After Hours

Geek Trivia: Space to move

Who was the first author to formally theorize the idea of broadcast spacecraft propulsion?

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia e-newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

The University of Washington made headlines in October this year when it announced a novel spacecraft design that, if ever technically realized, could make it possible for astronauts to travel to Mars and back in 90 days, rather than undertaking the imposing multiyear roundtrips that conventional chemical rocket propulsion requires.

Dubbed MagBeam propulsion, the method claims one significant advantage over using a 20th-century-style rocket: The spacecraft and its propulsion system are separate.

MagBeam propulsion would use ionic particle beams to accelerate the passenger compartment of a spacecraft to the Red Planet, removing the weight and capacity of a chemical engine from the propulsive equation. Freed from these constraints, the passenger compartment could constantly accelerate, rather than rely on limited rocket burns, and could therefore reach Mars far faster.

If this sounds like science fiction, you're right. Renowned authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle first explored a very similar method of propulsion in their 1974 sci-fi novel, Mote in God's Eye. In that novel, space travel occurs (among other means) by use of ground-based laser cannons, which effectively broadcast power to interstellar craft, offering efficiencies similar to the MagBeam concept.

Mote in God's Eye offers a laundry list of classic sci-fi contraptions, including a pocket-sized computer (bearing a striking resemblance to a modern-day PDA), the use of natural volcanism to alter the atmospheric composition and climates of settled human worlds (a process with startling echoes in humanity's own homegrown atmospheric greenhouse issues), and thermal superconductors (which would constitute a holy grail in the construction of electronic heat sinks), to say nothing of such science-fiction stalwarts as wormhole-hyperspace travel and protective energy shields.

But for all its innovation and prescience, especially as applies to spacecraft propulsion, Mote in God's Eye doesn't represent the point of origin for the idea of using broadcast energy propulsion to power and motivate a spacecraft. That credit belongs to another lauded science-fiction scribe, who formally set down the idea of laser-based propulsion more than a decade before Niven and Pournelle published their take on the concept.


What science-fiction scribe was the first to formally outline the concept of laser-based broadcast propulsion for spacecraft?

That credit belongs to the late, great Robert L. Forward, who published a short paper titled "Ground-Based Lasers for Propulsion in Space" in 1961.

For those unfamiliar with Forward, he was the definition of a "hard" science-fiction author, with his works rigorously grounded in the known principles and possibilities of science. At the time of Forward's death in 2002, most (including Forward himself) considered his 1980 novel Dragon's Egg—which explored the high concept of creatures capable of surviving near the surface of a neutron star—to be one of the better textbooks on neutron star physics available, despite its clever disguise as a work of fiction.

Forward wrote 10 other science-fiction novels. But for all his renown and success in that arena, fiction was a mere sideline. Forward was first and foremost an engineer, with a list of papers and patents that would make a modest individual blush.

At the top of that list was his pioneering Ph.D. work in gravitational radiation astronomy, including the construction of the first bar antenna designed to that end. That antenna now resides in the Smithsonian.

Though Forward technically retired in 1987, he continued to work as a consultant for the U.S. Air Force and NASA on unorthodox propulsion concepts—which should come as no surprise to readers of this trivia question. Forward's ideas encompassed a wide range of non-rocket propulsive methods, including Star Trek-esque antimatter fuel sources, electrodynamic tethers (whose use could potentially help clean up orbital debris), and, of course, lightsails, which would use lasers or possibly solar wind to push spacecraft around.

With his ideas echoed in both later science fiction and science fact, it's no wonder that Forward is a favorite of academics, aficionados, and a fair share of Trivia Geeks.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This quibble goes all the way back to the Oct. 6 edition of Geek Trivia, "May the Schwartz be with you." TechRepublic member Bborrini took issue with a reference to AOL Time Warner:

"There is no such thing as AOL Time Warner... Time Warner dumped AOL off its name. The board of directors of AOL Time Warner Inc. voted last year to rename the company Time Warner Inc. and to change its New York Stock Exchange ticker symbol back to 'TWX,' which it used before its 2001 merger with America Online Inc."

Pardon me while I wipe the "yes-I-actually-do-work-in-the-Internet-industry" egg off my face. This was a no-brainer. Thanks for the catch.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox