Long distance interstellar sailing. Credit: UCSB/Adrian Mann

Long distance interstellar sailing.
Credit: UCSB/Adrian Mann

 

It is tagged as Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar exploratioN (DEEP-IN), work that will also chart laser driver elements that require technology development.

Thanks to a grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, research is underway to consider using directed energy propulsion for interstellar travel.

 

Directed energy propulsion

The work is underway by the University of California Santa Barbara’s (UCSB) Experimental Cosmology Group. They are focused on use of lasers as a means to power a spacecraft. A laser-powered, wafer-thin spacecraft, the UCSB group suggests, could be capable of reaching Alpha Centauri in 20 years.

Explains UCSB physics professor Philip Lubin: “We propose a system that will allow us to take the first step toward interstellar exploration using directed energy propulsion combined with miniature probes.”

UCSB physics professor Philip Lubin is leading a "stellar team" that's locked in on laser propulsion to travel interstellar distances. Credit: UCSB

UCSB physics professor Philip Lubin is leading a “stellar team” that’s locked in on laser propulsion to travel interstellar distances.
Credit: UCSB

Lubin adds that, along with recent work on wafer-scale photonics, “we can now envision combining these technologies to enable a realistic approach to sending probes far outside our solar system.”

Ultimate goal

The UCSB group’s “ultimate goal” is to send small probes to supplement the current long-range remote sensing done by orbital and ground-based telescopes.

The NIAC funding is enabling Lubin’s team to create a more complete roadmap for building a fully functional wafer-scale spacecraft complete with power, laser communications and controllable photon thrusters.

UCSB’s DEEP-IN design keeps the main propulsion driver back in Earth’s orbit (or nearby) – yet still capable of propelling highly integrated spacecraft to speeds vastly higher than anything scientists can currently achieve.

No intrinsic speed limit

According to a UCSB press advisory, the laser photon driver would use photon pressure in the form of streamed energy to power the spacecraft as it travels away from Earth.

With no intrinsic speed limit, this technology allows for the relativistic speeds necessary for interstellar flight, according to the study team.

“We’ve had to radically rethink our strategy in order not to give up our dreams of reaching the stars,” Lubin added. “DEEP-IN posits a technological path forward that, while not simple, is within our technological reach to begin.”

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