Spacecoaches and Beamed Power

If you’re planning to make it to the International Space Development Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico next month, be advised that Brian McConnell will be there with thoughts on a subject we’ve discussed in several earlier posts: A ‘spacecoach’ that uses water as a propellant and offers a practical way to move large payloads (and crews) around the Solar System. Based in San Francisco, Brian is a technology entrepreneur who doubles as a software/electrical engineer. In the essay below, he looks at the spacecoach in relation to the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, where synergies come into play that may benefit both concepts.

by Brian McConnell


The spacecoach is a design pattern for a reusable solar electric spacecraft, previously featured on Centauri Dreams here and developed in A Design for a Reusable Water-Based Spacecraft Known as the Spacecoach (Springer Verlag), which I wrote with Alex Tolley. It primarily uses water as its propellant. This design has numerous benefits, chief among them the ability to turn consumables, ordinarily deadweight, into working mass.

The recent announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to use beamed power to drive ultra lightweight lightsail probes on interstellar trajectories, is of note. This same infrastructure could be used to augment the capabilities and range of spacecoaches (or any solar electric spacecraft), while providing a near-term use for beamed power infrastructure as it is developed and scaled up.

The spacecoach design pattern combines a medium sized solar array (sized to generate between 500 kilowatts and 2 megawatts of peak power at 1AU) with electric propulsion units that use water as propellant (and possibly also waste streams such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, etc). We found that, even when constrained to these power levels, they could fly approximately Hohmann trajectories to and from destinations in the inner solar system. Because consumables are converted into propellant, this reduces mass budgets by an order of magnitude, and effectively eliminates the need for an external interplanetary stage, all while greatly simplifying the logistics of supporting a sizeable crew for long duration missions (more consumables = more propellant).


The primary constraint for space coaches, especially if you want to travel to the outer solar system, is available power. This is an issue for two reasons. First, solar flux drops off by 1/r2, so at Jupiter, a solar array will generate roughly 1/25th the power as it does at Earth distance. Second, trips to more distant locations will typically require a greater delta V (and thus higher exhaust velocity to achieve this with a given amount of propellant). The amount of energy required to generate a unit of impulse scales linearly with exhaust velocity, so the net result is the ship’s power requirements are increased, all while the powerplant’s power density (watts per kilogram of solar array) is decreased.

Testing Beamed Power

Beamed power infrastructure would enable space coaches and solar electric spacecraft in general to operate at higher power levels for a given array size, which would enable them to operate at higher thrust levels, and to utilize higher exhaust velocities to maximize delta V and propellant efficiency. This means they would be able to accelerate faster, achieve higher delta-v, while using less propellant. In effect beamed power to SEP spacecraft will give their operators the equivalent of a nuclear electric power plant (without the nukes).

A spacecoach built for solar only operation would be able to serve as a testbed for beamed power. For example, a space coach departing Earth orbit could be illuminated with a beam that increases its power output by a small amount, say 10% (large enough to make a measurable difference in performance, yet small enough that major modifications are not required to the ship as it just experiences slightly brighter illumination while in beam). At higher light levels, this technique could also be used to simulate lighting and heat loading conditions expected at the inner planets while remaining in near Earth space. Note also that lasers can be tuned to the absorption wavelength(s) of the photovoltaic material, greatly improving conversion efficiency (and reducing heat gain per unit of power delivered). An even cheaper way to build out and test power beaming infrastructure will be with satellites and probes that utilize solar electric propulsion.

The pathway to a system based primarily on beamed power then becomes one based on incremental improvements, both for the ground based facilities and for the ships. This would result in near term applications for the beamed power facilities while the much more technically challenging aspects of the starshot project are sorted out. Meanwhile, satellite and space coach operators could test ships with ever higher levels of beamed power until they hit a limit (heat rejection is probably the main limit to how much power can be concentrated per unit of sail area, as this is similar to concentrated photovoltaics).

