A Mission Architecture for the Solar Gravity Lens

Over the past several years we’ve looked at two missions that are being designed to go beyond the heliosphere, much farther than the two Voyagers that are our only operational spacecraft in what we can call the Local Interstellar Medium. Actually, we can be more precise. That part of the Local Interstellar Medium where the Voyagers operate is referred to as the Very Local Interstellar Medium, the region where the LISM is directly affected by the presence of the heliosphere. The Interstellar Probe design from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) mission would pass through both regions as they conduct their science operations.

Both probes have ultimate targets beyond the VLISM, with Interstellar Probe capable of looking back at the heliosphere as a whole and reaching distances are far as 1000 AU still operational and returning data to Earth. The SGL mission begins its primary science mission at the Sun’s gravitational lens distance on the order of 550 AU, using the powerful effects of gravity’s curvature of spacetime to build what the most recent paper on the mission calls “a ‘telescope’ of truly gigantic proportions, with a diameter of that of the sun.” The vast amplification of light would allow a planet on the other side of the Sun to be imaged at stunning levels of detail.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the just released paper on the SGL mission. Caption: A visualization of the key primary optical axes (POA) and the projected image plane of the exoplanet. The imaging spacecraft is the tiny element in front of the exoplanet image plane. Credit: Helvajian et al.

Let’s poke around a bit in “Mission Architecture to Reach and Operate at the Focal Region of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” just out in the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets, which sets out the basics of how such a mission could be flown. Remember that this work has proceeded through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) office, with Phase I, II and now III studies resulting in the refinement of a design that can satisfy the requirements of the heliophysics decadal survey. JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe takes aim at the same decadal, with both missions designed to return data relevant to our own star and, in SGL’s case, a more distant one.

Given that it has taken Voyager 1 well over 40 years to reach 159 AU, getting a payload to the gravitational lens region for operations there and beyond as the craft departs the Sun is a challenge. But the rewards would be great if it can be made to happen. The JPL work and a great deal of theoretical study prior to it have revealed that an optical telescope of no more than meter-class equipped with an internal coronagraph for blocking the Sun’s light would see light from the target exoplanet appearing in the form of an ‘Einstein ring’ surrounding the solar disk. High-resolution imagery of an exoplanet can be extracted from this data. We can also trade spatial for spectral resolution. From the paper:

The direct high-resolution images of an exoplanet obtained with the SGL could lead to insight on the on-going biological processes on the target exoplanet and find signs of habitability. By combining spatially resolved imaging with spectrally resolved spectroscopy, scientific questions such as the presence of atmospheric gases and its circulation could be addressed. With sufficient SNR and visible to mid-infrared (IR) sensing [26], the inspection of weak biosignatures in the form of secondary metabolic molecules like dimethyl-sulfide, isoprene, and solid-state transitions could also be probed in the atmosphere. Finally, the addition of polarimetry to the spatially and spectrally resolved signals could provide further insight such as atmospheric aerosols, dust, and, on the ground, properties of the regolith (i.e., minerals) and bacteria and fauna (i.e., homochirality)…

I won’t labor the issue, as we’ve discussed gravity lens imaging on many an occasion in these pages, but I did want to make the point about spectroscopy as a way of underlining the huge reward obtainable from a mission that can collect data at these distances. The paper is rich in detailing the progress of our thinking on this, but I turn to the mission architecture for today, offering as it does a remarkable new way to conceive of deep space missions both in terms of configuration and propulsion. For we’re dealing here with spacecraft that are modular, reconfigurable and highly adaptable using clusters of spacecraft that practice self-assembly during cruise.

The SGL mission is based on a constellation of identical craft, the primary components being what the authors call ‘proto-mission capable’ (pMC) spacecraft, with final ‘mission capable’ (MC) craft being built as the mission proceeds. Smaller pMC nanosats, in other words, dock during cruise to build an MC; five or perhaps six of the latter are assumed in the mission description in this paper to allow full capability during the observational period within the focal region of the gravity lens. The pMC craft use solar sails for a close pass by the Sun, all of them launched into a parking orbit before deployment toward the Sun. The sailcraft fly in formation following perihelion, dispose of their thermal shielding, then their sails, and begin assembly into MC spacecraft.

