Rethinking Interstellar Travel and Interstellar Spacecraft to Get There From Here

Laser propulsion (Q. Zhang)
Since the beginning of spaceflight, humans have accomplished wonderful feats of exploration and showcased their drive to understand the universe.

Yet, in those 60 years, only one spacecraft, Voyager 1 (launched in 1977) has left the solar system. As remarkable as this is, humans will never reach even the nearest stars with out current propulsion technology. Instead, radically new strategies involving the technology already available must be used.

We propose a roadmap to a program that will lead to sending relativistic probes to the nearest stars.

To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and our definition of what a spacecraft is. In addition to larger spacecrafts capable of human transportation, we consider “wafer sats”, wafer-scale systems weighing no more than a gram. The wafer sats would include integrated optical communications, optical systems, and sensors. These crafts, combined with directed energy propulsion, could be capable of speeds greater than 0.25 c.

This program has applications for planetary defense, SETI and Kepler missions.

Example of Spacecraft Propelled by Laser
Consider a 10 g payload attached to a 2 m diameter sail (left) and a 1 g payload attached to a 0.7 m sail. The bare spacecraft mass is equal to the sail mass. In this example of a small system the laser array propelling the craft has an optical power of 272 kW and is 20 m diameter. The laser and craft both start in low Earth orbit. The array remains in low Earth orbit while the craft is slowly propelled away, spiraling outward from the Earth. The following simulation shows the trajectory of the craft over the first week of propulsion while still in Earth orbit. The craft will ultimately leave the Earth orbit completely in both cases. This is an optimized solution.
Orbital Simulation of Laser Propelling a Spacecraft
via UCSB
via UCSB


The richness of the interstellar medium from the sun to the nearest stars (Keck Institute for Space Studies)



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