Ground-Based Lasers Could Accelerate Spacecraft to Other Stars

An artist's illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. The leakage from such beams as they sweep across the sky would appear as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), similar to the new population of sources that was discovered recently at cosmological distances. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

The future of space exploration includes some rather ambitious plans to send missions farther from Earth than ever before. Beyond the current proposals for building infrastructure in cis-lunar space and sending regular crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, there are also plans to send robotic missions to the outer Solar System, to the focal length of our Sun’s gravitational lens, and even to the nearest stars to explore exoplanets. Accomplishing these goals requires next-generation propulsion that can enable high thrust and consistent acceleration.

Focused arrays of lasers – or directed energy (DE) – and lightsails are a means that is being investigated extensively – such as Breakthrough Starshot and Swarming Proxima Centauri. Beyond these proposals, a team from McGill University in Montreal has proposed a new type of directed energy propulsion system for exploring the Solar System. In a recent paper, the team shared the early results of their Laser-Thermal Propulsion (LTP) thruster facility, which suggests that the technology has the potential to provide both high thrust and specific impulse for interstellar missions.

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NASA Selects Bold Proposal to “Swarm” Proxima Centauri with Tiny Probes

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

Humans have dreamed about traveling to other star systems and setting foot on alien worlds for generations. To put it mildly, interstellar exploration is a very daunting task. As we explored in a previous post, it would take between 1000 and 81,000 years for a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri (of which Proxima Centauri is considered a companion) using conventional propulsion (or those that are feasible using current technology). On top of that, there are numerous risks when traveling through the interstellar medium (ISM), not all of which are well-understood.

Under the circumstances, gram-scale spacecraft that rely on directed-energy propulsion (aka. lasers) appear to be the only viable option for reaching neighboring stars in this century. Proposed concepts include the Swarming Proxima Centauri, a collaborative effort between Space Initiatives Inc. and the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is) led by Space Initiative’s chief scientist Marshall Eubanks. The concept was recently selected for Phase I development as part of this year’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

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