Project Icarus

Virtual Icarus

Virtual Icarus – image copyright Adrian Mann

Officially named “Project Icarus: son of Daedalus – flying closer to another star”, this project was initially discussed in 2008 from discussions between Kelvin Long and Marc Millis, then at the NASA Glenn Research Centre. Subsequently, the project was founded by Long and Richard Obousy and formally launched in September 2009 in London. The papers for this event were eventually published in a special issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (2010 issue, V62) The purpose of Project Icarus is as follows:

  1. To design a credible interstellar probe that is a concept design for a potential mission in the coming centuries
  2. To allow a direct technology comparison with Daedalus and provide an assessment of the maturity of fusion based space propulsion for future precursor missions
  3. To generate greater interest in the real term prospects for interstellar precursor missions that are based on credible science
  4. To motivate a new generation of scientists to be interested in designing space missions that go beyond our solar system.

With these goals it is the hope that Project Icarus will reinvigorate the subject of interstellar research, producing a new generation of capable designers able to do the engineering calculations required for all sorts of interstellar assessments whilst also providing some useful intellectual output.

There are several Terms of Reference for the Project Icarus study which essentially represent the engineering requirements. These are as follows:

  1. To design an unmanned probe that is capable of delivering useful scientific data about the target star, associated planetary bodies, solar environment and the interstellar medium
  2. The spacecraft must use current or near future technology and be designed to be launched as soon as is credibly determined
  3. The spacecraft must reach its stellar destination within as fast a time as possible, not exceeding a century and ideally much sooner
  4. The spacecraft must be designed to allow for a variety of target stars
  5. The spacecraft propulsion must be mainly fusion based (e.g. Daedalus)
  6. The spacecraft mission must be designed so as to allow some deceleration for increased encounter time at the destination.

The Terms of Reference were of considerable debate during the early formation days of the project, with team members striving to get the balance right between being sufficiently bold and credible – Project Daedalus faced the same dilemma.
One of the controversial decisions was to state that the propulsion system must be mainly fusion based, this was stipulated because fusion based propulsion is believed to be one of the very strong candidates for how we may someday go to the stars, but also to maintain continuity with Project Daedalus and capture the nostalgia associated with that Project. One benefit in adopting this strategy is that this enables the Technology Readiness Level of fusion based propulsion to be directly measured today (currently at a TRL of around 2-3) and compared to the 1970s – thereby also enabling an estimate for the pace of progress in advance space propulsion.
The requirement for some deceleration of the probe clearly distinguishes the Icarus vehicle from the original flyby Daedalus study, although the permitted century duration mission profile should allow for this added complexity.

The British Interplanetary Society collaborated on the Project Icarus initiative, and it has the full support of the original Project Daedalus Study Group, who are involved in an advisory capacity.

One of the ways Project Icarus stands out from Project Daedalus is the large international nature of the project, which design team members on several major continents and located both above and below the equator. This model is possible due to the use of the World Wide Web; a luxury not afforded to the original Project Daedalus team.

The aim is to progress the Daedalus concept to an improved and more credible design, in the light of technological and scientific developments. The project demonstrates that once again The British Interplanetary Society is at the forefront of credible speculation in a pioneering subject that may someday come to fruition.

More about the history of the BIS project Daedalus can be found in the recent republication book, which can be purchased here: Project Daedalus: Demonstrating the Engineering Feasibility of Interstellar Travel.

More about Project Icarus can be read on the design teams web site, Icarus Interstellar.

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