The chart below illustrates the power/performance curve by showing the amount of impulse that can theoretically be generated per megawatt hour using electric propulsion, as a function of exhaust velocity. Real world performance will be somewhat lower due to efficiency losses, but this shows the relationship between thrust, ve and power. We see that impulse per MWh varies from 72,000 kg-m/s (ion drive, ve ~ 100,000 m/s) to 1,400,000 kg-m/s (RF arcjet, ve ~ 5000 m/s). A Hall Effect thruster, a flight proven technology, would yield about 300,000 kg-m/s per MWh. Compare this to pure photonic propulsion, which would yield only 12 to 24 kg-m/s per MWh. Clearly photonic propulsion will be necessary to achieve a delta v of 0.2c, but for more pedestrian applications such as satellite orbit raising, launching interplanetary probes or cargo ships from LEO to BEO (beyond earth orbit), electric propulsion will work well at power levels many orders of magnitude lower than what’s required for a starshot.


Driver for an Interplanetary Infrastructure?

Closer to home there could be lots of opportunities to sell beamed power to space operators. It’s costly to launch large payloads beyond low earth orbit (which isn’t cheap in the first place). Meanwhile, payload fairings limit the size of self-deploying solar arrays, which limits the use of electric propulsion for satellites and probes. If one could launch spacecraft with small solar arrays to LEO, and then use beamed power to amplify their power budget they could use electric propulsion to boost themselves to their desired orbits or interplanetary trajectories within a reasonable time frame. The beamed power infrastructure can also be built up incrementally. Early systems would beam 100 kilowatts to 10 megawatts of power to targets measuring meters to tens of meters in diameter. This should be readily achievable, and can be scaled up from there in terms of power output, beam precision, etc. The result: lower costs per kilogram to deliver a payload to its destination or desired orbit compared to all chemical propulsion.

This could make electric propulsion for transit from LEO to GEO and beyond an attractive option. Meanwhile, the power beaming operator would accrue lots of operational experience with beam shaping, tracking objects in orbit, etc, all things that will need to be mastered for the starshot project, while providing an economic foundation for the power beaming facilities during the buildup to their intended purpose.

In fact, one can imagine the starshot project becoming a profitable LEO to BEO (beyond earth orbit) launch operator in its own right. The terrestrial power beaming infrastructure is one component. A standardized “power sail” that can be fitted to many different payloads, from geostationary satellites to interplanetary probes, is another. The power sail would consist of a self-deploying solar array that is sized to work well with beamed power, heat rejection gear, and electric propulsion units. It would use beamed power during its boost phase to rapidly accrue velocity for its planned trajectory, and then as it leaves near Earth space, would transition to use ambient light as its power source from there. Meanwhile these power sails would provide an evolutionary path from conventional spacecraft to solar electric propulsion to the nanocraft envisioned for purely photonic propulsion.

As a starting point, it would be interesting to conduct ground based vacuum chamber tests to see how a variety of PV materials respond to being illuminated with concentrated laser light tuned to their peak absorption wavelengths. What do the conversion efficiencies look like? How much waste heat is generated? How do the materials perform at high temperatures in simulated in-beam conditions? Building on that one can imagine experiments involving cubesats to validate the data from those experiments in real world conditions, and if that all works out, one could scale up from there to build out beamed power infrastructure for use by many types of solar electric vehicles.

Ambitious R&D projects have a way of generating unintended side benefits. It’s possible that the starshot initiative, in addition to being our first step toward the stars, will also make great contributions to travel and exploration within the solar system.


Light’s Echo: Protoplanetary Disk Examined

The star YLW 16B, about 400 light years from the Earth, has roughly the same mass as the Sun. But unlike the Sun, a mature 4.6 billion year old star, YLW 16B is a scant million years old, a variable of the class known as T Tauri stars. Whereas our star is relatively stable in terms of radiation emission, the younger star shows readily detectable changes in radiation, a fact that astronomers have now used in combining data from the Spitzer space telescope with four ground-based instruments to learn more about the dimensions of its protoplanetary disk.


Image: This illustration shows a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. Material from the thick disk flows along the star’s magnetic field lines and is deposited onto the star’s surface. When material hits the star, it lights up brightly. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The method is called photo reverberation, and it takes advantage of the fact that when the star brightens as material from the turbulent disk falls onto its surface, some of the emitted light strikes the disk. The result is what is known as a ‘light echo,’ a delayed flash that can be used to measure how far the star is from the inner edge of the surrounding disk.

