Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The dinosaurs of Planet X...and how two forward thinkers thought we could visit them

A few days ago, io9 published an article entitled The Scientists Who Planned An Interstellar Flight in 1959. The link is broken but, since I couldn't find the post through other routes, thought I'd include it in the event this is a temporary glitch. Luckily, the post was captured by my feed reader. I'll summarize the article and throw in my 2¢.

The article discussed a proposal to send a manned spacecraft to Planet X, a planet theorized to circle Proxima Centruri, the nearest star other than the Sun. This proposal came from Helmut Hoeppner, a Turkish-born engineer who worked on the V2  and B. Spencer Isbell, an American working at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Their design, although closer to science fiction than fact, touched on several concepts that we now expect some 50+ years later: on-orbit vehicle assembly and photon propulsion.

After assembly, the spaceship would leave Earth's orbit using chemical propulsion and would accelerate to near-light speed under photon propulsion. It would travel at that speed for over 4 years when it would begin decelerating to enter orbit around Planet X. It would leave the photon unit in orbit and would land using a combination of retro rockets and turbo-ram jet engines. It's not hard to see that there were plenty of details for the devil to hide in. Nevertheless, I always find it fascinating that people were thinking like this a mere two years after Sputnik 1.

This project was published in the Space Journal and was illustrated by Harry Lange, whose CV also included head of the future projects section at NASA (ref: Wikipedia), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and many other well-known space movies. I also find it interesting how much credit that artists like Lange and the well known Chesley Bonestell are given. I guess these efforts were as much about inspiration as anything else.

I borrowed a couple of the illustrations from the AWOL io9 article. If it was removed because of said images, let me know and this post will go AWOL too! The first image is a line sketch of the vehicle and the second is a artist's conception of the lander on Planet X. Space I'm inspired :)