The DARPA-funded 100 Year Starship Initiative is holding a Public Symposium in Houston, Texas on September 13-15, 2012.

On a somewhat related note, there’s new data suggesting that exoplanet Gliese 581g may be the best candidate for a habitable planet so far. This brings the number of potential habitable planets discovered by scientists up to five, according to a recent press release by the Planet Habitability Laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico.

Habitable Planets

The discovery of habitable planets beyond our solar system presents NASA with a once-in-an-organizational-lifetime opportunity.

The Hubble Space Telescope is probably NASA’s single most popular program, due to the breathtaking images it has produced. The public is fascinated by the prospect of life beyond the Earth, but microorganisms clinging to a Martian rock aren’t going to cut it for people who want to see Mr. Spock. NASA is very close to developing the technology for telescopes that can detect and even image life-bearing planets around other stars. Imagine the public reaction to a new generation of space telescopes sending back images of clouds, weather patterns, and vegetation on alien worlds.

Critics often complain that NASA doesn’t know where it’s going in the long term. There’s some truth to that criticism. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has said NASA’s ultimate goal is sending humans to Mars. If that’s true, what does the United States do once that goal is achieved? Shut the agency down?

Now is an appropriate time for NASA to reach for the stars. Not because it has any chance of reaching the stars in our lifetime, but because it doesn’t. A space agency’s reach should exceed to grasp.

The Augustine Review of US Space Flight Plans Committee said that the long-term goal of space exploration should be permanent settlement. If we accept that as true, the goal should ultimately include settlement of planets beyond our solar system. A goal that cannot be reached in our lifetime will provide long-term stability to NASA’s vision and direction.

We’re not suggesting an immediate increase in NASA’s budget so it can start building starships, or the cancellation of existing programs like the International Space Station. It would be irresponsible to redirect a huge fraction of NASA’s budget toward a program that won’t pay off in our lifetime. There is a valid argument, however, for modest expenditures on long-range research. It could begin with low-level support from projects like the 100 Year Starship and modest funding for the development of breakthrough optics to enable telescopes like the long-proposed but never-funded Terrestrial Planet Finder.

Unfortunately, even such modest investments would be difficult, perhaps impossible, in the current environment where programs like the Space Launch System and James Webb Space Telescope eat through the NASA budget like angry sharks. It may not matter much, in the long term. The stars are not going away any time soon, and there’s no real urgency to begin work on starship design concepts or identification of promising destinations. But for NASA, which is struggling to maintain public interest and support, it could be a tragic loss. The stars will still be around when SLS and JWST are history, but there’s no guarantee NASA will be.

Written by Astro1 on July 27th, 2012 , Space Settlement

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