The time lag between the stellar emissions and their ‘echoes’ is what is in play here. Over the course of a two-night observing period, the researchers found consistent time lags between emissions and echoes. On the ground, the Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak (Arizona), the Harold L. Johnson telescope in Mexico and the SOAR and SMARTS telescopes in Chile could measure shorter-wavelength infrared wavelengths — these emissions came from the star. Spitzer, meanwhile, measured longer-wavelength light from the disk’s echo. From the paper:

Near-simultaneous time-series photometric observations were conducted on April 20, 22, and 24, 2010, with four ground-based telescopes operating in H and K bands and the Spitzer Space Telescope observing at 4.5 µm. Each session of Spitzer staring mode monitoring lasted ?8 hours. One (YLW 16B) out of twenty-seven sources detected was found to have mutually correlated hourly variations in all three wavebands. Over all three nights, the time series measurements of YLW 16B in H and K bands are consistently synchronized, while the light curve at 4.5 µm lags behind both H and K by 74.5±3.2 seconds over the first two nights when we have usable 4.5 µm data.

From this we learn that the light must have traveled about 0.084 AU between emission and echo (with an uncertainty on the order of 0.01 AU), meaning the inner edge of the protoplanetary disk reaches in as far as one-quarter the diameter of Mercury’s orbit. The paper notes that the structure of the inner region of a protoplanetary disk depends on the mechanism by which material from the disk accretes onto the star. At work at this inner boundary is sublimation, affecting dust, and the forces of the stellar magnetosphere that shape gas distribution.


Image: The star’s irregular illumination allows astronomers to measure the gap between the disk and the star by using a technique called “photo-reverberation” or “light echoes.” First, astronomers look at how much time it takes for light from the star to arrive at Earth. Then, they compare that with the time it takes for light from the star to bounce off the inner edge of the disk and then arrive at Earth. That time difference is used to measure distance, as the speed of light is constant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

We’ve learned much about disk structure by studying disks around larger mass stars, but until now probing into the inner disk regions of pre-main sequence T Tauri stars like YLW 16B has been hampered by the proximity of the inner disk edge to the star, too small to be directly imaged. Measuring the light travel time from the young star to the inner disk wall thus breaks new ground. The authors believe the method is viable for other young stars that show variability in the near-infrared, giving us a way to measure disks where planet formation has yet to begin.

For more on light echoes, see ‘Light Echo’ Reveals Eta Carinae Puzzle, which looks at the technique in terms of supernovae. To my knowledge, this is the first time light echoes have been studied in relation to protoplanetary disks. The paper is Meng et al., “Photo-reverberation Mapping of a Protoplanetary Accretion Disk around a T Tauri Star,” accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (preprint). A JPL news release is also available.

Beneath a Methane Sea

Back when Cassini was approaching Saturn and we all anticipated the arrival of the Huygens payload on the surface, speculation grew that rather than finding a solid surface, Huygens might ‘splash down’ in a hydrocarbon sea. I can remember art to that effect in various Internet venues of the time. In the event, Huygens came down on hard terrain, but since then Cassini’s continuing surveys have shown that seas and lakes do exist on the moon. Over 1.6 million square kilometers (about two percent of the surface of Titan) are covered in liquid.


Image: Ligeia Mare, shown here in a false-colour image from the international Cassini mission, is the second largest known body of liquid on Saturn’s moon Titan. It measures roughly 420 km x 350 km and its shorelines extend for over 3,000 km. It is filled with liquid methane. The mosaic shown here is composed from synthetic aperture radar images from flybys between February 2006 and April 2007. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell.

The liquid, of course, is not water but methane and ethane, existing in an atmosphere that is almost 95 percent nitrogen (with methane, small amounts of hydrogen and ethane making up the rest). Cassini has shown us three large seas near the north pole that are surrounded by numerous smaller lakes, while only a single lake has thus far been found in the southern hemisphere. New work on Cassini flyby data between 2007 and 2015 now confirms that Ligeia Mare, one of Titan’s largest seas, is made up primarily of liquid methane.


Image: A radar image of Titan’s north polar regions (centre), with close ups of numerous lakes (left) and a large sea (right). The sea, Ligeia Mare, measures roughly 420 x 350 km and is the second largest known body of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan. Its shorelines extend for some 2000 km and many rivers can be seen draining into the sea. By contrast, the numerous lakes are typically less than 100 km across and have more rounded shapes with steep sides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS; left and right: NASA/ESA. Acknowledgement: T. Cornet, ESA.

