In May, 1998
while Dr. Fabrizio Pinto, was employed as a Scientist at NASA's
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, he was asked
to become involved in the initial phase of a project referred to
as the InterStellar Probe Mission (ISP). At the time, Dr. Pinto
was a member of JPL's Navigation and Flight Mechanics Section, and
was exclusively engaged in delivering required research and development
products in the areas of orbit determination and navigation, both
before and after launch.
As the name
of this new project correctly suggested, however, the approach required
would definitely require the team to do a lot of "out of the box"
thinking. The challenge posed by NASA administrators could be summarized
by the following simple question: "What would it take to send
a space probe to a planet in an extrasolar system?" The historical
motivation for this quest, besides the general appeal of "travelling
where no-one has gone before," was provided by a number of
almost simultaneous discoveries: possible signs of fossil life in
Martian rocks recovered in Antarctica, an ever growing number of
extrasolar planets around nearby stars, and, last but by no means least,
clear support from the American public for the search for any kind
of extraterrestrial life, intelligent or not.
Pinto became involved in the project strictly in his capacity of
navigator, the experience gave him exposure to the full range of
startling technological challenges associated with interstellar
travel as they were exposed by the other members of the team. Certainly
the central problem of travelling even to a "nearby" star
(meaning, for instance, one within a 40 light year distance from
the sun) is that of propulsion (in this section only rough orders
of magnitude are considered). At the typical speeds of modern spaceprobes
(less than 100 kilometers per second) the travel time to cover,
say, 100,000 billion kilometers (or approximately 10 light years)
is of the order of 100,000 years -- clearly too long for any research
scientist to hope to be still alive to publish any results about
On the other
hand, the challenge to develop a propulsive system able to cut such
time down to, say, 20 years, is mind boggling as that would require average
speeds measured in the tens of thousands of kilometers per second,
or 10,000 times faster than today's typical spacecraft. This
is the same approximate ratio as that of the escape speed of a spacecraft
from the gravitational field of the Earth to that of a small child
running at the park.
say, a large number of other mind boggling problems come with considering
this type of travel, including, for instance, avoiding catastrophic
collisions with microscopic obstacles at relativistic speeds, endowing
the spacecraft with enough artificial intelligence to navigate itself
through largely unknown and potentially dangerous volumes of space,
and receiving results from it when it is light years away from the
Earth. An additional, critical problem to address, is "how
to stop" a spacecraft moving at a fraction of the speed of
light so that it may achieve its mission and, very importantly,
so that it will not hit and obliterate the very worlds it aims to
A hint of future
solutions to some of these problems came while Dr. Pinto was still
at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Such was, for instance, the success
of the Deep Space One probe, a technology validation mission which
tested, among many others, both on-board navigation capabilities
and a new revolutionary propulsive system for interplanetary travel.
In other words, this mission, in which Dr. Pinto was directly involved
as well, was the first in history to test the ability of a spacecraft
to "find its way" to its target in the solar system independently
of instructions from the Earth, and to reach such target with a
main propulsive system that was not based on traditional chemical
engines but on electrical propulsion.
as these developments might have been, the problem of the unthinkable
amount of energy involved in interstellar travel remained the central
hurdle. During the several months of Dr. Pinto's involvement with
this project, he remembers being absolutely fascinated by the many
presentations he listened to and, in time, this inspiration, added
to his own experience as an award-winning research physicist, caused him to be unable to limit his thinking to just the navigational problems defined by his assignment at JPL. InterStellar travel became
a challenge at a deeper intellectual level than any other previous
"in the box" assignment, and he started a personal study
of all possible basic physics solutions to the challenges of propulsion
associated with this goal.
When one considers
the several daring propulsive systems that have been proposed for
realistic interstellar travel, it becomes very clear that "traditional"
approaches are simply not likely to work. By "traditional"
we mean systems that could generate enough energy to cause the expulsion
of high pressure propellant at a rate and at a speed sufficient
to accelerate a typical space probe to relativistic speeds. One
way to achieve this would require, for instance, the production
and confinement of as much as a metric ton of antimatter, to be later annihilated with matter to produce the necessary heat. Even
if such an amazing technological feat could in fact be accomplished,
the wisdom of experimenting near the Earth with enough antimatter
to instantly obliterate our biosphere should be seriously questioned.
