mardi 12 avril 2016

Riding on a laser beam ...

...  to chase the Starshot interstellar flight dream?

In the nearly 60 years of spaceflight we have accomplished wonderful feats of exploration that have shown the incredible spirit of the human drive to explore and understand our universe. Yet in those 60 years we have barely left our solar system with the Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 finally leaving the solar system after 37 years of flight at a speed of 17 km/s or less than 0.006% the speed of light. As remarkable as this is we will never reach even the nearest stars with our current propulsion technology in even 10 millennium. We have to radically rethink our strategy or give up our dreams of reaching the stars, or wait for technology that does not currently exist. While we all dream of human spaceflight to the stars in a way romanticized in books and movies, it is not within our power to do so, nor it is clear that this is the path we should choose. We posit a technological path forward, that while not simple, it is within our technological reach. We propose a roadmap to a program that will lead to sending relativistic probes to the nearest stars and will open up a vast array of possibilities of flight both within our solar system and far beyond. Spacecraft from gram level complete spacecraft on a wafer ("wafersats") that reach more than 1/4 c and reach the nearest star in 20 years to spacecraft with masses more than 10^5 kg (100 tons) that can reach speeds of greater than 1000 km/s. These systems can be propelled to speeds currently unimaginable with existing propulsion technologies. To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and in many cases what a spacecraft is. In addition to larger spacecraft, some capable of transporting humans, we consider functional spacecraft on a wafer, including integrated optical communications, imaging systems, photon thrusters, power and sensors combined with directed energy propulsion.

...Directed energy systems are ubiquitous, used throughout science and industry to melt or vaporize solid objects, such as for laser welding & cutting, as well as in defense. Recent advances in photonics now allow for a 2D array of phase locked laser amplifiers fed by a common low power seed laser that have already achieved near 50% wall plug conversion efficiency. It is known as a MOPA (Master Oscillator Power Amplifier) design. 
Schematic design of phased array laser driver. Wavefront sensing from both local and extended systems combined with the system metrology are critical to forming the final beam.

The technology is proceeding on a "Moore's Law" like pace with power per mass at 5 kg/kW with the size of a 1 kW amplifier not much larger than a textbook. There is already a roadmap to reduce this to 1 kg/kW in the next 5 years and discussions for advancing key aspects of the technology to higher TRL are beginning. These devices are revolutionizing directed energy applications and have the potential to revolutionize many related applications. Due to the phased array technology the system can simultaneous send out multiple beams and thus is inherently capable of simultaneous multitasking as well as multi modal.  
The laser system can be built and tested at any level from desktop to extremely large platforms. This is radically different than the older "use a huge laser" approach to photon propulsion. This is the equivalent to modern parallel processing vs an older single processor supercomputer

Parameters for full class 4 [a 10 km array] system with 1 g wafer SC and 1 m sail. Craft achieves 0.2 c in about 10 min (assuming an extended illumination) and takes about 20 years to get to Alpha Centauri. Communications rate assumes class 4 drive array is also used for reception with a 1 watt short burst from a 100 mm wafer SC. Here we use the 1 meter drive reflector as the transmit and receive optical system on the spacecraft. We also assume a photon/bit ratio near unity. In this case we get a data rate at Andromeda of about 65 kb/s. In the previous figure for the same wafer scale spacecraft the only optical system on the spacecraft was the 100 mm wafer. The data rate received at the Earth from Alpha Centauri is about 0.65 kbs during the burst assuming we can use the DE-STAR 4 driver as the receiver and only the wafer itself for the transmission optic. The plot above shows a much more conservative photon/bit ratio of 40 while unity has been achieved but never over the extremely long distances discussed here.
(Submitted on 5 Apr 2016 (v1), last revised 7 Apr 2016 (this version, v2))

//added on April 13, 2016: I guess some of the advances in photonics are spin-off applications of the late Strategic Defense Initiative but it is fascinating that they could be the backbone of the new Yuri Milner scientific/speculative breakthrough initiative publicized yesterday.
Anyway the future of large phased-array lasers in Earth orbit could definitely be in Directed Energy System for Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation at a time when nuclear ballistic missiles are likely not the most pressing threat anymore...

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