LIGHT SAILS: THE NEXT STEP IN SPACE?

September 18, 2018 By Joseph P. Farrell

The past few weeks have been absolutely crazy with all sorts of "weird space news." First came the story that the Soyuz space capsule, the workhorse used to shuttle cosmonauts and astronauts to the international space station, had been pierced by a micro-meteor and that the international space station was outgassing until the German astronaut aboard plugged the hole with his finger until "a more permanent temporary seal" could be put into place. The the chairman of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, Dmitri Rogozin, indicated that there were increasing suspicions in Russia either of on-the-ground incompetence, or that the hole had been deliberately drilled and that sabotage may be involved. Most recent updates to the story are now indicating that the may be more damage than was initially reported (more than one hole?) and that Mr. Rogozin has been in communication with NASA director Jim Bridenstine, and that Russia still has not ruled out sabotage.

For the most recent update on this story, Mr. ACM shared this article:

https://www.thesun.ie/news/3118096/mystery-of-drill-holes-on-the-international-space-station-deepens-as-more-deliberate-damage-is-discovered-on-spacecraft/?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link&ICID=ref_fark

While all this was going on, Mr. Elon Musk unveiled more of his plans for a "space liner" to take people on "cruises" around the Moon (where they can no doubt "phone home" using that 4G network a German firm wants to build up there for some unknown reason); this was shared by Mr. ACM once again:

Elon Musk is building a spaceship that's so ambitious, some experts call it 'science fiction.' Here's what SpaceX and its engineers are up against.

I won't bother to rehearse here what the article makes abundantly clear: Musk's rocket plans are big, really big, and, as the article itself states, Musk is very honest and candid about the risks of manned space flight to Mars.

And then there was the story about the shutdown of the Richard B. Dunn solar observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, which I blogged about yesterday, and about which I offered some high octane speculation on last Friday's Members' Vidchat, during the pre-chat session. There's more about that telescope than meets the eye (so to speak), and about the whole situation surrounding it, and its timing, that gives me pause.

All of this review brings me to the heart of my blog today, which is this story that was passed along by Mr. B.G., about NASA's and Caltech's upcoming tests of a "solar" or "light sail":

Interstellar travel BREAKTHROUGH: New material to ‘speed spacecraft to 134,000,000 mph'

While it's not as "glamorous" as NASA's and DARPA's "one hundred year WARP capability" goal, it is a lot more glamorous - and a lot more practical - than a giant rocket. The idea is not only simple, but within the feasible boundaries of current technology:

Before man can cross the vast distances of space, the designs of spacecraft's sails will be key – striking a delicate balance between mass, strength and reflectivity.Working with NASA, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists have created the new material out of silicon and its oxide, silica.The team has figured out that super-thin structures made of this composite can transform infrared light waves into a momentum that would accelerate a probe to 134,000,000 mph.

Speeds like this can carry a small probe to our closest stellar neighbours, a huddle of stars called Proxima centauri, within decades rather than millennia.

And it will enable humans to search nearby solar systems for extra-terrestrial life.

...

The idea is to use a laser to coherently shoot a stream of photons at infrared wavelengths at a “light net”, or sail, attached to a spaceship.

What is to be noted here is that the idea of such sails goes back to the 1950s when they were first proposed, and that if the technology should prove viable after initial testing, it will still not be a technology for practical inter-stellar manned flight, since it would still take decades to reach the closest star systems.But for planets within the solar system itself, or asteroid for mining purposes, that's a different game altogether; voyages to Mars, for example, if such technology could be made viable, would not take months, but at worst weeks (depending on the maximum speed of the vessel), the minimum distance between Earth and Mars being about 35,ooo,ooo miles, and the maximum being about 249,000,000 miles. Using the article's benchmark figure of 134,000,000 miles per hour you can do the math: transit time is greatly reduced even factoring such items as payload, time to reach full velocity (and to decelerate) and so on. With reduction of transit time, there might be a correspondent reduction in risks, though as the article points out, damage from micro-meteor strikes would intensify dramatically unless some means could be found to shield the vessel, a problem also occurring for any interplanetary rockets on long voyages.In short, I suspect we're looking at one version of the "real intermediary step" in the technology tree between rockets and DARPA's longed-for "warp" capability. As I've said before, "rockets just aint gonna do the job," and it's telling to me that NASA and Caltech are seriously investigating such alternatives. When we start to see private space companies actively pursuing such concepts, that will to my mind pretty much seal the future of conventional rocketry, at least as an interplanetary propulsion system. More importantly, I suspect the technology will be used and tested on unmanned probes prior to any manned missions. Ion propulsion has, for example, already been tested and used  by NASA on the Dawn probe and other satellites (SeNASA - Ion Propulsion and Ion Propulsion).

See you on the flip side...

 

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