SAN JOSE, Calif. — "The space community doesn't think big enough," said Simon P. "Pete" Worden, the director of NASA's Ames Research Center in a keynote address.
He proceeded to tell a small but passionate band of devotees at the New Space event they should work on travel outside our solar system, find life and settle there -- and in the process harness biotechnology.
"We ought to be thinking about the nearby stars, not just boring places like the moon and Mars. My favorite target is Alpha Centauri," Worden said, showing pictures of its two main stars, one bigger and one smaller than our sun.
"It's a long way, but not unbelievably long, about 300,000 astronomical units." (One astronomical unit is about 150 million kilometers.)
In a 1988 book, engineer Louis Freidman proposed the concept of a solar sail to make such a trip. Worden said an anti-proton pulse could propel space travel at speeds up to one-twentieth of the speed of light, making it possible to complete the journey to the nearest star system in 20 years.
More recently, Harold White at the Johnson Space Center developed theoretical models for flying faster than the speed of light. "Some of the things that used to be laughed at are maybe not so strange after all," said Worden.
Researchers at Ames are discussing with commercial space companies ways to send a so-called nano-satellite to Alpha Centauri in the search for life, according to Worden.
Past missions in our solar system have shown space communications are viable under difficult conditions. When Gallileo's main antenna broke, NASA still found ways to get data rates of "hundreds of bits" per second, he said.
"We are looking at inflatable antennas for getting kilobits per second from Jupiter, so communications in deep space is quite feasible -- you won't get megabytes, but we have shown you can do cool science with small databases."
Next page: Find life, settle space