The finding is a bit surprising given that ethane is produced when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart. Thus expectations for Ligeia Mare involved primarily ethane. Alice Le Gall (Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales and Université Versailles Saint-Quentin, France), who led the new study, comments on the finding:

“Either Ligeia Mare is replenished by fresh methane rainfall, or something is removing ethane from it. It is possible that the ethane ends up in the undersea crust, or that it somehow flows into the adjacent sea, Kraken Mare, but that will require further investigation.”

As this work progressed, Le Gall and team relied on a radio sounding experiment performed in 2013, described in this ESA news release. The radio sounding, led by Marco Mastrogiuseppe, detected seafloor echoes and was able to derive the depth of Ligeia Mare along Cassini’s track, which marked the first time we have ever detected the bottom of an off-Earth sea. The deepest depth recorded was 160 meters. Le Gall used the sounding data along with observations of thermal emissions from Ligeia Mare at microwave wavelengths in her work.

The result: The new paper reports that the researchers were able to separate the thermal emissions from the seafloor from those of the liquid sea. The seabed is found to be covered by what Le Gall calls “a sludge layer of organic-rich compounds.”


Image: How different organic compounds make their way to the seas and lakes on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. A recent study revealed that Ligeia Mare, one of Titan’s three seas, consists of pure methane and has a seabed covered by sludge of organic-rich material. Credit: ESA.

You can see the process at work in the image above. Nitrogen and methane in Titan’s atmosphere produce organic molecules, the heaviest of which fall to the surface. Reaching the sea through rain or one of Titan’s rivers, some are dissolved, while others sink to the ocean floor. We also find that the surface areas surrounding the lakes and seas are likely flooded with liquid hydrocarbons, based on the lack of temperature change between the sea and the shore.

The paper is Le Gall et al., “Composition, seasonal change, and bathymetry of Ligeia Mare, Titan, derived from its microwave thermal emission,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, published online 25 February 2016 (abstract). Marco Mastrogiuseppe’s work on the depth of Ligeia Mare is described in “The bathymetry of a Titan sea,” Geophysical Research Letters, published online 4 March 2014 (abstract).


Gravitational Lensing with Planets

As we’ve been talking about the Sun’s gravitational focus, it’s interesting to reflect on the history of its study. Albert Einstein’s thinking about gravitational lensing in astronomy was explicitly addressed in a 1936 paper, but it wasn’t until 1964 that Stanford’s Sydney Liebes produced the mathematics behind lensing at the largest scale, working with the lensing caused by a galaxy between the Earth and a distant quasar. Dennis Walsh, a British astronomer, found the first actual quasar ‘image’ produced in this way back in 1978, with Von Eshleman’s study of the Sun’s lensing the following year including the idea of sending a spacecraft to 550 AU.

SETI was on Eshleman’s mind, for he pondered what could be done at the 21 cm wavelength, the SETI ‘waterhole,’ and so did Frank Drake, who presented a paper on the concept in 1987. If you have a good academic library near you, its holdings of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society for 1994 will include the proceedings of the Conference on Space Missions and Astrodynamics that Claudio Maccone organized two years earlier. FOCAL was now being considered, though in a mission then called SETISAIL, even though SETI would be only one aspect of its scientific investigations.

FOCAL Beyond Stars

Finding ways to exploit the gravitational lens of the Sun forces us to take into account the Sun’s corona, a problem both Eshleman (Stanford) and Slava Turyshev (JPL) soon addressed. We’d like to get a spacecraft not just to 550 AU, but well beyond it to avoid coronal distortion, taking advantage of the fact that we are not dealing with a focal point but a focal line. Let me quote one of Claudio Maccone’s papers on this (citation at the end of this post):

…a simple, but very important consequence of the above discussion is that all points on the straight line beyond this minimal focal distance are foci too, because the light rays passing by the Sun further than the minimum distance have smaller deflection angles and thus come together at an even greater distance from the Sun.