For a variety
of reasons, one is naturally led to explore alternatives that make
use of resources already available in the environment of space for
the achievement of the goal of interstellar travel. Probably the
most famous of such approaches is that of solar sails. In this case,
the impulse to accelerate the spacecraft is provided by electromagnetic
radiation, for instance, solar light. However, although it is true
that solar sails can be accelerated to very high speeds without
carrying any fuel, it is still not possible to achieve the necessary
speeds by just using solar light. In fact, in order to boost the
radiation pressure to the levels needed for even marginally relativistic
speeds, one must actually consider beaming incredibly powerful laser
light from the Earth onto unbelievably thin solar sails covering
an area equal to that of the state of Texas (and we are still left
with the problem of stopping the spacecraft at the target)!
During his personal,
"after hours" research on this subject, Dr. Pinto started
focusing his attention on already published literature concerning
Casimir forces. Such forces can be viewed as due to the existence
of a background field present everywhere in the universe (even in
the total vacuum) which is perturbed when two surfaces are very
close to each other. Ultimately, Casimir forces are related to much
more familiar concepts in physical chemistry, such as the van der
Waals forces between neutral molecules. This led Dr. Pinto to consider
a question already asked by others: "Can the vacuum be engineered
for space flight applications?"
It does not
take long for the interested reader to realize that this is a rather
contentious issue to some. The confrontation is fueled because of
some suggestions in the published literature that a possibly unlimited
amount of energy due to the energy field causing the Casimir force
could be extracted thus resolving the energy problems of mankind
forever. Needless to say, this is rather alarming to some in light
of all that we have been taught about the conservation of energy.
However, Dr. Pinto's interest was not strictly related just to the
possibility of extracting energy, but to the endless universe of
futuristic possibilities that Casimir forces, even in their nonrevolutionary
manifestations, appeared to open to the world of technology.
In the months
following his personal discovery of the "Casimir force debate,"
Dr. Pinto became convinced that "yes, it is possible to engineer
the vacuum for space flight applications." With the strength
of this deep and firm belief behind him, Dr. Pinto decided that
his future career would be dedicated to pursuing such studies, obtaining
intellectual property, and, eventually providing experimental proof-of-concept
of his ideas. In October of 1999, Dr. Pinto left the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and founded the aptly named InterStellar Technologies
Corporation with a little funding from family and friends.
the company has continued a very successful research and development
program which has included a successful round of financing for InterStellar
Technologies Corporation. Since its foundation, the potential use
of Casimir forces for technological applications has grown from
little more than an exotic curiosity to a research subject for major
microtechnology companies and NASA alike. At this time, InterStellar
Technologies Corporation holds an enviable intellectual property
portfolio and is carrying out revolutionary proof-of-concept research
projects in its laboratory.
at InterStellar Technologies is diversified to include not only
the most hotly debated topic of energy extraction, but also uses
of the Casimir force that are evidently predicted by well accepted
theories, investment risk is reduced to a much more manageable level.
Dr. Pinto is absolutely convinced, today even more than when InterStellar Technologies was founded, that Casimir effects will represent the revolutionary
ingredient in tomorrow's cutting edge technology.
A good idea
cannot make headways in the world if the vision of its creator is
not shared by other visionaries. Throughout its existence, InterStellar
Technologies Corporation has attracted the best minds in quite different
fields either as investors or as advisors -- often as both. This
is a testament to the fact that visionary minds attract one another
independently of how their creativity manifests itself. Dr. Pinto
believes that the intelligence and vision of those associated with
the day-to-day operations of InterStellar Technologies Corporation
is what makes this entity a rising star of the high tech world at
a time when some are disappointed by high tech investment.
as Dr. Pinto's personal quest for a technology that can get humankind
to the stars has given birth to a company that promises not only
to be extremely profitable but also to remarkably improve life by
achieving unprecedented progress in a variety of technological areas.
The basic physics of what started as a revolutionary propulsive
system is now being considered also as a nanosurgery tool as well
as the centerpiece of high speed microactuation applications in
the area of, for instance, telecommunications. And, as always from
the first day of its operations, InterStellar Technologies Corporation
is fully committed to the exploitation of Casimir effects to energy
production issues, both in the traditional sense of energy transfer,
and, if confirmed by experiments, in the revolutionary sense of
vacuum energy extraction.
Technologies Corporation is as young as the first five seconds of
the Wright Brothers' first flight, the first five minutes of Charles
Lindberg's transatlantic leap, and the first five hours of the Apollo
11 mission to the Moon. Its best is still ahead and it is poised
to change the world into one that is ready to travel to the stars.