Civilizations Could Use Gravitational Lenses to Transmit Power From Star to Star

In 1916, famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a geometric theory for how gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. The revolutionary theory remains foundational to our models of how the Universe formed and evolved. One of the many things GR predicted was what is known as gravitational lenses, where objects with massive gravitational fields will distort and magnify light coming from more distant objects. Astronomers have used lenses to conduct deep-field observations and see farther into space.

In recent years, scientists like Claudio Maccone and Slava Turyshev have explored how using our Sun as a Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) could have tremendous applications for astronomy and the Search for Extratterstiral Intelligence (SETI). Two notable examples include studying exoplanets in extreme detail or creating an interstellar communication network (a “galactic internet”). In a recent paper, Turyshev proposes how advanced civilizations could use stellar gravitational lenses to transmit power from star to star – a possibility that could have significant implications in our search for technosignatures.

The preprint of Turyshev’s paper, “Gravitational lensing for interstellar power transmission,” recently appeared online and is being reviewed for publication in Physical Review D. Slava G. Turyshev is a research scientist with the Structure of the Universe Research Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This group is engaged in a wide range of research topics associated with the evolution of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present day. This includes the formation of the first stars and galaxies, the role of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the formation of large-scale cosmic structures, and the accelerating expansion of the cosmos Universe (respectively).

The narrow galaxy elegantly curving around its spherical companion in this image is a fantastic example of a truly strange and very rare phenomenon. This image, taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, depicts GAL-CLUS-022058s, located in the southern hemisphere constellation of Fornax (The Furnace). GAL-CLUS-022058s is the largest and one of the most complete Einstein rings ever discovered in our Universe. The object has been nicknamed by the Principal Investigator and his team who are studying this Einstein ring as the "Molten Ring", which alludes to its appearance and host constellation. First theorised to exist by Einstein in his general theory of relativity, this object’s unusual shape can be explained by a process called gravitational lensing, which causes light shining from far away to be bent and pulled by the gravity of an object between its source and the observer. In this case, the light from the background galaxy has been distorted into the curve we see by the gravity of the galaxy cluster sitting in front of it. The near exact alignment of the background galaxy with the central elliptical galaxy of the cluster, seen in the middle of this image, has warped and magnified the image of the background galaxy around itself into an almost perfect ring. The gravity from other galaxies in the cluster is soon to cause additional distortions. Objects like these are the ideal laboratory in which to research galaxies too faint and distant to otherwise see.
Gravitational Lens GAL-CLUS-022058s taken with NASA/ESA/Hubble Space Telescope.

In previous papers, Turyshev and his colleague, Senior Research Fellow Viktor Toth (Carleton University), have explored the physics of gravitational lenses extensively. They have also explored how a spacecraft located at the focal region of an SGL would allow for cutting-edge astronomy. This includes how an SGL could amplify light from faint distant objects (like exoplanets) to the point where the resolution would be comparable to observations conducted from high orbit. In another paper, SETI astronomer and mathematician Claudio Maccone showed how SGLs could facilitate communication between stars.

In this latest paper, Turyshev explored how a star’s gravitational focal point could be used to focus energy and beam it to other star systems. As he indicated in his paper, the same equipment used for interplanetary communications (built to scale) could allow pairs of stellar gravitational lenses to facilitate energy transmission over interstellar distances. This configuration would benefit from the light amplification by both lenses, enabling significant increases in the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of the transmitted signal. But as Turyshev told Universe Today via email, a comprehensive analysis of these scenarios has not yet been undertaken:

“This is the topic that I have been trying to stay away from for quite some time, as there were no analytical tools developed to study power transmission. Now, many relevant and important topics are well understood, leading to this work. In this paper, I looked at the feasibility of interstellar power transmission and was able to show that it is possible to achieve a practically relevant Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), thus showing that one can use the SGLs for that purpose.”

For this study, Turyshev used analytical tools from his previous work with SGLs to consider how light can be amplified in multi-lense systems. He then applied these same methods to three free space laser power transmission scenarios that involve lensing with either a single lens or double lenses. In all cases, a point-source transmitter is positioned in the focal region of the lens, which amplifies the power picked up by the receiver. The results indicate that power beaming follows the same principles as light amplification and can be accomplished using similar infrastructure.

Artist’s impression of space-based solar power arrays. Credit: National Space Society

In this respect, using the SGL to beam power from system to system could enable interstellar exploration and settlement by ensuring communications and a steady power supply. While there is no remedy for the time lag imposed by Relativity (i.e., it will still take years to receive power), the signal strength will ensure that ample energy makes it to its source. As Turyshev demonstrated, the mathematics are sound, but there is still much work to be done:

“We show the feasibility and provide the tools that may be used to deal with all these nuances. And we have pretty good SNRs already, so including these extra modeling terms will not significantly reduce the sensitivity. So, this is the first paper that addresses all the topics in a non-speculative manner, focusing only on the physics involved. Many more topics must be addressed – transmitter-lens1-lens2-receiver misalignment, the presence of non-vanishing quadrupole moments characterizing lens’ interior structure, etc. But all that is needed now is to deal with each of them.”

Further Reading: arXiv