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Looking for a new Greg Benford novel at Borders? Don't bother: the Irvine author, for decades one of the world's bestselling science-fiction writers, has taken a three-year break from the keyboard. Instead, the author of Eater, Timescape, Cosm and Artifact is busy designing a new generation of spaceships—for real.
Two years ago, Benford, a UC Irvine physics professor, received a quarter-million-dollar grant from NASA to conduct initial experiments on a new form of propulsion to replace rockets for deep-space probes.
"And it works—it really works," says an excited Benford. "We've proved it in our lab, and we're about to prove it in space."
What this dual-Nebula award winner has proved in a lab that looks like something out of sci-fi itself is that it's possible to get a 220-pound chunk of anything out of Earth's orbit and on its way to the moon, Mars or Jupiter without a lot of expensive and unreliable rocketry. How? By "beaming" the chunk up.
Benford explains that by using the same technology that pops your microwave popcorn, something he calls a "beamer" can essentially push an object in space away from Earth. Think of it as a very long, invisible pool cue.
"Our first experiment was very simple: we put a piece of carbon film in a vacuum and shot microwaves at it from below, and it floated," Benford said.
Here's how it works on a larger scale: a conventional rocket (or even a really big gun) launches a ball into Earth orbit packed with gear for space exploration—a space probe, supplies for a Mars colony, whatever. Then a beamer on Earth aims a megawatt stream of microwaves—1,000 times more powerful than the one in your kitchen—and gently pushes the ball higher and faster each time it circles the globe. Another microwave beamer in orbit finishes the job, pushing the ball higher and faster until it eventually escapes Earth's gravity and flies off.
The basic idea has been around for at least 80 years. The great Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky thought that light from the sun could power a spacecraft by pushing a huge "solar sail." In the 1950s, Disneyland displayed animated solar sails in Tomorrowland. But nothing ever came of the solar-wind concept because it turned out that the sun was just too weak to accelerate a spacecraft in any reasonable period of time.
"Sunlight alone requires years to send a spacecraft to the moon orbit," Benford says. "My method can do it in weeks."
While the technology is relatively simple, powering a beamer in space is difficult.
"Current solar panels can only generate one watt of power per square meter," Benford says. "Which means that a megawatt beamer would require a million meters of solar panel—about one-third of a square mile."
He believes that the answer is a nuclear generator stationed aboard the space beamer.
"We're not talking about a Three Mile Island in space, but a thermal generator the size of a few file cabinets, of a kind that is already used in deep space probes such as Voyager and Pioneer."
His concept is about to get its first practical tryout when the Planetary Society launches its Cosmos I solar space probe next summer from a Russian submarine. Benford plans to use a Goldstone radio astronomy dish to beam microwaves at Cosmos.
If all goes well, space sailing will get the green light sometime in August, and mankind will be that much closer to a practical Mars mission or a moon colony.
When that's done, perhaps Benford can return to writing, which he has always considered a hobby.
"I'm really a scientist," he says. "I was working under Edward Teller at Livermore when I submitted my first novel—completely on spec. I wrote just one chapter and sent it out to the first two publishers in the alphabet, Ace and Avon—both accepted it."
That began his dual career. But at age 61, Benford figures it's time to concentrate on his first love, and millions of sci-fi readers will just have to wait.