Warp driver

Andrés Galvez heads ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team, a group of young brains who translate concepts once banished to the world of sci-fi into active research. Richard Fisher reports from Amsterdam.

Teleportation, warp drives, space elevators and anti-gravity engines may sound like the blue-sky musings of a science-fiction writer. But take the most advanced space technology you can imagine and the chances are that ESA’s Andrés Galvez has already thought of it, commissioned a study, knows whether it’s possible and is working on it.

Galvez is head of the Advanced Concepts Team (ACT) at ESA, a group of young, driven researchers who take far-fetched ideas often from the realms of science fiction and scrutinise them with help from academia, before nudging them towards reality.

‘We cover whatever is not mainstream at ESA. We try to think of things not already considered,’ said Galvez. His team is trained to look at every possible area, from advanced propulsion to biomimetics, no matter how far out, and sort the good ideas from the impossible. They then either investigate the concept themselves or call for research proposals from European universities.

‘Most of the people on our team have read sci-fi; it’s a good inspiration,’ he said. ‘We try to propose everything that comes to our minds but of course there are a number of filters before we pursue them. We make a list of all these concepts then decide which ones are realistic.

‘In our brainstorming sessions even if an idea has no immediate potential we take it down. We don’t throw anything out and keep files of ideas that may be used in the future. There are many things we’d like to propose but they may not be realistic for a few more years. For example, a lot of the propulsion technology we’re looking at is based on very speculative physics.’

ACT is made up of six groups each charged with a different research area. The propulsion arm leads ESA’s advanced space engine research, from anti-matter to anti-gravity; the biomimetics team takes ideas from the natural world to apply on spacecraft; the power systems researchers produce concepts like solar satellites providing world electricity; and the theoretical physicists delve into the possibility of force fields, faster-than-light communication and wormholes.

Quick to beat back any suggestion that the group is using public money to dream up way-out concepts unlikely to come to fruition, Galvez said that all his team’s work is based on facts and known science. ‘It’s very important for us to be rigorous. We have to justify that at the end of the day we produce high-value work and that the results we produce can be used,’ he said. ‘If the space community perceives us as doing speculative research on areas that have no theoretical basis in reality then they would not be interested in working with us.

When they see us doing high-quality research, however, it is a different matter.’

Galvez studied astrophysics in Madrid before moving to UCL to work on spacecraft technology and satellite communication. In 2000 he was recruited by ESA’s General Studies programme, working on emerging technology and the early stages of Aurora, the European programme for the exploration of the solar system.

In 2002 he took on his role leading ACT and in his two-year tenure has already commissioned a raft of projects in European universities, including feasibility studies into astronaut hibernation, advanced Mars rovers that roll like tumbleweed and the possibility of using lasers to transmit power through space. ACT was set up so that smaller research groups and universities could bring their fresh expertise to space programmes, explained Galvez.

‘There have always been universities involved with ESA but it was difficult for newcomers to deal with us. There are some people who have never had contact with the space industry and agencies before,’ he said. ‘We are the interface between the two worlds. We’re in the best position to decide which studies are worth pursuing, and also have the ability to involve other parts of ESA.’

The benefits for ESA are clear. ‘Most of ESA works closely with industry. But it’s the academic community that can help some of our more advanced concepts to materialise,’ he said. ‘The work is research that ESA would not have the capacity to do by itself, but in areas that we should be interested in.’

ACT’s space-propulsion research is likely to have more immediate payoffs.

‘Much of the technology has been around for a while. What we do is think about how propulsion ideas will evolve, how they will combine with other systems and how they will scale up to much higher power and thrust levels,’ he said. ‘We’re studying electric propulsion in detail. For example, if you want to travel to Mars and beyond you have to create systems with more push by clustering small systems, scaling them up or suggesting new technology altogether. This is a trade-off we’re studying at the moment.’

The propulsion team is working with the University of Adelaide on a powerful electric ion thruster, known as the helicon double-layer thruster. This system fires a helical stream of radio waves into a rapidly expanding and contracting magnetic field, directing the ionised particles out as thrust over 14 times stronger than the electric engine that carried the Smart-1 probe to the moon.

ACT plans to fund an as yet unnamed European research group to develop the concept further. Galvez added that the technology also looks promising in terms of its longevity because it dispenses with parts that would degrade over time. ‘The trouble with the cathode in conventional ion thrusters is that the more you use it the more it becomes eroded,’ he explained.

The propulsion team is also examining nuclear fusion concepts, and next year will focus on concepts like maglev ramps to launch spacecraft at hundreds of metres per second into orbit, remote laser beam-powered sails and anti-matter annihilators that could one day drive fission or harness a near-unlimited energy source.

In the near term Galvez said that the team’s work on propulsion will be useful for the planned Don Quixote mission to deflect an asteroid, a project he is leading. The mission could launch as early as 2009 and he plans to call for industry input early next year. One satellite, named Sancho, will orbit and observe the asteroid over a period of months, while the other, Hidalgo, will pick up speed by looping around Venus and then crash into the asteroid’s surface. Calculating the trajectory of two separate satellites is extremely difficult, he said. ‘The asteroid is only 500m across and not particularly bright.’

Don Quixote is like no mission ESA has attempted before, he said, and illustrates how the advanced propulsion and space trajectory expertise within ACT can be applied to missions today. ‘It’s an unusual project, a technology application mission, not a service mission, and requires a specific place within ESA,’ he said. Galvez put the team forward and so could soon be launching a major ESA mission that would establish ACT as an integral part of the agency.

The team may only be two years old, but it’s quickly becoming a hub of advanced technology at ESA where ideas flow and paradigms shift.

Galvez’s ultimate aim is to change a culture that he believes is focused only on short-term end-results for technology. ‘We want to change the way of thinking. Sometimes you have specific applications for an idea, such as a way of damping vibrations in satellites. But that’s not necessarily the only way to benefit from the full extent of technology. You have to think of it on a different level.

‘The work we’ve done on hibernation for astronauts, for example, or biomimetics. I predict good things for these. It will require more support from outside ESA, but at least the question is now open. We’re not saying that our ideas will happen tomorrow, but they all have potential.’