Seminar Series

Enabling the First Interstellar Missions with Directed Energy

Philip Lubin, University of California Santa Barbara

02 Jun 2016 - 15:30

Recent advances in photonics and directed energy systems now allow us to realize what was only a decade ago, simply science fiction. It is no longer. Spacecraft from fully-functional gram-level wafer-scale systems (“wafer sats”)  capable of speeds greater than ¼ c  that could reach the nearest star in 20 years to spacecraft for large missions capable of supporting human life with masses more than 105 kg (100 tons) that could reach speeds of greater than 1000 km/s can be realized. With this technology spacecraft can be propelled to speeds currently unimaginable with our existing propulsion technologies.

To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and our definition of what a spacecraft is. In addition to larger spacecraft, capable of transporting humans, we focus on “spacecraft on a wafer” that include integrated optical communications, imaging and spectroscopy systems, navigation, photon thrusters, radiation and magnetic field sensors combined with directed energy propulsion. Since the propulsion system stays “at home” the costs can be amortized over a very large number of missions. In addition, the same photon driver can be used for planetary defense, beaming energy to distant spacecraft, sending power back to Earth as needed, stand-off composition analysis, long range laser communications, SETI searches, and even terraforming. This would be a profound voyage for humanity, one whose non-scientific implications would be enormous.  On April 12 the Breakthrough Foundation announced that they would support this effort with a 100M$ Research and Development program called Breakthrough Starshot that would explore the fundamental technology underlying this over about a 10 year period. On May 12 NASA announced the Phase II funding for our Directed Energy for Interstellar Studies (DEIS) program.

For technical information on this program see our website: interstellar-precursors

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