Seeker Archives

Interstellar Earth: The Future We See In Our Stars

This Fall, interstellar aspirations seem to be in the air with the release of the movie Interstellar and game Civilization: Beyond Earth -- what does this tell us about society?

This Fall, interstellar aspirations seem to be in the air.

Christopher Nolan's film "Interstellar," coming Nov. 7 in the U.S., is heavily anticipated for the otherworldly adventure it promises. In the realm of gaming, players are every bit as expectant for the Oct. 24 release of Sid Meier's "Civilization: Beyond Earth," by Firaxis Games.

Looking at the trailers for these two epic works side by side brings interesting questions about the themes showing up on society's radar.

GALLERY: Sizing Up the Daedalus Interstellar Spacecraft

Both hint at near-term challenges that will test us to the limit. Both suggest that human effort, knowledge, and resolve will see us through to the other side. And both see interstellar achievement as key to how we get there. Just visible in both trailers, like a gem in a flash flood, lies this possibility: Before us lies a chasm, but we are capable of making its leap.

Watch the trailer for "Interstellar," Directed by Christopher Nolan:

Watch the trailer for Sid Meier's "Civilization: Beyond Earth," by Firaxis Games:

Although it is early to make too many guesses on the details of these two works, another idea can also be glimpsed: though challenges may lie directly ahead, and new beginnings may lie beyond those challenges, the path through the challenges themselves is not so clear.

ANALYSIS: Starship Congress: A Very Human Interstellar Journey

Humanity is versatile, spirited, adaptable, intelligent, and creative. We inherit from our ancestors a spirit of adventure, an unstoppable sense of discovery, and the drive to shape our future into a place where life can prosper.

What we can imagine, we can achieve.

Because of this, why not aim high? What if we could, through advances in energy, engineering, resource allocation, education, and comprehensive archival, give rise to the means needed to adapt to global change on a global scale -- all while engineering the means for a facet of Earth-originating life to travel to the stars?

ANALYSIS: What Would an Interstellar 'Worldship' Look Like?

A famous cartoon by Sidney Harris shows two scientists at work at a chalkboard. A black box, between the start of the formula and the brilliant solution, reads: "Then a miracle occurs." His mentor suggests there's still a bit more work to go.

Between the challenges of our present, and the future we know we can achieve, lies a range of crucial advances and adaptations. One of the boons of creative works like "Interstellar" and "Civilization: Beyond Earth" is that they can give us glimpses of possible futures, and give our minds chances to play at bringing them about. When minds are freed and given the means to imagine new possibilities, the odds increase that at least a few of them will actually achieve them.

During a recent demonstration of "Civilization: Beyond Earth," I watched with fascination as a budding new civilization embraced different paths towards innovation, and explored to find resources while avoiding conflicts that might bring it to its knees. "Imagine," I thought, "if a society didn't need to travel into the future to ponder the pros and cons of transformative technologies and strategies. Imagine if someone today could test their instincts this way."

Then I remembered that I wasn't viewing the training console of an interstellar explorer a hundred years hence, but instead the knowledge tree of a game to be released in mere days.

GALLERY: Sizing Up the Daedalus Interstellar Spacecraft

By imagining the possibilities, and grasping them through films and games, novels and videos, conversations and debates, we find the things we once thought remote to be closer than we think. We find the tools we need to build a bridge lying all about the shores we're spanning.

A growing number of organizations are researching the practical ways in which we might achieve an interstellar Earth: our world as part of an interstellar civilization, including all that we have been, bound for the stars through an effort that just might solve some near-term problems along the way.

At Icarus Interstellar, we have launched Project Astrolabe to research long-term models for civilization, on Earth and beyond, and to address the risks which lie between our present challenges and the future we seek. While Project Astrolabe focuses on navigating existential risk, Icarus Interstellar continues its groundbreaking work into the technical achievements, the science, and the technology needed to bring an interstellar future within our grasp.

This Discovery series will explore those advances and technologies over the coming months. We plan also to return to both "Interstellar" and "Civilization: Beyond Earth," once we've been able to experience them for ourselves. We'll examine the technical details, but we'll also take a look at what the underlying story has to say.

ANALYSIS: Alpha Centauri Bb: An Interstellar Target?

Though we may not yet know quite how to bridge the gap between our present challenges and future possibilities, we know enough of human potential to know that when we work together, there are no limits to what we can achieve. In the process of achieving a limitless future, we have the capacity to pioneer innovations and technologies that can seed the Earth -- our Pale Blue Dot, the only home we've known -- with the means to adapt and to flourish as well.

