THE NEWEST SPACE IDEA: LASERS, SOLAR SAILS, AND COSMIC WARS

This article was sent to me by Mr. P.G., and it's one of those thought-provoking things that sent my high octane speculation into high gear. The article is by artsophysicist Ethan Siegel, and it's well worth pondering, for reasons I'll get to in a moment:

Is Humanity About To Accidentally Declare Interstellar War On Alien Civilizations?

What first caught my eye about this article was the technology that Mr. Siegel focuses on, a technology somewhere between those chemical rockets we grew up with, and the DARPA/NASA 100 year goal to have the USA be "warp capable":

Here on Earth, our dreams of interstellar travel have traditionally fallen into two categories:

  1. We go slowly, with rocket-propulsion, on a journey taking many human lifetimes.
  2. We go quickly, assuming we make tremendous scientific advances to travel at relativistic (near-light) speeds.

Either we go as the Voyager spacecrafts go, taking many thousands of years to travel even a single light year, or we develop some new technology capable of accelerating a spacecraft to much, much higher speeds. The first option seems unacceptable; the second seems unrealistic.

But something happened during the 2010s that has the potential to change the game. We've actually gone and made a huge technological advance that could impart a large amount of energy to a spacecraft over a reasonably long amount of time, allowing us to (in principle) accelerate it to tremendous speeds.

The big advance? In the science of laser physics. Lasers, now, are both more powerful and more collimated than they've ever been, and that means that if we put an enormous array of these high-powered lasers in space, where they don't have to fight atmospheric dispersion, they could shine on a single target for a long time, imparting energy and momentum to it until it reached more than 10% the speed of light.

In 2015, a team of scientists wrote a white paper on how an advanced laser array could combine with the solar sail concept to create a "laser sail"-based spacecraft. In theory, we could use current technology and extraordinarily low-mass spaceships (i.e., "starchips") to reach the nearest stars in a single human lifetime.

The idea is simple: shoot this high-powered laser array at a highly reflective target, attach a very small and low-mass micro-satellite to the sail, and accelerate it to the maximum speed possible. The ideas of solar sails are old, and have been around since the time of Kepler. But to use a laser sail would be a real revolution.

As Mr. Siegel goes on to mention, advances in new technologies are fast bringing this method of interplanetary travel closer to reality, and if a means can be found to protect the craft itself from becoming irreparably damaged by particles in space - he mentions the long term effects as turning the craft into "Swiss cheese" - it becomes even more feasible.

There's a problem though, at least according to Siegel: how does one slow the ship down, much less steer it accurately:

But there are three huge problems with this plan, and combined, they could be tantamount to a declaration of interstellar war.

The first problem is that interstellar space is full of particles, most of which move relatively slowly (at a few hundred km/s) through the galaxy. When they strike this spacecraft, they'll blow holes into it, rendering it into cosmic swiss-cheese in short order.

The second is that there's no reasonable deceleration mechanism. When these spacecrafts arrive at their destination, they'll still be moving at roughly the speeds they took off at. There's no stopping to take data or a gentle orbital insertion. They move at the speeds they move at.

And the third is that aiming to the level-of-precision needed to pass close to (but not collide with) a target planet is virtually impossible. The "cone of uncertainty" for any trajectory will include the planet we're aiming for.

The last possibility, he maintains, could mean that our "laser-sail" probes could actually impact an inhabited planet, with the force of the explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteor (which he specifically mentions in the article), and that, as noted above, could be tantamount to a declaration of war.

Which brings me to my daily dose of high octane speculation. The problem of steering and deceleration to my mind is rather simply solved, if I am understanding the concept of the "laser sail" correctly, and that is, simply have the lasers mounted in such a fashion that they can rotate, and equip the craft with a variety of sails to control direction and vector the craft accordingly, including a sail on the opposite side to decelerate the craft as one approaches the destination. I would think such a simple expedient should be rather obvious, which makes me wonder what the real point is here.

And the real point, I suspect, is not that these technologies are coming closer and closer to reality, but rather, that serious thought is being given to the subject of how not to cause an interplanetary war. After all, there could be many causas belli, besides inadvertently crashing on another inhabited planet. Merely entering into a "claimed planetary space" could do the trick by crossing some "border" of which we're unaware. In fact, I wrestled with this possibility in my talks at the  2015 Secret Space Program conference in Bastrop, Texas, by pointing out there are ancient traditions here on Earth of "quarantine zones" around the planet, a residue, I speculated, of some possible ancient "cosmic Versailles" treaty. I even offered the idea that such processes of reasoning as Mr. Siegel is advancing may have been the basis for why unmanned interplanetary probes launched from this planet carried plaques or other notices to the effect that "we come in peace."

And then there is the disturbing implication that Mr. Siegel mentions: an impact, much like the Chelyabinsk Meteor incident. Which makes me wonder - since we're talking high octane speculation - if this is not a backhanded admission that there may have been more behind that incident than meets the eye, as I speculated at the time. Was it a "message"? And if so, who really sent it?

