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Rachel Armstrong: starship designer

One architectural PhD is boldly going where no architect has gone before: interstellar space, says Rory Olcayto

On 25 August last year, Voyager 1 left our solar system and entered interstellar space. The exploration probe launched by Nasa in 1977 is about 125 AU from the sun, or more than 11 billion miles away (one AU is the distance between the sun and Earth - 93 million miles).

How do we know? Because of the change in plasma readings ascertained by the Voyager team. Plasma - ionised gas - is the most important marker that distinguishes whether Voyager 1 is inside the solar bubble, known as the heliosphere, which is inflated by plasma that streams outward from the sun, or in interstellar space and surrounded by material ejected by the explosion of nearby giant stars millions of years ago.

‘No one has been to interstellar space before, and it’s like travelling with guidebooks that are incomplete,’ said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, confirming the landmark achievement in September. ‘Still, uncertainty is part of exploration. We wouldn’t go exploring if we knew exactly what we’d find.’

Natch. But who really cares about interstellar space today? Inner space - the world within our mobile phones - has replaced outer space as our realm of fascination. Yet not everyone is hooked on social media. The people behind Icarus Interstellar, for example, the non-profit foundation dedicated to achieving interstellar flight by the turn of the century. The 100-strong team, mainly based in Europe and North America, shows the kind of ambition that visionary author Neal Stephenson - who warned against ‘innovation starvation’ in an essay a couple of years ago for World Policy Journal magazine - wishes more of us involved in technology and design would have.

‘We will accomplish this objective,’ Icarus Interstellar’s mission statement reads, ‘by researching and developing the science and the technologies that will make interstellar flight a reality, igniting the public’s interest, and engaging with all those prepared to invest in interstellar exploration.’

Icarus Interstellar has a number of projects under way. There is Project Icarus, a design study for an unmanned fusion-powered interstellar probe. There is Project Helius, focused on laser-initiated pulse propulsion. Project Tin Tin, an Interstellar nanosat mission to Alpha Centauri. And there is Project Persephone, a study of adaptable architecture for both starships and cities.

Persephone is led by Rachel Armstrong (pictured), senior lecturer in research and enterprise in Neil Spiller’s architecture school at the University of Greenwich (Spiller is also an Icarus Interstellar team member, alongside department colleague Nic Clear). Her job is the design and implementation of the living interior to the Icarus Interstellar ‘worldship’ that the wider team hopes to see built within Earth’s orbit by the year 2100.


Armstrong, a former GP with an architectural PhD in the bag, has expertise in synthetic biology and advocates the development of materials that share the properties of living systems.

She describes herself as a black sky thinker, a ‘sustainability innovator who creates new materials that possess some of the properties of living systems and can be manipulated to “grow” architecture’.

Her 2009 TED Talk, Architecture that Repairs Itself, proposed growing an artificial reef beneath Venice to shore up the sinking city. It has been viewed nearly 600,000 times.

Keeping Venice afloat is one thing, interstellar space travel, another. But, as Armstrong has said in a recent interview for Libertine magazine: ‘Cities and starships share common challenges: resource constraints, liveability and the health of an ecology. When we address those, we start to create viable habitats.’

My fingers are crossed. Because if Armstrong’s plans to build a starship are realised, her namesake’s ‘giant leap’ will look more like baby steps.


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