Scientists have designed the propulsion system for a space probe that would be able to travel to the Alpha Centauri star system in just 20 years, as opposed to the thousands of years it would take for a conventional space probe. If all went well, the revolutionary spacecraft would capture images of a recently discovered planet orbiting the closest star in that system, Proxima Centauri, and transmit those images to Earth, as well as those it captured of any other possible planet in the world. that solar system. It would also collect and submit some other scientific data.
This powertrain design is the work of Chathura P. Bandutunga, Paul G. Sibley, Michael J. Ireland and Robert L. Ward, all of the Australian National University (ANU). His work is framed within an ambitious international project, called Breakthrough Starshot, launched in 2016 by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking, and which is funded by the foundation established by Yuri and Julia Milner.
The project foresees the design of an ultralight spacecraft, which will have a light sail. A sail of this type works in a similar way to a ship sail, but instead of receiving the pressure of the wind it receives that of the photons of light. Thanks to the sail, the probe will be able to travel with an unprecedented speed to cover in 20 years the distance of 4.2 light-years between the Earth and its destination. In order to be so fast, it is essential that the ship has a mass as small as possible, less than one kilogram.
In their study, titled “Photonic solution to phase sensing and control for light-based interstellar propulsion” and published in the academic journal Optical Society of America B, the ANU team, with financial support from Breakthrough Initiatives, outlines their concept of design for the laser propulsion system that will be used to propel the probe from Earth. Once the probe has been launched into space by conventional means and its sail is deployed and ready to start doing its job, a laser beam will begin to push the spacecraft.
Illustration of the concept of a laser-powered light sail, to accelerate a very light ship from Earth to the speed necessary to reach the Alpha Centauri system on a 20-year journey. (Image: Breakthrough Initiatives)
The light that will fall on the candle will come from the surface of the Earth: a gigantic set made up of some 100 million lasers that will act in a coordinated way to illuminate the candle through a beam that is narrow enough and thus push it until it reaches the necessary speed to perform your interstellar journey in the planned time.
Once on its way, the ship will fly through the vacuum of space for 20 years before reaching its destination. During your visit to the Alpha Centauri system, you will record images and perform various scientific measurements, all of which will transmit to Earth.
The total optical power required is estimated to be about 100 GW, about 100 times the capacity of the largest battery in the world today. (Source: NCYT from Amazings)