How to separate a final, fully functional MC craft into the constituent units from which it will be assembled in flight is no small issue, and bear in mind the need for extreme adaptability, especially as the craft reach the gravitational lensing region. Near-autonomous operations are demanded. The SGL study used simulations based on current engineering methodology (CEM) tools, modifying them as needed. The need for in-flight assembly stood out from the alternative. From the paper;

Two types of distributed functionality were explored: a fractionated spacecraft system that operates as an “organism” of free-flying units that distribute function (i.e., virtual vehicle) or a configuration that requires reassembly of the apportioned masses. Given that the science phase is the strong driver for power and propellant mass, the trade study also explored both a 7.5-year (to ?800 AU) and 12.5-year (to ?900 AU) science phase using a 20 AU/year exit velocity as the baseline. The distributed functionality approach that produced the lowest functional mass unit is a cluster of free-flying nanosatellites (i.e., pMC) each propelled by a solar sail but then assembled to form an MC spacecraft.

Out of all this what emerges is a pMC design with the capability of a 6U CubeSat nanosatellite, self-contained and three-axis stabilized, each of these units to carry a critical part of the larger MC spacecraft. Power and data are shared as the pMCs dock. The current design for the pMC is a round disk approximately 1 meter in diameter and 10 cm thick, with the assembled MC spacecraft visualized as stacked pMC units. One pMC would carry the primary and secondary mirrors, a second the science package, optical communications package and star tracker sensors, and so on. In-space assembly need not be rushed. The paper mentions a time period of several months as needed to complete the operation.

The 28-year cruise phase ends in the region of 550 AU, with two of the five or six MC spacecraft now maneuvering to track the primary optical axis of the exoplanet host star, which is the line connecting the center of the star to the center of the Sun. The host star is thus a key navigational resource which will be used to determine the precise position of the exoplanet under study. Interestingly, motion in the image plane has to be accounted for – this is due to the effect of the wobble of the Sun caused by gas giants in our Solar System. Such wobbles are hugely helpful for those using radial velocity methods to study planets around other stars. Here they become a complicating factor in extracting the data the mission will need to construct its exoplanet imagery.

The disposition of the spacecraft at 550 AU is likewise interesting. All of the MC spacecraft are, as the acronym makes clear, capable of conducting the mission. It now becomes necessary to subtract the Sun’s coronal light from the incoming data, which is accomplished by having one of the spacecraft follow an inertial path down the center of the spiral trajectory the other craft will follow (the other craft all move in a noninertial frame to make it possible to acquire the SGL photons). Having one craft on an inertial path means it sees no exoplanet photons, and thus its coronal image can be subtracted from the data gathered by the other four craft. The inertial path spacecraft also acts as a local reference frame that can be used for navigation.

Image: A meter-class telescope with a coronagraph to block solar light, placed in the strong interference region of the solar gravitational lens (SGL), is capable of imaging an exoplanet at a distance of up to 30 parsecs with a few 10 km-scale resolution on its surface. The picture shows results of a simulation of the effects of the SGL on an Earth-like exoplanet image. Left: original RGB color image with (1024×1024) pixels; center: image blurred by the SGL, sampled at an SNR of ~103 per color channel, or overall SNR of 3×103; right: the result of image deconvolution. Credit: Turyshev et al., “Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission,” Final Report NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II.

The spacecraft are moving at more than 20 AU per year and have up to five years between 550 and 650 AU to lock onto the primary optical axis of the exoplanet host star. As the craft reach 650 AU, the optical axis of the host star becomes what the authors call a ‘navigational steppingstone’ toward locating the image of the exoplanet, which once acquired begins a science phase lasting in the area of ten years.

The details of image acquisition are themselves fascinating and as you would imagine, complex – I send you to the paper for more. My focus today is the novelty of the architecture here. If we can assemble a mission capable spacecraft (and indeed a small fleet of these) out of the smaller pMC units, we reduce the size of sail needed for the perihelion acceleration phase and make it possible to achieve payload sizes for missions far beyond the heliosphere that would not otherwise be possible. We build this out of a known base; in-space assembly and autonomous docking have been demonstrated, and technologies for assembly operations continue to be refined. NASA’s On-Orbit Autonomous Assembly from Nanosatellites and CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration mission are examples of this ongoing research.

