This week scientists, engineers, futurists and representatives from international space programs and commercial space ventures will converge on Dallas, Texas, for the Starship Congress. Headed by Icarus Interstellar, the Congress hopes to foster a meaningful exchange to investigate interstellar goals in the near-, mid- and long-term. The Starship Congress was funded by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, far surpassing its original goal.

ANALYSIS: Kickstarting Our Interstellar Future

The idea of planning, building and sending a starship into interstellar space is a an awesome concept. So, in an effort to stimulate debate as well as bringing together the best minds, Icarus Interstellar and the Institute for Interstellar Studies (I4IS) have announced that the first Alpha Centauri Prize will be awarded at this year’s Starship Congress. The “Progenitor Award” will be given to the conference speaker “who’s presentation is deemed, by the judges, to have the most potential for impact on the field of interstellar flight.”

Why set up a prize? As discussed by Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams, the prize takes its inspiration from the likes of the Ansari XPRIZE that motivated innovation and technological developments in the field of commercial space endeavors. The first winner of the XPRIZE was Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne that took on the tough challenges of reusable spaceflight — a spaceship design that now underlies Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that should see its first paid customers launched on suborbital flights in 2014.

GALLERY: Sizing Up the Daedalus Interstellar Spacecraft

Of course, sending a spacecraft to another star is very different than launching space tourists to an altitude of 100 kilometers. But both prizes draw their inspiration from early aerospace pioneers and more recent space endeavors.

“I believe it is very important that the interstellar community begins to actively foster research progress, and this includes through financial incentives,” said Kelvin F.Long, Executive Director of I4IS. “This award is the first in a set of prizes we will be launching over the next year and we hope that by setting standards and examples of excellence, this will motivate others to be the best that they can be, and through that see technical progress made.”

The “Progenitor Award” is just the beginning, however.

“I believe that a prize award holds huge potential to create both incentive and excitement within the interstellar community,” added Richard Obousy, advanced propulsion expert and President of Icarus Interstellar. “Over the years I hope that this award grows substantially and that one day international teams will come together to compete for this prestigious prize. We were honored to fund this award.”

ANALYSIS: Sooner, Not Later: Interstellar Voyages a Reality?

I will be attending this year’s Starship Congress, getting the low-down on all the incredible technological advances that can be applied to interstellar exploration. I will also be chairing a series of talks on Thursday (Aug. 15) focusing on near-term (“Interstellar Now – Next 20 Years”) that will identify key developments in solar sails, robotics and propulsion systems that are no longer confined to the realms of science fiction. I’m certain it will be a mind blowing experience.