In any case, I suspect that the mere fact that such ideas are being entertained and considered in a major publication like Forbes magazine may be an indicator that the slow trickle of information to prepare us for "something" is continuing...

... the "something" in this case being, new space propulsion technologies, and the very real possibility of interplanetary conflict.

See you on the flip side...

15 thoughts on “THE NEWEST SPACE IDEA: LASERS, SOLAR SAILS, AND COSMIC WARS”

  1. Yawn…? I don’t understand why publications write this dribble… Earthlings neither have the brains or fortitude to accomplish such as these bigger than life look what we can do… especially when we get the antiquated, hand-me-down technology from the ET’s. I don’t think even the so-called go to person has any idea what the ET’s are capable of doing. Remember ET’s are at least 100,000 years more advanced than Earthlings.
    Wake me up when Earthlings do something really spectacular…?

  2. There is a episode of Star Trek Voyager that deals with a earth probe that contaminates and comes close to destroying a species and their civilization. I can’t remember the title. Then there is a famous science fiction short story titled The Sky Is Full Of Ships where aliens come and start blasting every city to village because they think the humans have become too powerfull due to a signal sent to them by a moniter they have left on Earth for centuries.

    1. Sigh … Star Trek is so boring …

      In the 1970s tv series, Space:1999, Moonbase Alpha comes across a probe from earth that is so dangerous its propulsion actually destroyed a planet it came close to. The remnants of the alien race it practically destroyed follows it from there. It apparently, if my memory serves me well destroyed a tonne of people on earth when it took off, as well. Anyway, the upshot of the episode was that the guy who invented it (a German, by the way) is on the moon base (convenient), and only he knows how to stop it from frying the rest of the people on the Moon. I won’t spoil the ending but he saves the day.

      Isaac Asimov hated Space:1999 … but it does have some very interesting adult themes, and storylines, and also very good technical effects for the time. The physics might be ropey as hell but the heart for decent science fiction stories were there. Beware the second series for that was hijacked by the guy who destroyed the classic Star Trek (which even to this day is the only Star Trek I can handle …)

  3. Thinking of the case of the Native Americans (Indians) and the Europeans, it may be regarded as an act of war to send possibly-infected material between the stars. And then to send a sterilization-response to wipe out such an irresponsible species…

  4. Robert Barricklow

    “They’re” already destroying the living Earth of their indentured serfs/slaves; why stop there?

  5. I saw this article as based on the Hawking “Starshot” technology which in the attached slideshow said “They would be launched from Earth orbit from a larger mothership, then accelerated towards Alpha Centauri by a kilometer-scale laser array on the ground.” That leaves no way to power a slowdown – let alone maintain a line-of-sight connection over light-years distance.
    The recent “microwave-in-a-can” concept at least allows you to carry your propulsion/fuel unit along. This idea with no “brakes” and limited steering seems doomed from the start.

  6. Well.. The human race has a wonderful history of sending the army in to protect and claim ressources.. Just ask the Boer Republic what they think of about…. oh.. we cant.. The English sent half a million redcoats under Chamberlain to attack 50K settlers and stuff them into concentration camps… err.. labour camps, where everything was concentrated.
    So… what’s so interesting about Space?
    PLATINUM: http://uk.businessinsider.com/goldman-sachs-space-mining-asteroid-platinum-2017-4?IR=T

        1. Goshawks.. what’s the episode of Babylon 5 called.. where it shows how the Earth Minari war started.. The Minari tradition of showing all your weapons when meeting someone new so they know you arent hiding something behind their back, being misunderstood by the Hoomans in Space..as ‘They’re POWERING UP THEIR WEAPONS ARRRRGHHH”
          Makes me think of Cook massacring the Australians.. because the good ol’ white bois got the s..t scared out of them by the welcoming dance….(Anyone noticing any similitudes between..Aboriginal tribal wear and Dogon Tribal costumes….)

          1. From a personal viewpoint:
            Babylon 5: A Late Delivery from Avalon (TV series, 1996)
            “‘King Arthur’ is David McIntyre, the gunnery sergeant who was a crewmember on the ship that had fired the first fateful shots of the Earth-Minbari War. (When David’s CO gave the order to open fire on the Minbari ships, David was the one who carried out the order.)”

            From an overall point of view:
            Babylon 5: In the Beginning (TV movie, 1998)
            “Emperor Londo Mollari of the Centauri Republic tells the story of the Earth-Minbari War that almost destroyed humanity…”

            And just because:
            Babylon 5: Severed Dreams (TV series, 1996)
            Delenn: [addressing the Grey Council] “Three years. For three years I warned you this day was coming, but you would not listen. Pride, you said, presumption. And now the Shadows are on the move. The Centauri and the younger worlds are at war, the Narns have fallen, even the Humans are fighting one another. The pride was yours, the presumption was yours. For a thousand years, we have been awaiting the fulfillment of prophecy. And when it finally happens, you scorn it, you reject it because you no longer believe it yourselves… ”

            David Sheridan (father): “What was the first lesson I ever taught you?”
            Captain John Sheridan: “Never start a fight; but always finish it.”

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