What a long and winding path it is to extend the human presence via robotic probe ever further from our planet. This paper examines technologies needed to advance this movement, and again I point to the ongoing Interstellar Probe study at JHU/APL as another rich source for current and projected thinking about the needed technologies. In the case of the SGL mission, what is being proposed could have a major impact on the search for life elsewhere in the universe. Imagine a green and blue exoplanet seen with weather patterns, oceans, continents and rich spectral data on its atmosphere.

But I come back to that mission architecture and the idea of self-assembly. As the authors write:

We realize that this architecture fundamentally changes how space exploration could be conducted. One can imagine small- to medium-scale spacecraft on fast-traveling scouting missions on quick cadence cycles that are then followed by flagship-class space vehicles. The proposed mission architecture leverages a global technology base driven by miniaturization and integration, and other technologies that are coming into fruition, including composite materials based on hierarchical structures, edge-computing platforms, small-scale power generation, and storage. These advances have had an effect on the small spacecraft industry with the development of a worldwide CubeSat and nanosat ecosystem that have continually demonstrated increasing functionality in missions…

We’ll continue to track robotic self-assembly and autonomy issues with great interest. I’m convinced the concept opens up mission possibilities we’ve yet to imagine.

The paper is Helvajian, “Mission Architecture to Reach and Operate at the Focal Region of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets. Published online 1 February 2023 (full text). For earlier Centauri Dreams articles on the SGL mission, see JPL Work on a Gravitational Lensing Mission, Good News for a Gravitational Focus Mission and
Solar Gravitational Lens: Sailcraft and In-Flight Assembly.


Sunvoyager’s Pedigree: On the Growth of Interstellar Ideas

Kelvin Long’s new paper on the mission concept called Sunvoyager would deploy inertial confinement fusion, described in the last post, to drive a spacecraft to 1000 AU in less than four years. The number pulsates with possibilities: A craft like this would move at 325 AU per year, or roughly 1500 kilometers per second, ninety times the velocity of Voyager 1. This kind of capability, which Long thinks we may achieve late in this century, would open up all kinds of fast science missions to the outer planets, the Kuiper Belt, and even the inner Oort Cloud. And the conquest of inertial confinement methods would open the prospect for later, still faster missions to nearby stars.

Sunvoyager draws on the heritage of the Daedalus starship, that daring design conceived by British Interplanetary Society members in the 1970s, but as we saw last time, inertial confinement fusion (ICF) was likewise examined in a concept called Vista, and one of the pleasures of this kind of research for a scholarly sort like me is digging out the history of ideas, which in the Long paper I can trace through work in JBIS and the IEEE in the 1980s and 90s, where ICF was considered.

Vista itself appeared in the literature in the 1980s, drawing on this earlier and ongoing work, its conical shape a response to the potentially damaging neutron and x-ray flux that ICF produced. Long emulates its form factor in the Sunvoyager design. I should also mention a NASA concept called Discovery II that I hadn’t encountered until now, a spacecraft designed for a mission to the gas giants using a magnetic fusion engine. Both this and an early ICF design by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Rod Hyde and colleagues in the 1970s would use an engine with a mass of 300 tons, a figure which Long selected for the calculations in his Sunvoyager paper as he validated the HeliosX code using Vista as the template: “The current level of accuracy will suffice for making predictions for the expected design performance of the Sunvoyager probe.”

So what do we get as we downselect to achieve the Sunvoyager design? The image below shows the concept.

Image: This is Figure 8 in the paper. Caption: Concept design layout of Sunvoyager spacecraft configuration. Credit: Kelvin Long.

Notice the radiators, a critical part of the design, for we need to find a way to reduce waste heat. Long notes that for Vista, the radiation interaction with the structure was about 3 percent – in other words, the vehicle intercepts about that amount of the neutron and x-ray flux from the fusion reactions. He assumes a higher figure for Sunvoyager, although adding that using a mixture of deuterium and helium-3 as the fuel (Vista used a capsule of deuterium and tritium) would reduce these effects. The design also includes an annular radiation shield within the engine structure.

