In 2045: Alpha Centauri

We’ve talked about project Breakthrough Starshot which aims to send a solar sail probe to Alpha Centauri within 20 years. A little basic math and knowing that Alpha Centauri is 4.3 light years away means you are going to need to travel over 20% of the speed of light to make the trip in that time. Some new papers have proposed ways to address a few of the engineering problems.

The basic idea is simple. A very small probe is attached to a very large sail. But calling it a solar sail is a bit of a misnomer. The motive power for the sail would be a powerful laser, which provides more reliable power to the tiny probe’s propulsion system. The problems? First, the thin sail could tear under constant pressure. The answer, according to one of the papers, is to shape the sail like a parachute so it can billow under pressure.

The other problem is not burning the sail up. Space is a hard environment to dump waste heat into since radiation is the only way to transfer it. Another paper suggests that nanoscale patterns on the sail will allow it to release waste heat into the interstellar environment.

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Small Lightsail Will Propel Cubesat

If you read science fiction, you are probably familiar with the idea of a light or solar sail. A very large and lightweight sail catches solar “wind” that accelerates a payload connected to the sail. Some schemes replace the sun with a laser. Like most things, sails have pros and cons. They don’t require you to carry fuel, but they are also maddeningly slow to accelerate and require huge sails since there isn’t much pressure produced by a star at a distance. So far not many real spacecraft have used the technique, IKAROS was the first back in 2010. However, this month should see the launch of a crowdfunded cubesat that will use a solar sail to move to a higher orbit.

The 5 kg satellite built by Georgia Tech students is about the size of a loaf of bread. Once in orbit, it will deploy solar panels and a square solar sail nearly 20 feet long on each side. Despite the nearly 350 square feet of area, the sail is less than 5 microns thick. You can see more details about the mission in the video below.

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