Having just discussed whether humans – as opposed to their machines – will one day make interstellar journeys, it’s a good time to ask where we could get today with near-term technologies. In other words, assuming reasonable progress in the next few decades, what would be the most likely outcome of a sustained effort to push our instruments into deep space? My assumption is that fusion engines will one day be available for spacecraft, but probably not soon, and antimatter, that quixotic ultimate power source for interstellar flight, is a long way from being harnessed for propulsion.

We’re left with conventional rocket propulsion with gravity assists, and sail technologies, which not coincidentally describes the two large interstellar missions currently being considered for the heliophysics decadal study. Both JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe mission and JPL’s SGLF (Solar Gravity Lens Focal) mission aim at reaching well beyond our current distance holders, the now struggling Voyagers. The decadal choice will weigh the same question I ask above. What could we do in the near term to reach hundreds of AU from the Sun and get there in relatively timely fashion?

A paper from the JPL effort in Experimental Astronomy draws my attention because it pulls together where the SGLF concept is now, and the range of factors that are evolving to make it possible. I won’t go into detail on the overall design here because we’ve discussed it in the recent past (see for example Building Smallsat Capabilities for the Outer System and Self-Assembly: Reshaping Mission Design for starters). Instead, I want to dig into the new paper looking for points of interest for a mission that would move outward from the Sun’s gravitational lens and, beyond about 650 AU, begin imaging an exoplanet with a factor of 1011 amplification.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: The geometry of the solar gravity lens used to form an image of a distant object in the Einstein ring. Credit: Friedman et al.

Carrying a telescope in the meter-class, the spacecraft would reach its target distance after a cruise of about 25 years, which means moving at a speed well beyond anything humans have yet attained moving outward from the Sun. While Voyager 1 reached over 17 kilometers per second, we’re asking here for at least 90 km/sec. Remember that the focal line extends outward from close to 550 AU, and becomes usable for imaging around 650 AU. Our spacecraft can take advantage of it well beyond, perhaps out to 1500 AU.

So let’s clear up a common misconception. The idea is not to reach a specific distance from the Sun and maintain it. Rather, the SGLF would continue to move outward and maneuver within what can be considered an ‘image cylinder’ that extends from the focal region outward. This is a huge image. Working the math, the authors calculate that at 650 AU from the Sun, the light (seen as an ‘Einstein ring’ around the Sun) from an exoplanet 100 light years from our system would be compressed to a cylinder 1.3 kilometers in diameter. Remember, we have a meter-class telescope to work with.

Thus the idea is to position the spacecraft within the image cylinder, continuing to move along the focal line, but also moving within this huge image itself, collecting data pixel by pixel. This is not exactly a snapshot we’re trying to take. The SGLF craft must take brightness readings over a period that will last for years. Noise from the Sun’s corona is reduced as the spacecraft moves further and further from the Sun, but this is a lengthy process in terms of distance and time, with onboard propulsion necessary to make the necessary adjustments to collect the needed pixel data within the cylinder.

So we’re in continual motion within the image cylinder, and this gets further complicated by the range of motions of the objects we are studying. From the paper:

Even with the relatively small size of the image produced by the SGL, the spacecraft and telescope must be maneuvered over the distance of tens of kilometers to collect pixel-by-pixel all the data necessary to construct the image… This is needed as the image moves because of the multiple motions [that] are present, namely 1) the planet orbits its parent star, 2) the star moves with the respect to the Sun, and 3) the Sun itself is not static, but moves with respect to the solar system barycentric coordinates. To compensate for these motions, the spacecraft will need micro-thrusters and electric propulsion, the solar sail obviously being useless for propulsion so far from the Sun.

Bear in mind that, as the spacecraft continues to move outward from 650 AU, the diameter of the image becomes larger. We wind up with a blurring problem that has to be tackled by image processing algorithms. Get enough data, though, and the image can be deconvolved, allowing a sharp image of the exoplanet’s surface to emerge. As you would imagine, a coronagraph must be available to block out the Sun’s light.

What to do with the sail used to reach these distances? The mission plan is a close solar pass and sail deployment timed to produce maximum acceleration for the long cruise to destination. Solar sails are dead weight the further we get from the Sun, so you would assume the sail would be jettisoned, although it’s interesting to see that the team is working on ways to convert it into an antenna, or perhaps even a reflector for laser communications. As to power sources for electric propulsion within the image cylinder, the paper envisions using radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which are what will power up the craft’s communications, instruments and computing capabilities.