Thus we have the ability to move well beyond 550 AU, and in fact have no choice but to do so. The Sun’s corona creates what Maccone calls a ‘diverging lens effect’ and opposes the converging effect we associate with a gravitational lens. The result is that the minimum distance the FOCAL craft must reach (here I’m paraphrasing the paper) is higher for lower frequencies (of the source electromagnetic waves crossing the Solar corona) and lower for higher frequencies. Thus at 500 GHz, the focus is about 650 AU. At 160 GHz, the focus is at 763 AU.

But are we limited to using the Sun and, if we build radio ‘bridges’ as discussed yesterday, nearby stars as gravitational lenses? It turns out that planets too can be used for this purpose. In his 2011 study of this idea, which appeared in Acta Astronautica, Maccone produces the needed equations, noting that the ratio of a planet’s radius squared to its mass lets us calculate the distance a spacecraft must reach to take advantage of planetary lensing. From that we have defined what he calls the planet’s focal sphere.


Image: The complete BELT of focal spheres between 550 and 17,000 AU from the Sun, as created by the gravitational lensing effect of the sun and all planets, here shown to scale. The discovery of this belt of focal spheres is the main result put forward in this paper, together with the computation of the relevant antenna gains. Credit: C. Maccone.

Lensing Moves into the Oort Cloud

The figure above may contain a few surprises. We would expect Jupiter to top the list of planetary lenses, and indeed, its focal sphere is the next out from the Sun at 6100 AU. That’s a useful number to keep in mind, because we may discover that the Sun’s coronal effects are simply too powerful to overcome to produce the needed images. If so, we have a target halfway out to the inner Oort Cloud that we can also use to study the lensing phenomenon.

Beyond this, notice that Neptune, which has a high ratio between the square of its radius and its mass, comes next, at 13,525 AU. Saturn’s focal sphere is 14,425 AU out, and next we find our own Earth, with a focal sphere at 15,375 AU. Our planet makes a better lensing candidate than Uranus because it is the body with the highest density (ratio of mass to volume) in the Solar System. Maccone likes to point out that because we know the Earth’s surface and atmosphere better than that of any other planet, a FOCAL mission using the Earth as a lens would begin with a significant advantage as we try to untangle a lensed image of a distant object.

How would we take advantage of these planetary focal spheres? They extend all the way out to 17,000 AU in the case of Venus. As the figure makes clear, a fast spacecraft departing the Solar System could examine any of them in turn, beginning with observations as the Sun’s coronal effects begin to subside. Noting that a spacecraft enroute to Alpha Centauri would cross all these focal spheres, Maccone muses on the results of such a crossing:

First of all, while the Sun does not move in the Sun-centered reference frame of the Solar system, all the planets do move. This means that they actually sweep a certain area of the sky, as seen from the spacecraft, so that a spacecraft enjoys a sort of moving magnifying lens. How many extrasolar planets would fall inside this moving magnifying lens? Well, we don’t know nowadays, of course, but the over 400 exoplanets found to date [the paper appeared in 2011] are a neat promise that many more such exoplanets could be detected anew by a suitably equipped spacecraft crossing the distances between 550 and 17,000 AU from the Sun thanks to the gravitational lenses of the planets.

Such discoveries would be serendipitous, to say the least, as our Alpha Centauri mission would just be seeing what happened to be in line with the planet being studied as it departed the system. But having Jupiter at 6100 AU and the Earth at 15,375 AU does offer us useful targets for experimentation with the technologies we’ll need to tease images out of a focal sphere encounter. One of the big if’s of Breakthrough Starshot is the construction of operation of the phased laser array. But if it is built and we can achieve velocities of a significant fraction of c, then dedicated missions to explore planetary lensing would be sensible.

Clearly the Sun is our first choice as a gravitational lens not just because of the relative proximity of its minimum focal distance (550 AU) but because the effective gain of the Sun is so much higher than that of Jupiter, and far higher than the low gain we could expect to achieve with the Earth as a gravitational lensing body. Maccone calculates numerical values for the gain at frequencies ranging from the hydrogen line up to the CMB peak at 160 GHz, evaluating each of these for the Sun’s gravitational lens as well as the focal spheres of the various planets. If we want to work with the lensing potential of planets, we’ll need major advances in antenna and imaging technologies to overcome the weak signatures the planets provide.

