RALEIGH — In a world stuffed with web blogs and logs, sometimes one comes along that stands in a class by itself.
Such a site belongs to Raleigh author Paul Gilster, whose web site Centauri-Dreams.org builds off the research he used to publish the hardback book “Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration” just over a year ago (Springer-Verlag; 302 pages). The book documented efforts to develop spacecraft capable of reaching the stars, with Alpha Centauri being the closest at 4.35 light years.
“The astronomy geek,” Gilster said with a laugh in describing himself since he has become so enthralled with space travel.
Perhaps he should be called the “Interstellar Navigator” now as he helps lay out a future for space travel just as he did travel on the Internet with the “Internet Navigator” and five other books in the 1990s.
“What I really needed to do was keep up on a daily basis with the research,” said Gilster, who also writes a computer column for The News & Observer, “so I just created the web site. It’s doing very well. Traffic is up every month, and I feel good about trying to get the word out about this stuff.
“The site is really aimed at the scientific community so they could use it as sort of a clearing house specifically on interstellar flight issues.”
Gilster updates the site with a wide variety of information six days a week, and he doesn’t consider the site a classic blog.
“Mine is a little more structured, although I add a personal touch on occasion,” he explained. “It’s primarily a news site. It helps me keep up with current papers being published about space travel. Some people are sending me papers before they are actually published.”
Searching for the Holy Grail
For example, on Dec. 29 he posted an article about the upcoming “Systemic” project, which is intended to recruit people from around the globe to use their own computers to help find other planets.
A few years ago, Gilster noted, “We didn’t know of any other planets. Now, we’ve identified 160 planets discovered around stars, and there are more every day.”
Searching for an earth-like planet is all the rage, he added. “Finding a terrestrial-type planet — that would be the Holy Grail,” Gilster explained. “It would have to be the right distance from a star to have an atmosphere, be a rocky planet that could support oceans, and be a place where life could have evolved.”
Based on the research he is seeing, Gilster predicted, “We will be looking at one of these within a decade.”
As for the current state of space travel, Gilster noted grimly, “My gosh, we can barely get to the outer solar system.”
Gilster is using the web site to help support the creation of the Interstellar Flight Foundation that will carry on the work of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project. The NASA effort, which fell victim to budget cuts, was part of a short-lived effort in the 1990s to focus on interstellar travel and finding means of propulsion to make a trip to a star such as Alpha Centauri more feasible.
His book and the web site helped bring people together for the foundation effort. “The web site is the de facto news site for the foundation,” Gilster said.
By becoming such a focal point for people around the world, Centauri-Dreams.org is fulfilling one of the web’s brightest potentials — linking people despite physical distances.
“Publishing the web site has been very pleasing to me,” Gilster added. “I am finding out how this web publishing works. I am really connecting with a lot of researchers and with a lot of the public.”
Categories on the web site include Recent Posts, Archives, and a host of categories ranging from Antimatter to Breakthrough Propulsion. “Clippings” links to stories of interest related to space travel. The site also contains links to more than 30 other Weblogs, discussions and commentaries.
Next Book To Be About Space
People take advantage of his contact information, too. Gilster has no idea who will reach him through the site. For example, a colleague of the late Carl Sagan sent Gilster information on what a “worm hole”, or gateway for space travel, might look like based on research done for the movie “Contact”.
The web site certainly is providing Gilster with material for his next book. “It will be related to space,” he said. “I do more research every day.”
By the time Gilster published his last book about the Internet (“Digital Literacy”, 1997), he conceded, “I was burned out on computer books.” In searching for a new challenge, he settled on a childhood desire.
“Centauri Dreams goes back to when I was a kid. I was fascinated with the whole idea of deep space travel,” he explained. “The opportunity to do this book was very enticing to me.”
Now he has the web site to help keep the dream of a flight to Centauri alive.
Rick Smith is editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire.