Yesterday’s post on PROCSIMA (Photon-paRticle Optically Coupled Soliton Interstellar Mission Accelerator) has been drawing a good deal of comment, and I wanted to dig deeper into the concept this morning by presenting some correspondence between plasma physicist Jim Benford, a familiar face on Centauri Dreams, and PROCSIMA’s creator, Chris Limbach (Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station). As we saw yesterday, PROCSIMA goes to work on the problem of beam spread in both laser and particle beam propulsion concepts.

In my own email exchange with Dr. Limbach, he took note of the comments to yesterday’s Centauri Dreams article, with a useful nod to a concept called ‘optical tweezers’ that may be helpful. So let me start with his message of April 4, excerpting directly from the text:

I took a quick glance at the comments, and I see that the laser guiding (i.e. waveguide) effect is fairly well understood, but the guiding of the particles is less clear. I admit this is the less intuitive aspect and the weak interaction requires special consideration in the combined beam design. But to give a general sense, we are taking advantage of the same effect as optical tweezers ( except applied on the level of atoms instead of nanoparticles. That is, the atoms in our neutral beam are drawn to the high intensity region because they can be polarized.

I hope your readers are as excited about this project as I am!

Personally, I do find the project exciting because I’ve been writing about the problems of keeping a laser beam collimated for an interstellar mission ever since I began digging into Robert Forward’s papers back around the turn of this century. You may remember the vast Fresnel lens that Forward proposed in the outer Solar System as a way of collimating the laser beam for interstellar use. Avoiding such colossal feats of engineering would be a welcome outcome!

We’ve examined the pros and cons of particle beams in these pages as well, learning that there is controversy over the question of whether neutral particle beams would not likewise be subject to beam spread. Geoff Landis has argued that “…beam spread due to diffraction is not a problem,” while Jim Benford has offered a strong disagreement. See yesterday’s post, as well as Beaming to a Magnetic Sail.

The PROCSIMA idea combines a neutral particle beam and a laser beam to eliminate beam spread and diffraction in both. If it can be made to work, it seems to offer long periods of acceleration for beamed interstellar sails and high delta-V. An Alpha Centauri mission with a flight time of about 40 years becomes possible with a spacecraft reaching 10 percent of the speed of light. Dr. Limbach had been discussing the idea with plasma physicist Benford before the NIAC Phase I award was granted, and they engaged in further correspondence about the idea shortly after.

Here is an excerpt of a Benford message from last August with regard to PROCSIMA. The paper he refers to is a fleshed out and much more detailed version of Jim’s Sails Driven by Diverging Neutral Particle Beams, which ran in these pages in 2014. It has been accepted at the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, where publication is expected this fall:

Chris: I made more revisions on my paper than I had expected, and submitted it to JBIS last night. It is attached.

On your laser tweezers idea, I assume the wavelength of the laser will be much much larger than the size of the atoms. So you will treat their interaction as electric dipoles in the electric field of the laser. What intensities of laser would you need in order to defeat the divergence of such a beam? The beams themselves will probably be on the order of 10 cm-1 m in diameter and so the laser beam will be of comparable size, I suppose.

Of course, the introduction of a powerful laser adds a complexity to the overall system, but the remarkable focus that you are expecting would be very interesting to see.

I will keep your idea to myself, but I’m sure that the community, in particular Gerry Nordley, Adam Crowl and Geoff Landis, would be very interested to hear about it.

By the way, there is at a meeting that’s entirely relevant to this, in October in Huntsville Alabama. It’s the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, which expects to have about 200 people attending. I attach their newsletter. Unfortunately, they don’t do streaming, so one has to attend to hear the talks!

Image: Beamed propulsion leaves propellant behind, a key advantage. Coupled with very small probes, it could provide a path for flyby missions to the nearest stars. PROCSIMA studies the possibility that the problem of beam spread can be resolved. Credit: Adrian Mann.

Chris Limbach was unable to attend the TVIW meeting, but he replied to Benford in a message on August 15:

Thank you for your quick reply. My timing was fortuitous! Also, thank you for offering to send an updated version of your forthcoming paper.

I would like to hold this concept closely until I submit the full proposal, but I will describe the general outline. I only ask that you do not share with anyone in the near-term.

Essentially, I have discovered that a neutral particle beam and high intensity laser beam can be combined in such a way as to simultaneously eliminate the problems of diffraction and beam divergence. This is possible because of physical mechanisms that 1) attract atoms into regions of high optical intensity (i.e. toward the center of the laser beam) and 2) provide an optical focusing effect in regions of high atom density (i.e. toward the center of the neutral beam). If these two effects can be balanced then both the neutral beam and laser beam will propagate, together, without any divergence. After running the numbers, I believe a spot size of 5 meters could be maintained over several astronomical units (!).

I am still concerned that higher-order effects will cause problems, but I believe the basic numbers work out and the concept warrants further investigation/optimization. I am interested in your paper because the neutral beam divergence will place fundamental constraints on certain parameters (e.g. particle density, laser beam intensity, …) for this concept.

After the August messages, the correspondence ended until news of the recent NIAC funding, about which Dr. Limbach informed Jim Benford, leading to my own conversation with Jim and agreement with both scientists that this correspondence could be reproduced to help clarify aspects of the PROCSIMA project. As I mentioned yesterday, there are two levels of funding at NIAC, with PROCSIMA currently receiving Phase I funding. After Phase I’s initial definition and analysis, a Phase II grant can be applied for to develop the concept further.

We’ll await the completion of the Phase I study with great interest, given that a successful PROCSIMA would deliver the best of both the laser and neutral particle beam ideas, while removing one of their biggest problems. If it works, this idea should be readily scalable, pointing to its uses in fast missions throughout the Solar System and interstellar precursors far beyond the heliosphere. The idea has to be shaken out through this initial NIAC work, but it is certainly gaining the attention of the beamed propulsion community.