The paper is Maccone, “A New Belt Beyond Kuiper’s: A Belt of Focal Spheres Between 550 and 17,000 AU for SETI and Science,” Acta Astronautica Vol. 69, Issues 11-12 (December 2011), pp. 939-948 (abstract).


Starshot and the Gravitational Lens

Although the idea of a mission to the Sun’s gravitational lens has been in Claudio Maccone’s thinking for a long time, it has never been linked with the financial resources of a concept study like Breakthrough Starshot. The Italian physicist led a conference on mission concepts in the early 1990s and submitted a proposal for an ESA mission in 1993. What’s striking to me is that throughout that time, Maccone has explored aspects of the mission he calls FOCAL that at one point seemed far too futuristic for our era. Could we, for example, do SETI with a FOCAL mission? Could we use it to enhance communications with an interstellar probe?

The answer to both is yes, but the problem was pushing a spacecraft out to 550 AU in the first place, a challenge involving flight times of many decades. Then the Breakthrough Starshot initiative emerged and suddenly Maccone found himself in Palo Alto talking about a well-funded study, one that looked to FOCAL to support interstellar probes both in terms of defining their target and enabling their data return. FOCAL was a bit less theoretical, and all those papers over the years now had ramifications in an ongoing mission design.


Image: The FOCAL mission as described by Claudio Maccone in his 2009 book Deep Space Flight and Communications (Springer).

Power of the Lens

Stanford’s Von Eshleman was probably the first to think about using the lensing properties of mass to do science at the lensing distance and beyond, though Frank Drake and others have pondered the possibilities of boosting reception at the hydrogen line (1420 MHz), the famous ‘waterhole’ for interstellar communications. But most readers will also be familiar with the astronomical studies that have been conducted using the lensing of distant objects. A galaxy located behind an intervening galaxy can reveal itself by the bending of its light, another way of saying that mass shapes spacetime — the light is still following the shortest possible route.

In a similar way, light from an object directly behind the Sun can be ‘bent’ by the Sun’s mass, converging at the gravitational focus some 550 AU out. This can lead to misconceptions, especially the idea that we have to get a spacecraft to a specific distance and then stop there to take advantage of the effect. Not so — there is no focal ‘point’ here but a focal line. As we move through and past 550 AU, we take advantage of the fact that the focal line extends to infinity. Coronal effects from the Sun are diminished as we continue to travel and we have the opportunity to make observations of the object on the other side of our star.


Image: Claudio Maccone in the hotel lobby the evening before the Breakthrough Discuss conference began. That’s Denise Herzing (Florida Atlantic University) on the left.

A working constellation of FOCAL spacecraft could be critical to the success of a fast flyby mission like Breakthrough Starshot. We want to know as much as possible about what is around Alpha Centauri before we send our first probes. An infrastructure that can push a small sail to 20 percent of lightspeed gets us to the gravitational lens within days. Each spacecraft it delivers can then makes continuous observations as it moves away from the Sun in the direction opposite the Alpha Centauri system.

Speaking before Maccone at the Breakthrough Discuss meeting, Slava Turyshev (Caltech) pointed out that the gain for optical radiation through a FOCAL mission is 1011, a gain that oscillates but increases as you go further from the lens. This gives us the opportunity to consider multi-pixel imaging of exoplanets before we ever send missions to them. Lou Friedman, whose sail experience at JPL involved a study of a possible sail mission to Halley’s Comet, spoke of a FOCAL mission as ‘an interstellar precursor for Starshot or other destinations beyond the Solar System. Right now we are brainstorming,” he added. “We are studying spacecraft requirements to fly within the ‘Einstein ring’ and do the necessary maneuvering.”

I mentioned Von Eshleman above — he was the first to suggest using the gravitational lens for communications purposes in a 1979 paper, and as Slava Turyshev noted, this was where the practical application of General Relativity for space missions was truly born. But it has been Claudio Maccone who developed these ideas in a series of recent papers, noting that laser communications are deeply compromised at interstellar distances because of pointing accuracy problems and the need for power levels far beyond what we might expect from a StarChip.

