physicists, entrepreneurs, and anyone seriously interested in long-distance space travel—just finished its annual symposium this past weekend.
Source: Popular Mechanics Magazine.
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