The Space Frontier Gets Closer

Artistic rendition of a laser driven spacecraft. Pictorial only.

Some NASA people are thinking out the box and see a new way to explore space using laser technology.

So far, NASA spacecraft have made 13 trips to Mars, with seven landings. The most recent — that of the Curiosity rover — took 253 days from launch on Earth to touchdown on Mars. There’s now reason to believe, however, that this journey could be significantly made faster to the point it only takes 3 days, according to a NASA researcher.

This could be possible using a ‘photonic propulsion’ system, says NASA scientist Philip Lubin. A massive laser based on Earth would fire bursts of photons into the ‘sail’ of the spacecraft and accelerated it up to 26% the speed of light (1/4c), which is unheard of in space flight. But that’s only for a tiny object with a 1 meter solar sail. Larger, more practical crafts, would be accelerated to between 1-3% the speed of light, which is still fantastic.

The Abstract:

In the nearly 60 years of spaceflight we have accomplished wonderful feats of exploration and shown the incredible spirit of the human drive to explore and understand our universe. Yet in those 60 years we have barely left our solar system with the Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 finally leaving the solar system after 37 years of flight at a speed of 17 km/s or less than 0.006% the speed of light.

As remarkable as this we will never reach even the nearest stars with our current propulsion technology in even 10 millennium. We have to radically rethink our strategy or give up our dreams of reaching the stars, or wait for technology that does not exist. While we all dream of human spaceflight to the stars in a way romanticized in books and movies, it is not within our power to do so, nor it is clear that this is the path we should choose.

We posit a technological path forward, that while not simple, it is within our technological reach. We propose a roadmap to a program that will lead to sending relativistic probes to the nearest stars and will open up a vast array of possibilities of flight both within our solar system and far beyond. Spacecraft from gram level complete spacecraft on a wafer (“wafersats”) that reach more than ¼ c and reach the nearest star in 15 years to spacecraft with masses more than 105 kg (100 tons) that can reach speeds of greater than 1000 km/s. These systems can be propelled to speeds currently unimaginable with existing propulsion technologies.

To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and in many cases what a spacecraft is. In addition to larger spacecraft, some capable of transporting humans, we consider functional spacecraft on a wafer, including integrated optical communications, optical systems and sensors combined with directed energy propulsion. Since “at home” the costs can be amortized over a very large number of missions.

In addition the same photon driver can be used for planetary defense, beamed energy for distant spacecraft as well as sending power back to Earth as needed, stand-off composition analysis, long range laser communications, SETI searches and even terra forming. The human factor of exploring the nearest stars and exo-planets would be a profound voyage for humanity, one whose non-scientific implications would be enormous. It is time to begin this inevitable journey beyond our home.

Stellar environment of the Sun, maximum distance = 15 Light Years

Source of image: J.-M. Malherbe, Observatoire de Paris

This path opens up our stellar environment, shown above with solar systems within 15 light years of us.  Here is the Roadmap to Interstellar Flight

One of my readers asked if this is for real.  Yes, there are serious people working on this, and Japan has already successfully deployed a solar sail on the JAXA mission to Venus and beyond (here). Actual photo from space below:

Could this be the exploration technology of the future?




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