Long assumes the use of X-band frequencies for communications, transmitting at 8.4 GHz with a power output of 100 W, the signals to be received via the Deep Space Network’s 70-meter dishes. It’s interesting that he does not push for laser methods here, wisely so, I think, given the pointing problems we’ve discussed recently at deep space distances. Pushing data back to Earth from 1000 AU is daunting enough:

The expected data rate at 1000 AU will be 1 kBits?s. Backup medium- and low-gain antennas are also likely to be required. Note that radio signals from a distance of 1000 AU will take around 138 h to reach Earth receiving antennas, and so significant data latency should be expected. The high-gain antenna will be mounted on a rotatable fixing (rather than body mounted) and on a set of rigid extension poles so that it can always be pointed toward Earth, which avoids the need of having to rotate the entire spacecraft such as was performed for the Voyager 2 and New Horizons missions.

The Sunvoyager interstellar precursor probe would be assembled in Earth orbit following multiple launch missions. The author likens building the craft to the construction of the International Space Station, noting on the order of 10 launch vehicles may be needed to get all the parts into the assembly orbit. Booster rockets, perhaps nuclear thermal, would be used to move the vehicle away from Earth at 17 kilometers per second (which happens to be Voyager 1 speed). This reaches twice the mean Earth-Moon distance in a day or so, at which point the fusion engine can be ignited. And here we go with ICF fusion on our way to the outer Solar System:

A capsule is accelerated into the target chamber where the bank of laser beam lines can target it within the open reaction chamber to the point of thermonuclear ignition. A set of externally placed laser-focusing mirrors may be required to ensure a symmetric implosion. The plasma from the detonation will expand into the hemispherical target chamber, with the charge particles then directed by large magnetic fields internal to the chamber. These are then ejected for thrust generation while the next capsule is loaded onto the target ignition point. This occurs 10 times per second, although the hydrodynamic and nuclear phases of the ignition take place on microsecond and nanosecond time scales, respectively, so that in between each ignition there will still be around 10?5 s of time for the loading of the next capsule while the plasma from the previous one is being ejected.

The numbers on the ICF fusion for Sunvoyager are, shall we say, mind-boggling. Consider this: The mission needs 200 million fuel capsules, or 50 million per tank. This is, as the author comments, “no small undertaking,” a thought I can only echo. If we’re looking at constructing and flying a mission like this in, say, 50 years time, we may be able to assume advances in robotic automation and additive manufacturing, but we also have the problem of acquiring the needed fuel. You may recall that the Daedalus starship design was built around the notion of mining the gas giants for helium-3. That, in turn, assumes a Solar System infrastructure sufficient to make such mining feasible.

Image: This is the paper’s Figure 12. Caption: Concept design configuration (side view) of Sunvoyager spacecraft. Credit: Kelvin Long.

I like the sheer daring of concepts like Daedalus and Sunvoyager. Remember that when those frisky BIS engineers put Daedalus together, they worked at a time when it was largely considered impossible to reach another star by any means. Daedalus seemed impossible to build (it still does), but it violated no laws of physics and became a vast engineering problem. The point wasn’t that building it would bankrupt the planet. The point was that if we did decide to build it, nothing in physics would prevent it from working. Assuming, of course, that we did conquer ICF fusion for propulsion.

In other words (and Robert Forward would hammer this home again and again in talks and in papers), interstellar flight was not science fictional dreaming but a matter of reaching the appropriate level of engineering, which one day we might very well do. A mission design like Sunvoyager reminds us that we can stretch our thinking based on what we have today to make wise decisions about how and where we invest in the needed technologies. We gain scientific knowledge in doing this and we also rough out the roadmap that points to still further missions that one day reach another star.

Image: The extraordinary Robert Forward, wearing one of the trademark vests created by his wife Martha. Forward chose this photograph to appear on his own Web site.

So I think Kelvin Long is spot on in his assessment of what he does here:

Additional studies will be required to further develop the design configuration and specification for the Sunvoyager mission proposal so that it can be matured to the point of a credible mission in the coming decades to include a subsystem-level definition. However, the calculations presented in this paper show promise for what may be possible in the future provided that investments into ICF ignition physics are continued and then the applications of this technology pursued with vigor.

I think Bob Forward would have liked this paper. And because I haven’t quoted his famous lines (from JBIS in 1996) in their entirety since 2005, let me do so here. He’s looking into a future when we go from interstellar precursors into actual interstellar crossings to places like Proxima Centauri, and he sees the process:

Travel to the stars will be difficult and expensive. It will take decades of time, gigawatts of power, kilograms of energy and trillions of dollars. Recently, however, some new technologies have emerged and are under development for other purposes, that show promise of providing propulsion systems that will make interstellar travel feasible within the forseeable future — if the world community decides to direct its energies and resources in that direction. Make no mistake — interstellar travel will always be difficult and expensive, but it can no longer be considered impossible.

The paper is Long, “Sunvoyager: Interstellar Precursor Probe Mission Concept Driven by Inertial Confinement Fusion Propulsion,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 2 January 2023 (full text).


SunVoyager: A Fast Fusion Mission Beyond the Heliosphere

1000 AU makes a fine target for our next push past the heliosphere, keeping in mind that good science is to be had all along the way. Thus if we took 100 years to get to 1000 AU (and at Voyager speeds it would be a lot longer than that), we would still be gathering solid data about the Kuiper Belt, the heliosphere itself and its interactions with the interstellar medium, the nature and disposition of interstellar dust, and the plasma environment any future interstellar craft will have to pass through.

We don’t have to get there fast to produce useful results, in other words, but it sure would help. The Thousand Astronomical Unit mission (TAU) was examined by NASA in the 1980s using nuclear electric propulsion technologies, one specification being the need to reach the target distance within 50 years. It’s interesting to me – and Kelvin Long discusses this in a new paper we’ll examine in the next few posts – that a large part of the science case for TAU was stellar parallax, for classical measurements at Earth – Sun distance allow only coarse-grained estimates of stellar distances. We’d like to increase the baseline of our space-based interferometer, and the way to do that is to reach beyond the system.

Gravitational lensing wasn’t on the mind of mission planners in the 1980s, although the concept was being examined as a long-range possibility by von Eshleman at Stanford as early as 1979, with intense follow-up scrutiny by Italian space scientist Claudio Maccone. Today reaching the 550 AU distance where gravitational lensing effects enable observation of exoplanets is much on the mind of Slava Turyshev and team at JPL, whose refined mission concept is aimed at the upcoming heliophysics decadal. We’ve examined this Solar Gravity Lens mission on various occasions in these pages, as well as JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe design, whose long-range goal is 1000 AU.

What Kelvin Long does in his recently published paper is to examine a deep space probe he calls SunVoyager. Long (Interstellar Research Centre, Stellar Engines Ltd) sees three primary science objectives here, the first being observing the nearest stars and their planets both through transit methods as well as gravitational lensing. A second objective along the way is the flyby of a dwarf planet that has yet to be visited, while the third is possible imaging of interstellar objects like 2I/Borisov and ‘Oumuamua. Driven by fusion, the craft would reach 1000 AU in a scant four years.

Image: The Interstellar Research Centre’s Kelvin Long, here pictured on a visit to JPL.

This is a multi-layered mission, and I note that the concept involves the use of small ‘sub-probes’, evidently deployed along the route of flight, to make flybys of a dwarf planet or an interstellar object of interest, each of these (and ten are included in the mission) to have a maximum mass of 0.5 tons. That’s a lot of mass, about which more in a moment. Secondary objectives involve measurements of the charged particle and dust composition of the interstellar medium, astrometry (presumably in the service of exoplanet study) and, interestingly, SETI, here involving detection of possible power and propulsion emission signatures as opposed to beacons in deep space.

Bur back to those sub-probes, which by now may have rung a bell. Active for decades in the British Interplanetary Society, Long has edited its long-lived journal and is deeply conversant with the Daedalus starship concept that grew out of BIS work in the 1970s. Daedalus was a fusion starship with an initial mass of 54,000 tons using inertial confinement methods to ignite a deuterium/helium-3 mixture. SunVoyager comes nowhere near that size – nor would it travel more than a fraction of the Daedalus journey to Barnard’s Star, but you can see that Long is purposely exploring long-range prospects that may be enabled by our eventual solution of fusion propulsion.

Those fortunate enough to travel in Iceland will know SunVoyager as the name of a sculpture by the sea in central Reykjavik, one that Long describes as “an ode to the sun or a dream boat that represents the promise of undiscovered territory and a dream of hope, progress, and freedom.” As with Daedalus, the concept relies on breakthroughs in inertial confinement fusion (ICF), in this case via optical laser beam, and in an illustration of serendipity, the paper comes out close to the time when the US National Ignition Facility announced its breakthrough in achieving energy breakeven, meaning the experiment produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.

