CONTROLLING A SPACESHIP TO THE STARS

                  

 I have discussed in previous posts two of the critical factors for mans’ journey to the stars viz. how to travel at half-light speed and cryo-hibernation for a 20 year voyage. But how can our ‘sleeping’ astronauts have total confidence in the pilot of the spaceship as it hurtles through space at 150,000 kilometres every second?

They can hardly be woken up part way through the journey to inform them that something needs fixing. This would only happen in an ‘abort mission’ scenario. Nor can we consider asking mission control for help – if we are half way to our destination star then it will take five years for the message – “Houston, we have a problem!” to arrive at Earth. And more than five years for the answer to come back!

In short, we are totally on our own in a spaceship that has to be provisioned for every eventuality and for periods up to 50 years if we have a return ticket. A spaceship that is controlled by the most sophisticated and utterly reliable systems that can be designed.

We are talking in the realms of artificial intelligence [AI] – the ultimate extension of the current explosion in computer technology. But we are probably 50-100 years away from the level of AI that would be needed to totally control a 20 year star mission in the middle of the 22nd century. In fact, a Mars base and starship would be such complex undertakings that their construction would have to be totally project managed and accomplished by our AI computer!

I will talk more about AI in the next post but let us familiarise ourselves with computer progress in the last 40 years. In 1972 when Pioneer 10 took off for the stars with its gold plaque on board [seeding the idea for my story], computing technology was rapidly evolving.

In the 1960’s 3rd generation computers occupied whole rooms and used integrated circuits e.g. IBM System/360. In the 70’s the microprocessor revolutionised computing and the first single-chip CPU was the Intel 4004. Then came monitors and keyboards and suddenly computers started to look as they do today and became available to the general public. I remember the BBC computer in the early 80’s with its ‘massive’ 32kB ram! – 32,000 ‘memory slots’. Since then capability has doubled every two years [Moore’s Law] and now we talk in Gigabytes[1 GB = 1,000,000,000] and Terabytes [1 TB = 1,000,000,000,000]. Modest computers today have 16 GB RAM and 1-2 TB hard drives and we have more computing power in our mobile phones than the whole of some of the early space missions.

We have a long way to go to realise true AI which I have visualised in my story. You may want to join my astronauts when, piloted by Zec, they depart on a 20 year voyage to the star Seren in 2150.

You will also find out who or what Zec is.                  

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