Between the exponential growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) and missions planned for the Moon in this decade, it’s generally agreed that we are living in the “Space Age 2.0.” Even more ambitious are the proposals to send crewed missions to Mars in the next decade, which would see astronauts traveling beyond the Earth-Moon system for the first time. The challenge this represents has inspired many innovative new ideas for spacecraft, life-support systems, and propulsion.
In particular, missions planners and engineers are investigating Directed Energy (DE) propulsion, where laser arrays are used to accelerate light sails to relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light). In a recent study, a team from UCLA explained how a fleet of tiny probes with light sails could be used to explore the Solar System. These probes would rely on a low-power laser array, thereby being more cost-effective than similar concepts but would be much faster than conventional rockets.
NASA and China plan to mount crewed missions to Mars in the next decade. While this represents a tremendous leap in terms of space exploration, it also presents significant logistical and technological challenges. For starters, missions can only launch for Mars every 26 months when our two planets are at the closest points in their orbit to each other (during an “Opposition“). Using current technology, it would take six to nine months to transit from Earth to Mars.
Even with nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP), a one-way transit could take 100 days to reach Mars. However, a team of researchers from Montreal’s McGill University assessed the potential of a laser-thermal propulsion system. According to their study, a spacecraft that relies on a novel propulsion system – where lasers are used to heat hydrogen fuel – could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days!
In October 2017, the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua passed through our Solar System, leaving a lot of questions in its wake. Not only was it the first object of its kind ever to be observed, but the limited data astronomers obtained as it shot out of our Solar System left them all scratching their heads. Even today, almost five years after this interstellar visitor made its flyby, scientists are still uncertain about its true nature and origins. In the end, the only way to get some real answers from ‘Oumuamua is to catch up with it.
Interestingly enough, there are many proposals on the table for missions that could do just that. Consider Project Lyra, a proposal by the Institute for Interstellar Studies (i4is) that would rely on advanced propulsions technology to rendezvous with interstellar objects (ISOs) and study them. According to their latest study, if their mission concept launched in 2028 and performed a complex Jupiter Oberth Manoeuvre (JOM), it would be able to catch up to ‘Oumuamua in 26 years.
In the 1960s, American physicist Robert W. Bussard proposed a radical idea for interstellar travel: a spacecraft that relied on powerful magnetic fields to harvest hydrogen directly from the interstellar medium. The high speed of this “ramjet” forces the hydrogen into a progressively constricted magnetic field until fusion occurs. The magnetic field then directs the resulting energy towards the rear of the spacecraft to generate propulsion.
As it’s come to be known, the Bussard Ramjet has since been popularized by hard science fiction writers like Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, and science communicators like Carl Sagan. Unfortunately, a team of physicists recently analyzed the concept in more detail and concluded that Bussard’s idea is not practical. At a time when interstellar travel looks destined to become a real possibility, this analysis might seem like a wet blanket but is more of a reality check.
Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our Sun, is like a treasure trove with many scientific discoveries just waiting to be found. Part of what makes it so compelling is that our efforts to detect extrasolar planets there have failed to yield any concrete results to date. While the study of exoplanets has progressed exponentially in recent years, with 4,575 confirmed planets in 3,392 systems in the Milky Way (and even neighboring galaxies), astronomers are still having difficulty determining if anyone is next door.
The Planetary Society’s crowdfunded solar-sailing CubeSat, LightSail 2, launched on June 25th 2019, and two years later the mission is still going strong. A pioneering technology demonstration of solar sail capability, LightSail 2 uses the gentle push of photons from the Sun to maneuver and adjust its orbital trajectory. Within months of its launch, LightSail 2 had already been declared a success, breaking new ground and expanding the possibilities for future spacecraft propulsion systems. Since then, it’s gone on to test the limits of solar sailing in an ongoing extended mission.
In 2016, Russian-American billionaire Yuri Milner founded Breakthrough Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to investigating some of the most enduring mysteries of the Universe. Chief among their scientific efforts is Breakthrough Starshot, a proof-of-concept prototype that combines a lightsail, a nanocraft, and directed energy (aka. laser) propulsion to create a spacecraft capable of reaching the nearest star (Alpha Centauri) in our lifetimes.
Naturally, this presents all sorts of technical and engineering challenges, not the least of which is the amount of power needed to accelerate the spacecraft to relativistic speeds (a fraction of the speed of light). Luckily, scientists from the Australian National University (ANU) recently came up with a design for a directed-energy array made up of millions of individual lasers positioned across the Earth’s surface.
In October 19th, 2017, the first interstellar object ever detected flew past Earth on its way out of the Solar System. Less than two years later, a second object was detected, an easily-identified interstellar comet designated as 2I/Borisov. The appearance of these two objects verified earlier theoretical work that concluded that interstellar objects (ISOs) regularly enter our Solar System.
The question of how often this happens has been the subject of considerable research since then. According to a new study led by researchers from the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), roughly 7 ISOs enter our Solar System every year and follow predictable orbits while they are here. This research could allow us to send a spacecraft to rendezvous with one of these objects in the near future.
On October 19th, 2017, astronomers from the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar object in our Solar System. In honor of the observatory that first spotted it, this object (designated 1I/2017 U1) was officially named ‘Oumuamua by the IAU – a Hawaiian term loosely translated as “Scout” (or, “a messenger from afar arriving first.”)
Having spent the past few years presenting this controversial theory before the scientific and astronomical community, Prof. Loeb has since shared the story of how he came to it in his new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. The book is a seminal read, addresses the mystery of ‘Oumuamua, and (most importantly) urges readers to take seriously the possibility that an extraterrestrial encounter took place
In the coming decades, multiple space agencies plan to return astronauts to the Moon (or to send them there for the first time) and mount the first crewed missions to Mars. Between that and the explosive growth we are seeing in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is no doubt that we live in an era of renewed space exploration. It’s therefore understandable that old and new concepts for interstellar travel are also being considered these days.
Right now, a considerable focus is on light sails that generate their own propulsion by radiation pressure or are accelerated by lasers. These concepts present all kinds of technical and engineering challenges. Luckily, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) recently conducted a study where he argues for a “Sun Diver” light sail that will pick up all the speed it needs by diving close to the Sun.