Image: The Sun Voyager (Sólfarið) is a large steel sculpture of a ship, located on the road Sæbraut, by the seaside of central Reykjavík. The work of sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason, SunVoyager is one of the most visited sights in Iceland’s capitol, where people gather daily to gaze at the sun reflecting in the stainless steel of this remarkable monument. Credit: Guide to Iceland.

Long’s work involves a numerical design tool called HeliosX, described as “a system integrated programming design tool written in Fortran 95 for the purpose of calculating spacecraft mission profile and propulsion performance for inertial confinement fusion driven designs.” As a counterpart to this paper, Long writes up the background and use of HeliosX in the current issue of Acta Astronautica (citation below). The SunVoyager paper contemplates a mission launched decades from now. Long acknowledges the magnitude of the problems that remain to be solved with ICF for this to happen, notwithstanding the encouraging news from the NIF.

…a capsule of fusion fuel, typically hydrogen and helium isotopes, must be compressed to high density and high temperature, and this must be sustained for a minimum period of time. One of the methods to achieve this is by using high-powered laser beams to fire at a capsule in a spherical arrangement of individual beam lines. The lasers will mass ablate the surface of the capsule and through momentum exchange will cause the material to travel inward under spherical compression. This must be done smoothly however, and any significant perturbations from spherical symmetry during the implosion will lead to hydrodynamic instabilities that can reduce the implosion efficiency. Indeed, the interaction of a laser beam with a high-temperature plasma involves much complex physics, and this is the reason why programs on Earth have found it so difficult.

Working through our evolving deep space mission designs is a fascinating exercise, which is why I took the time years ago to painstakingly copy the original Daedalus report from an academic library – I kept the Xerox machine humming in those days. Daedalus, a two-stage vehicle, used electron beams fired at capsules of deuterium and helium-3, the resulting plasma directed by powerful magnetic fields. Long invokes as well NASA’s studies of a concept called Vista, which he has also written about in his book Deep Space Propulsion: A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight (Springer, 2011). This was a design proposal for taking a 100-ton payload to Mars in 50 days using a deuterium and tritium fuel capsule ignited by laser. Long explains:

The capsule design was to utilize an indirect drive method, and so a smoother implosion symmetry may give rise to a higher burn fraction of 0.476. This is where the capsule is contained within a radiation cavity called a Hohlraum and where the lasers heat up the internal surface layer of the cavity to create a radiation bath around the capsule; as opposed to direct laser impingement onto the capsule surface and the associated mass ablation through the direct drive approach.

Image: Few images of the Vista design are available. I’ve swiped this one from a presentation made by C. D. Orth to the NASA Advanced Propulsion Workshop in Fusion Propulsion in 2000, though it dates back all the way to the 1980s. Credit: NASA.

SunVoyager would, the author comments, likely use a similar capsule design, although the paper doesn’t address the details. Vista feeds into Long’s thinking in another way: You’ll notice the unusual shape of the spacecraft in the image above. Coming out of work by Rod Hyde and others in the 1980s, Vista was designed to deal with early ICF propulsion concepts that produced a large neutron and x-ray radiation flux, sufficient to prove lethal to the crew. The conical design was thus an attempt to minimize the exposure of the structure to this flux, with a useful gain in jet efficiency of the thrust chamber. SunVoyager is designed around a similar conical propulsion system. The author proceeds to make predictions for the performance of SunVoyager by using calculations growing out of the Vista design as modeled in the HeliosX software.

In the tradition of Daedalus and Vista, SunVoyager explores ICF propulsion in the context of current understanding of fusion. I want to talk more about this concept next week, noting for now that a fast mission to 1000 AU –SunVoyager would reach that distance in less than four years – would take us into an entirely new level of outer system exploration, although the timing of such a mission remains hostage to our ability to conquer ICF and generate the needed energies to actualize it in comparatively small spacecraft systems. This doesn’t even get into the matter of producing the required fuel, another issue that will parallel those 1970s Daedalus papers and push us to the limits of the possible.

The paper is Long, “Sunvoyager: Interstellar Precursor Probe Mission Concept Driven by Inertial Confinement Fusion Propulsion,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 2 January 2023 (full text). The paper on HeliosX is Long, “Development of the HeliosX Mission Analysis Code for Advanced ICF Space Propulsion,” Acta Astronautica, Vol. 202, Jan. 2023, pp. 157–173 (abstract). See also Hyde, “Laser-fusion rocket for interplanetary propulsion,” International Astronautical Federation conference, Budapest, Hungary, 10 Oct 1983 (abstract).