After all: What kind of interstellar civilization would we be... if we couldn't look back to that Pale Blue Dot and say, "This is where we're from"? What would we have become if those billions here at home, now and into the far future, could not look to the stars and say, "That also is our home"?

When you go to the movies and see Interstellar -- when you start up your game to bring your Civilization Beyond Earth -- ask yourself whether our art has yet caught up with our potential. Ask yourself how many steps it'd take to get us from the world of the stories we tell ourselves... to a future where we can reach our lost horizons. Put yourself at the controls, close your eyes for a moment, and ask yourself what course you would chart, if there were no limits. It just might be that there aren't any.

Imagine a Limitless Future. Imagine an Interstellar Earth.

What we imagine, we achieve.

Heath Rezabek (article author) is Director of Strategic Initiatives at Icarus Interstellar. There he helps lead Project Astrolabe, an effort to build a comprehensive long-term model for civilization's prospects, and leads the FarMaker Design Corps, an advisory team of artists and designers seeking new visions towards an interstellar future. His research focus is on very long term archival of the biological, scientific, and cultural record as a mitigation of existential risk, through an open framework called Vessel. [3] By day he serves as a library technology grant manager, working in public libraries. He may be reached on email ( or Twitter

Steve Burg (artist of the leading article image) has worked as a concept artist on James Cameron's "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2", Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall" and "Starship Troopers", Robert Zemeckis's "Contact", Don Bluth's "Titan A.E.", David Twohy's "The Chronicles of Riddick" and many other film projects. In 2004 Burg segued into game development, joining Electronic Arts. He has since contributed to both films and games such as EA's "Command and Conquer 3", Ridley Scott's "Prometheus", Respawn's "Titanfall" and Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar". Burg lives in Pasadena, CA and continues to develop his own art while maintaining a busy professional schedule. You can find more of Steve's work on his website.

"The Final Frontier"

Sizing-Up the Daedalus Interstellar Spacecraft

Project Daedalus was an ambitious 5-year study carried out in the 1970s by the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). Its main objective was to research the viability of building the first spaceship that would make the trek to the nearby Barnard's Star, some six light-years from Earth. Traveling to another star requires lots of energy. This in turn requires novel propulsion techniques and lots of fuel. "Daedalus was to be a two stage spacecraft, with stage one carrying 46,000 tonnes of fuel and stage two carrying 4000 tonnes," says Richard Obousy, Tau Zero Foundation member and Project Icarus leader, in the Discovery News article "Project Daedalus: A Plan for an Interstellar Mission." Want to know what the Daedalus concept looks like? Browse this exclusive Discovery News slide show to compare this groundbreaking project with other man made structures...

Daedalus vs. The Empire State Building

Although Barnard's Star is in our cosmic back yard, six light-years is a long way to go, meaning relativistic speeds are required. "After a total boost phase of nearly four years, it would be traveling at its top speed of 12.2 percent the speed of light, and would reach its target in 50 years," says Obousy.

Daedalus vs. St. Paul's Cathedral

This intergalactic behemoth was designed to be an unmanned probe so it can gather important data about its target star system and then beam its findings back to Earth. Unfortunately, it wasn't designed to enter orbit around its target star; Daedalus cannot slow down and will zoom past Barnard's Star in a matter of days.

Daedalus vs. Saturn V

The Daedalus Interstellar Spaceship was designed to use Helium-3 as its fuel. Helium-3 pellets would ignite, generating energetic fusion explosions. The exhaust from these explosions would propel Daedalus across interstellar space. Unfortunately, Helium-3 is rare and mining of celestial bodies in the solar system would be required. "The Daedalus mission involved a plan to mine the atmosphere of Jupiter," says Obousy. "This requirement in itself indicates the need for a vast solar system-wide civilization with abundant capabilities and a massive space-based infrastructure, and so makes the challenge of building a 'Daedalus Class' spacecraft great."

Daedalus vs. Saturn V

Although difficult, Project Daedalus proved that given sufficient ambition, an interstellar spacecraft could be built using current technology and credible science. And now, the Tau Zero Foundation is continuing where Project Daedalus left off. Project Icarus began on Sept. 30th, 2009, re-examining the problem of interstellar propulsion thirty years later. More from the Tau Zero Foundation: Tau Zero Takes Aim at Interstellar Propulsion Project Daedalus: A Plan for an Interstellar Mission