Tag Archives: solar sails

Using lasers to travel to the stars

The competition really heats up! A research team at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) has proposed that an array of space-based lasers can be used to accelerate a solar sail to speeds as much as 26% the speed of light, thus making interstellar travel possible.

[The] key breakthrough was the development of modular arrays of synchronized high-power lasers, fed by a common “seed laser.” The modularity removes the need for building powerful lasers as a single device, splitting them instead into manageable parts and powering the seed laser with relatively little energy. Lockheed Martin has recently exploited this advance to manufacture powerful new weapons for the US Army. In March last year, the aerospace and defense giant demonstrated a 30 kW laser weapon (and its devastating effect on a truck). By October, the laser’s power had already doubled to 60 kW and offered the option to reach 120 kW by linking two modules using off-the-shelf components.

The UCSB researchers refer to their own planned arrays as DE-STAR (Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and ExploRation), with a trailing number to denote their size. A DE-STAR-1 would be a square array 10 meters (33 ft) per side and about as powerful as Lockheed’s latest; at the other end of the spectrum, a DE-STAR-4 would be a 70 GW array covering a massive area of 100 square kilometers (39 square miles).

…Lubin stresses that even a relatively modest orbital array could offer interesting propulsion capabilities to CubeSats and nanosatellites headed beyond Earth orbit, and that useful initial tests would still be conducted on the ground first on one-meter (3-ft) arrays, gradually ramping up toward assembling small arrays in orbit. While even a small laser array could accelerate probes of all sizes, the larger 70-GW system would of course be the most powerful, capable of generating enough thrust to send a CubeSat probe to Mars in eight hours – or a much larger 10,000-kg (22,000-lb) craft to the same destination in a single month, down from a typical six to eight.

Further upgrades would make it possible to send a cubesate and its lightsail to Alpha Centuri in about fifteen years.

The important point here is that it appears that all the technology for building this already exists, or is relatively straightforward to develop.

LightSail successfully deploys solar sail

Engineers have confirmed that the cubesat prototype LightSail has successfully deployed its solar sails.

This is I think only the second time a solar sail has successfully deployed in space. More significant to me is the fact that it is the first time this kind of complex engineering test has been tried using a cubesat. If cubesats can begin to handle these kinds of tasks, unmanned satellite technology is going to take a gigantic leap forward.

LightSail back in business?

The Planetary Society’s solar sail engineering test called LightSail has re-established communications with the ground, allowing for the possibility that it can finally achieve its solar sail deployment, the main purpose of the mission.

I had previously reported that the sails had deployed, but a commenter correctly noted that only the panels have deployed, not the sails themselves, which need full battery power. The communications problem has been related to a battery charging problem. They are hoping that the batteries will get charged by mid-day today when they will try to deploy the sails.

LightSail reboots and restores communications

The Planetary Society’s solar sail engineering cubesat test LightSail has rebooted its computers and re-established communications with Earth.

The mission’s primary mission is to test the engineering design of the deployment of the solar sail. They will now be able to proceed with this deployment.

NASA announces awards for three technology demonstration space missions

NASA has announced three awards for technology demonstration space missions, all set to fly within four years. More details here.

The three missions are:

  • A solar sail demonstration mission, flying a sail 38 by 38 meter sail.
  • A demonstration of in-space laser/optical communications technologies.
  • The use of a high-precision atomic clock in space.

I especially like the solar sail mission because of its long range possibilities, though the other technologies would probably be put to practical use more quickly.