Interstellar Communications: The Pointing Problem

Some topics just take off on their own. Several days ago, I began working on a piece about Europa Clipper’s latest news, the installation of the reaction wheels that orient the craft for data return to Earth and science studies at target. But data return is one thing for spacecraft working at radio frequencies within the Solar System, and another for much more distant craft, perhaps in interstellar space, using laser methods.

So spacecraft orientation in the Solar System triggered my recent interest in the problem of laser pointing beyond the heliosphere, which is acute for long-haul spacecraft like Interstellar Probe, a concept we’ve recently examined. Because unlike radio methods, laser communications involve an extremely tight, focused beam. Get far enough from the Sun and that beam will have to be exquisitely precise in its placement.

So let’s take a quick look at Europa Clipper’s methods for orienting itself in space, and Voyager’s as well, and then move on to how Interstellar Probe intends to get its signal back to Earth. NASA has just announced that engineers have installed four reaction wheels aboard Europa Clipper, to provide orientation for the transmission of data and the operation of its instruments as it studies the Jovian moon. The wheels are slow to have their effect, with 90 minutes being needed to rotate Europa Clipper 180 degrees, but they run usefully on electrical power from the spacecraft’s solar arrays rather than relying on fuel that would have to be carried for its thrusters.

Image: All four of the reaction wheels installed onto NASA’s Europa Clipper are visible in this photo, which was shot from underneath the main body of the spacecraft while it is being assembled at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The spacecraft is set to launch in October 2024 and will head toward Jupiter’s moon Europa, where it will collect science observations while flying by the icy moon dozens of times. During its journey through deep space and its flybys of Europa, the spacecraft’s reaction wheels rotate the orbiter so its antennas can communicate with Earth and so its science instruments, including cameras, can stay oriented. Two feet wide and made of steel, aluminum, and titanium, the wheels spin rapidly to create a force that causes the orbiter to rotate in the opposite direction. The wheels will run on electricity provided by the spacecraft’s vast solar arrays. NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Interstellar Pointing Accuracy

How do reaction wheels fit into missions much further out? In our recent look at Interstellar Probe, the NASA design study out of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), I mentioned problems with pointing accuracy when it came to a hypothetical laser communications system aboard. The team working on Interstellar Probe (IP) chose not to go with a laser comms system, opting instead for X-band communications (or conceivably Ka-band), because as principal investigator Ralph McNutt told me, several problems arose when trying to point such a tight communications signal at Earth from the ultimate mission target: 1000 AU.

IP, remember, has 1000 AU as a design specification – the idea is to produce a craft that, upon reaching this distance, would still be able to transmit its findings back to Earth, but whether this distance can be achieved within the cited 50 year time frame is another matter. Wherever the distance of the craft is 50 years after launch, though, the design calls for it to be able to communicate with Earth. We can still talk to the Voyagers, but that brings up the issue of the best method to make the connection.

Both Voyagers are a long way from home, but nothing like 1000 AU, with Voyager 1 at 158 AU and Voyager 2 at 131 AU from the Sun. The craft are equipped with six sets of thrusters to control pitch, yaw and roll, allowing the orientation with Earth needed for radio communications (Voyager transmits at either 2.3 GHz or 8.4 GHz). But what about those reaction wheels we just looked at with Europa Clipper, which allow three-axis attitude control without using attitude control thrusters or other external sources of torque? Here we run into a technology with a history that is problematic for going beyond the Solar System or, indeed, extending a mission closer to home. Just how problematic we learned all too clearly with the Kepler mission.

For reaction wheels are all too prone to failure over time. The hugely successful exoplanet observatory found itself derailed in May of 2013, when the second of its reaction wheels failed (the first had given out the previous July). Operating something like a gyroscope, the reaction wheels were designed to spin up in one direction so as to move the spacecraft in the other, thus allowing data return from the rich star field Kepler was studying. Kepler had four reaction wheels and needed three to function properly. With only two wheels operational, the spacecraft quickly went into safe mode.