Image: This is Figure 4 from the paper. Caption: Trajectory of the mission design concept for a solar sailcraft to exit the solar system. Credit: Friedman et al./JPL.

Let’s clear up another misconception. If we deploy a sail at perihelion, we are relying on the solar photons delivering momentum to the sail (photons have no mass, but they do carry momentum). This is not the solar wind, which is a stream of particles moving at high velocity out from the Sun, and interesting in its own right in terms of various mission concepts that have been advanced in the literature. The problem with the solar wind, though, is that it is three orders of magnitude smaller than what we can collect from solar photons. What we need, then, is a photon sail of maximum size, and a payload of minimum mass, which is why the SGLF mission focuses on microsats. These may be networked or even undergo self-assembly during cruise to the gravity focus.

The size of a sail is always an interesting concept to play with. Ponder this: The sail mission to Halley’s Comet that Friedman worked on back in the mid-1970s would have demanded a sail that was 15 kilometers in diameter, in the form of a so-called heliogyro, whose blades would have been equivalent to a square sail half a mile to the side. That was a case of starting at the top, and as the paper makes clear, issues of packaging and deployment alone were enough to make the notion a non-starter.

Still, it was an audacious concept and it put solar sails directly into NASA’s sights for future development. The authors believe that based on our current experience with using sails in space, a sail of 100 X 100 square meters is about as large as we are able to work with, and it might require various methods of stiffening its structural booms. The beauty of the new SunVane concept is that it uses multiple sails, making it easier to package and more controllable in flight. This is the ‘Lightcraft’ design out of Xplore Inc., which may well represent the next step in sail evolution. If it functions as planned, this design could open up the outer system to microsat missions of all kinds.

Image: This is Figure 5 from the paper. Caption: Xplore’s Lightcraft TM advanced solar sail for rapid exploration of the solar system. Credit; Friedman et al./JPL.

Pushing out interstellar boundaries also means pushing materials science hard. After all, we’re contemplating getting as close to the Sun as we can with a sail that may be as thin as one micron, with a density less than 1 gram per square meter. The kind of sail contemplated here would weigh about 10 kg, with 40 kg for the spacecraft. The payload has to be protected from a solar flux that at 0.1 AU is 100 times what we receive on Earth, so the calculations play the need for shielding against the need to keep the craft as light as possible. An aluminized polymer film like Kapton doesn’t survive this close to the Sun, which is why so much interest has surfaced in materials that can withstand higher temperatures; we’ve looked at some of this work in these pages.

But the longer-term look is this:

Advanced technology may permit sails the size of a football field and spacecraft the size of modern CubeSats, and coming close to the Sun with exotic materials of high reflectivity and able to withstand the very high temperatures. That might permit going twice as fast, 40 AU/year or higher. If we can do that it will be worth waiting for. With long mission times, and with likely exoplanets in several different star systems being important targets of exploration we may want to develop a low cost, highly repeatable and flexible spacecraft architecture – one that might permit a series of small missions rather than one with a traditional large, complex spacecraft. The velocity might also be boosted with a hybrid approach, adding an electric propulsion to the solar sail.

It’s worth mentioning that we need electric propulsion on this craft anyway as the craft maneuvers to collect data near the gravitational focus. Testing all this out charts a developmental path through a technology demonstrator whose funding through a public-private partnership is currently being explored. This craft would make the solar flyby and develop the velocity needed for a fast exit out of the Solar System. A series of precursor missions could then test the needed technologies for deployment at the SGL We can envision Kuiper Belt exploration and, as the authors do, even a mission to a future interstellar object entering our system using these propulsion methods.

I recommend this new paper to anyone interested in keeping up with the JPL design for reaching the solar gravitational focus. As we’ve recently discussed, a vision emerges in which we combine solar sails with microsats that weigh in the range of 50 kilograms, with extensive networking capabilities and perhaps the ability to perform self-assembly during cruise. For the cost of a single space telescope, we could be sending multiple spacecraft to observe a number of different exoplanets before the end of this century, each with the capability to resolve features on the surface of these worlds. Resolution would be to the level of a few kilometers. We’re talking about continents, oceans, vegetation and, who knows, perhaps even signs of technology. And that would be on not one but thousands of potential targets within a ten light year radius from Earth.

The paper is Friedman et al., “A mission to nature’s telescope for high-resolution imaging of an exoplanet,” Experimental Astronomy 57 (2024), 1 (abstract).