Building Bridges Between the Stars

Is the gravitational lens, then, what Maccone likes to call a ‘radio bridge’? Bit Error Rate (BER) charts the possibilities. It’s the number of erroneous bits received divided by the total number of bits transmitted. A probe in Alpha Centauri space trying to communicate with a NASA Deep Space Network antenna — using parameters Maccone developed for a mission payload much larger than Starshot — suffers a 50 percent probability of errors (see The Gravitational Lens and Communications). But a FOCAL probe exploiting the gravitational lens picks up the signal without error. In fact, we don’t start seeing errors until we’re fully nine light years out.

I don’t have Maccone’s slides from the Palo Alto presentation, but the figure below comes from one of his papers, and it illustrates the same point.


Image: The Bit Error Rate (BER) (upper, blue curve) tends immediately to the 50% value (BER = 0.5) even at moderate distances from the Sun (0 to 0.1 light years) for a 40 watt transmission from a DSN antenna that is a DIRECT transmission, i.e. without using the Sun’s Magnifying Lens. On the contrary (lower red curve) the BER keeps staying at zero value (perfect communications!) if the FOCAL space mission is made, so as the Sun’s magnifying action is made to work. Credit: Claudio Maccone.

But as Maccone told the crowd at Stanford, we do much better still if we set up a bridge with not one but two FOCAL missions. Put one at the gravitational lens of the Sun, the other at the lens of the other star. At this point, things get wild. The minimum transmitted power drops to less than 10-4 watts. You’re reading that right — one-tenth of a milliwatt is enough to create error-free communications between the Sun and Alpha Centauri through two FOCAL antennas. Maccone’s paper assumes two 12-meter FOCAL antennas. StarShot envisions using its somewhat smaller sail as the antenna, a goal given impetus by these numbers.

Now we can start thinking about a galactic communications network. If we can start building out these bridges, we may well be latecomers in the activity. Maccone puts it this way:

The galaxy is a bonanza of stars that can be used as gravitational lenses. There may be civilizations that discovered that fact long ago. Perhaps we are the newcomers. The conclusion is that more advanced civilizations than we might have established sets of radio bridges between stars, a network of radio bridges, a ‘galactic internet.’ If this is true, then the conclusion is that as long as humanity is not capable of reaching the minimal focal distance of our own star, we will remain cut off from rest of galaxy in the sense of SETI.

The conclusion for StarShot: The first FOCAL spacecraft is sent out beyond 550 AU to the region in the sky precisely opposite to Alpha Centauri. This craft acts as our relay satellite, enabling communications between the Earth and any probe reaching our nearest neighbor. The second FOCAL mission is now sent to Alpha Centauri to create the radio bridge. All exploratory missions to come then have robust communications without the need for huge power resources aboard the spacecraft. The gravitational focus is thus our first target.

As Blakesley Burkhart (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) noted in a follow-up panel, a mission to the gravitational lens contradicts a lot of things astronomers have been taught since their earliest days; specifically, the first thing you learn to do with a telescope is not to point it toward the Sun. FOCAL demands that we do just that, but the rewards are immense, not just in terms of exoplanet imaging and telecommunications, but also in discoveries we can’t anticipate, perhaps involving the Cosmic Microwave Background, itself a wonderful FOCAL target because being isotropic, it removes the need for exquisitely precise targeting.

A Voyager-class spacecraft, said Cornell University’s Zac Manchester, would take 150 years to reach 550 AU, while the Innovative Interstellar Explorer concept, developed in 2003, would reach the gravitational focus in about fifty years, using multiple Jupiter flybys. StarShot’s goal is to move fast enough to reach the lensing area in just a couple of weeks. Manchester noted the need for multiple spacecraft to sample the huge lensed image pixel by pixel. Think in terms of a spacecraft ‘array’ more than one or two craft. Just how we do this in the StarShot framework is something that research teams will be studying for some time to come, given the gradual realization that if you want to do interstellar, you’d better look at FOCAL first.

We’ll also have to take into account Geoffrey Landis’ findings in a paper just now becoming available on the arXiv site. It’s “Mission to the Gravitational Focus of the Sun: A Critical Analysis” (preprint), which looks at problems at realizing the FOCAL concept and in particular at acquiring a workable image. Claudio Maccone’s paper on radio bridges is “Interstellar Radio Links Enhanced by Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens,” Acta Astronautica Vol. 68, Issues 1-2 (January-February 2011), pp. 76-84 (abstract).