This week, the Miles Team Weekly Topic rotation once again revisits the topic of propulsion in our four topic rotation on subject matter relevant to the NASA Cube Quest Challenge.
Last month, Miles Team sent a four man team to Georgia Tech to further verify the performance of one of our team’s greatest competitive advantages, our team lead’s ConstantQ ion thruster. We ended up tripling the fuel economy (or ISP) of the thruster this trip. We are now researching ways to triple the ISP again. This week’s topic will be about another revolutionary propulsion system that is currently facing its own development challenges – Laser propulsion. In this post we will examine laser propulsion, its challenges, and how Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking plan to use it to send a fleet of small probes to Alpha Centauri with the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative.
Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner has teamed up with acclaimed scientist Dr. Stephen Hawking, as well as many others, to lay the foundation in infrastructure, knowledge, and the means to launch a swarm of small probes to Alpha Centauri. This effort is called the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. It is part of a set of initiatives that Yuri and Julia Milner drive forward to, “…explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.” The whole Starshot initiative is described as a $100 million research and engineering program aimed at proving the concept of laser propulsion that would enable small, low mass, unmanned spaceflight near 30% the speed of light to lay the foundation of a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. Each probe would be about the size of a hand held cellular smart phone.
To propel these phone sized spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, solar sails would be attached to each probe and a ground based array of lasers would be the means of propulsion. Dr. Hawking and Mr. Milner stress that this is the concept phase of such an endeavor. A rocket would carry the fleet of probes up to a steady orbit around the Earth before deploying them at a point where they are between the laser array on the ground and the destination target of Alpha Centauri. The large array of high powered lasers would then fire at the solar sails of the smart-phone sized probes to accelerate the fleet of probes toward their intended destination. A visual of this concept is shown in the following video:
The Milners have jump started this long process, starting with the concept study and necessary research, with a personal investment of $100 million hoping to draw other interested backers and minds to the effort. With current technology and propulsion methods, a trip to Alpha Centauri (which is at a distance of about 4.367 light years), currently takes tens of thousands of years instead of the 20 years that the laser propelled fleet of probes promises.
We at Team Miles can sympathize with the necessity of results and evidence when meeting or satisfying the concerns of backers. Even with results, it is an uphill battle to convince backers that their investment in intellectual property or a mission is worthwhile. Space is hard and that fact is first and foremost in many people’s minds, but you just have to plug away at it one small step at a time.
For more information, on Breakthrough Starshot visit here: http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/Challenges/3. We wish nothing but good luck to Mr. Milner and Dr. Hawking, and their ambitious endeavor!