Humanity’s First Interstellar Space Flight is Powered by Lasers

Space provides us with endless opportunities to explore the vastness beyond our atmosphere. However, escaping the gravitational pull of Earth has proven difficult. Scientists may have come up with a solution to this problem by asking: instead of flying into space, what if we could sail there? Researchers working for the company Breakthrough Initiatives are developing a method of space travel utilizing modified solar sails to capture laser light to provide propulsion. The project, dubbed Breakthrough Starshot, is testing this method by sending a probe weighing about 1 gram to Proxima Centauri b in approximately 20 years. By contrast, traditional chemical rockets would take thousands of years to travel the same distance. To achieve this, the probe will be propelled to 20% the speed of light by a 100GW, 1km square array of lasers. The sail attached to the probe captures this laser energy and is pushed by the force it generates, like a traditional sailing ship using the wind. 

Researchers Ho-Ting Tung and Artur Davoyan wondered if similar methods could replace our current chemical and electric rockets in the future. Calculations showed that even a probe powered by a much smaller 1m square, 100kW laser array could far exceed the current record for velocity, with minimal exposure time, in the range of hours to minutes. The team landed on silicon nitride or boron nitride as the best material for the sails due to their high reflectivity and cooling capabilities. They speculate that probes like these could easily be maneuvered between earth orbits within a day, a feat not possible with traditional propulsion methods. They also calculated that the probes could travel fast enough to escape our solar system, reaching up to 5 times the speed of the New Horizons probe.  

If you want to learn more about the Starshot project, click here, to read the original article. 

Or, click here, to read about the project on Breakthrough Initiatives’ website. 

Click here, for past Lenox Laser posts about space exploration. 

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