When scientists began seriously looking at beaming concepts for interstellar missions, sails were the primary focus. The obvious advantage was that a large sail need carry no propellant. Here I’m thinking about the early work on laser beaming by Robert Forward, and shortly thereafter George Marx. Forward’s first published work on laser sails came during his tenure at Hughes Aircraft Company, having begun as an internal memo within the firm, and later appearing in Missiles and Rockets. Theodore Maiman was working on lasers at Hughes Research Laboratories back then, and the concept of wedding laser beaming with a sail fired Forward’s imagination.

The rest is history, and we’ve looked at many of Forward’s sail concepts over the years on Centauri Dreams. But notice how beaming weaves its way through the scientific literature on interstellar flight, later being applied in situations that wed it with technologies other than sails.

Thus Al Jackson and Daniel Whitmire, who in 1977 considered laser beaming in terms of Robert Bussard’s famous interstellar ramjet concept. A key problem, lighting proton-proton fusion at low speeds during early acceleration, could be solved by beaming energy to the departing craft by laser.

Image: Physicist A. A. Jackson, originator of the laser-powered ramjet concept.

In other words, a laser beam originating in the Solar System powers up reaction mass until the ramjet reaches about 0.14 c. The Bussard craft then switches over to full interstellar mode as it climbs toward relativistic velocities. Jackson and Whitmire would go on in the following year to confront the problem that a ramscoop produced enough drag to nullify the concept. A second design emerged, using a space-based laser to power up a starship that used no ramscoop but carried its own reaction mass onboard.

The beauty of the laser-powered rocket is that it can accelerate into the laser beam as well as away from it, since the beam provides energy but is not used to impart momentum, as in Forward’s thinking about sails. In the paper, huge lasers are involved, up to 10 kilometers in diameter, with a diffraction limited range of 500 AU.

But note this: As far back as 1967, John Bloomer had proposed using an external energy source on a departing spacecraft, but focusing the beam not on a departing fusion rocket but one carrying an electrical propulsion system bound for Alpha Centauri. So we have been considering electric propulsion wed with lasers as far back as the Apollo era.

Now we can swing our focus back around to the paper by Angelo Genovese and Nadim Maraqten that was presented at the recent IAC meeting in Paris. Here we are looking not at full-scale missions to another star, but the necessary precursors that we’ll want to fly in the relatively near-term to explore the interstellar medium just outside the Solar System. The problem is getting there in a reasonable amount of time.

As we saw in the last post, electric propulsion has a rich history, but taking it into deep space involves concepts that are, in comparison with laser sail proposals, largely unexplored. A brief moment of appreciation, though, for the ever prescient Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who sometimes seems to have pondered almost every notion we discuss here a century ago. Genovese and Maraqten found this quote from 1922:

“We may have a case when, in addition to the energy of ejected material, we also have an influx of energy from the outside. This influx may be supplied from Earth during motion of the craft in the form of radiant energy of some wavelength.”

Tsiolkovsky wouldn’t have known about lasers, of course, but the gist of the case is here. Angelo Genovese took the laser-powered electric propulsion concept to Chattanooga in 2016 when the Interstellar Research Group (then called the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop) met there for a symposium. Out of this talk emerged EPIC, the Electric Propulsion Interstellar Clipper, shown in the image below, which is Figure 9 in the current paper. Here we have a monochromatic PV collector working with incoming laser photons to convert needed electric power for 50,000 s ion thrusters.

Image: An imaginative look at laser electric propulsion for a near-term mission, in this case a journey to the hypothesized Planet 9. Credit: Angelo Genovese/Nembo Buldrini.

Do notice that by ‘interstellar’ we are referring to a mission to the nearby interstellar medium rather than a mission to another star. Stepping stones are important.

Genovese and Maraqten also note John Brophy’s work at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts office that delves into what Brophy considers “A Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions.” Here Brophy works with a 2-kilometer diameter laser array beaming power across the Solar System to a 110 meter diameter photovoltaic array to feed an ion propulsion system with an ISP of 40,000 seconds. That gets a payload to 550 AU in a scant 13 years, an interesting distance as this is where gravitational lensing gets exploitable. Can we go faster and farther?

Image: John Brophy’s work at NIAC examines laser electric propulsion as a means of moving far beyond the heliosphere, all the way out to where the Sun’s gravitational lens begins to produce useful scientific results. Credit: John Brophy.

An advanced mission to 1000 AU emerged in a study Genovese performed for the Initiative for Interstellar Studies back in 2014. Here the author had considered nuclear methods for powering the craft, with reactor specific mass of 5 kg/kWe. Genovese’s calculations showed that such a craft could reach this distance in 35 years, moving at 150 km/s. This saddles us, of course, with the nuclear reactor needed for power aboard the spacecraft. In the current paper, he and co-author Maraqten ramp up the concept:

The TAU mission could greatly profit from the LEP concept. Instead of a huge nuclear reactor with a mass of 12.5 tons (1-MWe class with a specific mass of 12.5 kg/kWe), we could have a large monochromatic PV collector with 50% efficiency and a specific mass of just 1 kg/kWe… This allows us to use a more advanced ion propulsion system based on 50,000s ion thrusters. The much higher specific impulse allows a substantial reduction in propellant mass from 40 tons to 10 tons, leading to a TAU initial mass of just 23 tons instead of 62 tons. The final burnout speed is 240 km/s (50 AU/yr), 1000 AU are reached in just 25 years (Genovese, 2016 [26]).

In fact, the authors rank electric propulsion possibilities this way:

  • Present EP performance involves ISP in the range of 7000 s, which can deliver a fairly near-term 200 AU mission with a cruise time in the range of 25 years.
  • Advanced EP concepts with ISP of 28,000 s draw on an onboard nuclear reactor, and produce a mission to 1000 AU with a trip time of 35 years. The authors consider this ‘mid-term development.’
  • In terms of long-term possibilities, very advanced EP concepts with ISP of 40,000 s can be powered by a 400 MW space laser array, giving us a 1000 AU mission with a trip time of 25 years.

So here we have a way to cluster technologies in the service of an interstellar precursor mission that operates well within the lifetime of the scientists and engineers who are working on the project. I mention this latter fact because it always comes up in discussions, although I don’t really see why. Many of the team currently working on Breakthrough Starshot, for example, would not see the launch of the first probes toward a target like Proxima Centauri even if the most optimistic scenarios for the project were realized. We don’t do these things for our ourselves. We do them for the future.

The Maraqten & Genovese paper is “Advanced Electric Propulsion Concepts for Fast Missions to the Outer Solar System and Beyond,” 73rd International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Paris, France, 18-22 September 2022 (available here). The laser rocket paper is Jackson and Whitmire, “Laser Powered Interstellar Rocket,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 31 (1978), pp.335-337. The Bloomer paper is “The Alpha Centauri Probe,” in Proceedings of the 17th International Astronautical Congress (Propulsion and Re-entry), Gordon and Breach. Philadelphia (1967), pp. 225-232.