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In the 23rd century, a Starfleet monitoring station, Epsilon Nine, detects an alien entity, hidden in a massive cloud of energy, moving through space toward Earth. The cloud easily destroys three Klingon warships and Epsilon Nine on its course. On Earth, the starship Enterprise is undergoing a major refit; its former commanding officer, James T. Kirk, has been promoted to Admiral. Starfleet Command assigns Enterprise to intercept the cloud entity, as the ship is the only one within range, requiring its new systems to be tested in transit.
Citing his experience, Kirk uses his authority to take command of the ship, angering Captain Willard Decker, who has been overseeing the refit as its new commanding officer. Testing of Enterprise's new systems goes poorly; two officers, including the ship's Vulcan science officer Sonak, are killed by a malfunctioning transporter, and improperly calibrated engines nearly destroy the ship. Kirk's unfamiliarity with the ship's new systems increases the tension between him and Decker, who has been temporarily demoted to commander and first officer. Commander Spock arrives as a replacement science officer, explaining that while on his home world undergoing a ritual to purge himself of emotion, he felt a consciousness that he believes emanates from the cloud, making him unable to complete the ritual because his human half felt an emotional connection to it.
Enterprise intercepts the energy cloud and is attacked by an alien vessel within. A probe appears on the bridge, attacks Spock, and abducts the navigator, Ilia. She is replaced by a robotic replica, sent by the entity, which calls itself "V'Ger", to study the "carbon units" on the ship. Decker is distraught over the loss of Ilia, with whom he had a romantic history, and becomes troubled as he attempts to extract information from the doppelgänger, which has Ilia's memories and feelings buried inside. Spock takes an unauthorized spacewalk to the vessel's interior and attempts a telepathic mind meld with it. In doing so, he learns that the entire vessel is V'Ger, a non-biological living machine.
At the center of the massive ship, V'Ger is revealed to be Voyager 6, a 20th-century Earth space probe believed lost in a black hole. The damaged probe was found by an alien race of living machines that interpreted its programming as instructions to learn all that can be learned and return that information to its creator. The machines upgraded the probe to fulfill its mission, and on its journey, the probe gathered so much knowledge that it achieved sentience. Spock discovers that V'Ger lacks the ability to give itself a purpose other than its original mission; having learned everything it could on its journey home, it finds its existence meaningless. Before transmitting all its information, V'Ger insists that the "Creator" come in person to finish the sequence. Everyone realizes humans are the Creator. Decker offers himself to V'Ger; he merges with the Ilia probe and V'Ger, creating a new life form that disappears into space. With Earth saved, Kirk directs Enterprise out to space for future missions.
Project Daedalus (named after Daedalus, the Greek mythological designer who crafted wings for human flight) was a study conducted between 1973 and 1978 by the British Interplanetary Society to design a plausible uncrewed interstellar probe. Intended mainly as a scientific probe, the design criteria specified that the spacecraft had to use existing or near-future technology and had to be able to reach its destination within a human lifetime. Alan Bond led a team of scientists and engineers who proposed using a fusion rocket to reach Barnard's Star 5.9 light years away. The trip was estimated to take 50 years, but the design was required to be flexible enough that it could be sent to any other target star.
Daedalus would be constructed in Earth orbit and have an initial mass of 54,000 tons including 50,000 tons of fuel and 500 tons of scientific payload. Daedalus was to be a two-stage spacecraft. The first stage would operate for two years, taking the spacecraft to 7.1% of light speed (0.071 c), and then after it was jettisoned, the second stage would fire for 1.8 years, taking the spacecraft up to about 12% of light speed (0.12 c), before being shut down for a 46-year cruise period. Due to the extreme temperature range of operation required, from near absolute zero to 1600 K, the engine bells and support structure would be made of molybdenum alloyed with titanium, zirconium, and carbon, which retains strength even at cryogenic temperatures. A major stimulus for the project was Friedwardt Winterberg's inertial confinement fusion drive concept, for which he received the Hermann Oberth gold medal award.
This velocity is well beyond the capabilities of chemical rockets or even the type of nuclear pulse propulsion studied during Project Orion. According to Dr. Tony Martin, controlled-fusion engine and the nuclear-electric systems have very low thrust, equipment to convert nuclear energy into electrical has a large mass, which results in small acceleration, which would take a century to achieve the desired speed; thermodynamic nuclear engines of the NERVA type require a great quantity of fuel, photon rockets have to generate power at a rate of 3×109 W per kg of vehicle mass and require mirrors with absorptivity of less than 1 part in 106, interstellar ramjet's problems are tenuous interstellar medium with a density of about 1 atom/cm3, a large diameter funnel, and high power required for its electric field. Thus the only suitable propulsion method for the project was the nuclear pulse rocket.
Daedalus would be propelled by a fusion rocket using pellets of a deuterium/helium-3 mix that would be ignited in the reaction chamber by inertial confinement using electron beams. The electron beam system would be powered by a set of induction coils trapping energy from the plasma exhaust stream. 250 pellets would be detonated per second, and the resulting plasma would be directed by a magnetic nozzle. The computed burn-up fraction for the fusion fuels was 0.175 and 0.133 producing exhaust velocities of 10,600 km/s and 9,210 km/s respectively. Due to scarcity of helium-3 on Earth, it was to be mined from the atmosphere of Jupiter by large hot-air balloon supported robotic factories over a 20-year period, or from a less distant source, such as the Moon.
The second stage would have two 5-metre optical telescopes and two 20-metre radio telescopes. About 25 years after launch these telescopes would begin examining the area around Barnard's Star to learn more about any accompanying planets. This information would be sent back to Earth, using the 40-metre diameter second stage engine bell as a communications dish, and targets of interest would be selected. Since the spacecraft would not decelerate, upon reaching Barnard's Star, Daedalus would carry 18 autonomous sub-probes that would be launched between 7.2 and 1.8 years before the main craft entered the target system. These sub-probes would be propelled by nuclear-powered ion drives and would carry cameras, spectrometers, and other sensory equipment. The sub-probes would fly past their targets, still travelling at 12% of the speed of light, and transmit their findings back to the Daedalus' second stage, mothership, for relay back to Earth.
The ship's payload bay containing its sub-probes, telescopes, and other equipment would be protected from the interstellar medium during transit by a beryllium disc, up to 7 mm thick, weighing up to 50 tons. This erosion shield would be made from beryllium due to its lightness and high latent heat of vaporisation. Larger obstacles that might be encountered while passing through the target system would be dispersed by an artificially generated cloud of particles, ejected by support vehicles called dust bugs about 200 km ahead of the vehicle. The spacecraft would carry a number of robot wardens capable of autonomously repairing damage or malfunctions.
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