The problem, likely the result of something as mundane as issues with ball bearings, is hardly confined to a single mission, and although the Kepler team was able to mount a successful K2 extended mission, the larger question extends to any long-term mission relying on this technology. Reaction wheels were a problem on NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer in 2001 and complicated the Japanese Hayabusa mission in 2004 and 2005. The DAWN mission had two reaction wheel failures during the course of its operations. A NASA mission called Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) suffered a reaction wheel failure in 2007.

So by the time Kepler was close to launch, the question of reaction wheels was much in the air. We should keep in mind that the reaction wheel failures occurred despite extensive precautions taken by the mission controllers, who sent the Kepler reaction wheels back to the manufacturer, Ithaco Space Systems in Ithaca, NY, removing them from the spacecraft in 2008 and replacing the ball bearings before the 2009 launch. It became clear with the reaction wheel failures Kepler sustained that the technology was vulnerable, although it did function up to the end of the spacecraft’s primary mission.

Based on experience, the technology shows a shelf-life on the order of a decade, which is why the Interstellar Probe team had to reject the reaction wheel concept for laser pointing. Remember that IP is envisioned as a fully operational spacecraft for 50 years, able to return data from well beyond the heliosphere at that time. As McNutt pointed out in an email, the usable laser beam size at the Earth, based on a 2003 NIAC study, was approximately Earth’s own diameter. Let me quote Dr. McNutt on this:

“With a downlink per week from 1000 au that lasted ~8 hours for that concept, one would have to point the beam ahead, so that the Earth would be “under it” when the laser train of light signals arrived. It also meant that we needed an onboard clock good to a few minutes after 50 years at worst and a good ephemeris on board to tell where to point in the first place. These start at least heading toward some of the performance of Gravity Probe B… but one needs these accuracies to hold for ~50 years.”

This gets complicated indeed. From a 2002 paper on optical and microwave communications for an interstellar explorer craft operating as far as 1000 AU (McNutt was a co-author here, working on a study that fed directly into the current Interstellar Probe design), note the possible errors that must be foreseen:

These include trajectory knowledge derived from an onboard clock and ephemerides to track the receiving station and downlink platform so that the spacecraft-to-earth line-of-sight orientation is known sufficiently accurately within the total spacecraft pointing error budget. In order to maintain the transmitter boresight accurately a high-precision star tracker is also needed, which must be aligned very accurately with respect to the laser antenna. Alignment errors between the transmitter and star tracker can be minimized by using the same optical system for the star tracker and laser transmitter and compensating any residual dynamic errors in real-time. This must be accomplished subject to various spacecraft perturbations, such as propellant bursts, or solar radiation induced moments. To also avoid significant beam loss when coupling into the receiver near Earth, the beam shape should be controlled, i.e., be a diffraction-limited single mode beam as well.

X-band radio communications, as considered by the Interstellar Probe team at JHU/APL, thus emerges as the better option considering that a mission coming out of the upcoming heliophysics decadal would be launching in the 2030s, with the recent analysis from Pontus Brandt et al. noting that “Although, optical laser communication offers high data rates, it imposes an unrealistic pointing requirement on the mission architectures under study.”

What to do? From the Brandt et al. paper (my additions are in italics):

The conclusion following significant analysis was that the implementation with the largest practical monolithic HGA [High Gain Antenna] with the corresponding lower transmission frequency to deal with a larger pointing dead-band. This corresponds to a 5-m diameter HGA at X-band for Options 1 and 2 and a smaller, 2-m HGA at Ka-band for Option 3 [here the options refer to the mass of the spacecraft]. The corresponding guidance and control system is based upon thrusters and must provide the required HGA pointing as commensurate with spacecraft science needs.

I checked in with Ralph McNutt again while working on this post on the question of how IP would orient the spacecraft. He confirmed that attitude control thrusters would be the method, and went on to note that, at flight-tested status (TRL 9), control authority of ~0.25° with thrusters is possible; we also have much experience with the technology.

Dr. McNutt passed our discussion along to JHU/APL’s Gabe Rogers, who has extensive experience on the matter not only with the Interstellar Probe concept but through flight experience with NASA’s Van Allen Probes. Dr. Rogers likened IP’s attitude control to Pioneer 10 and 11 more than Voyager, saying that IP would be primarily spin-stabilized rather than, like Voyager, 3-axis stabilized. The Pioneers carried six hydrazine thrusters, two of which maintained the spin rate, while two controlled forward thrust and two controlled attitude.

As to reaction wheels, they turn out to be both a lifetime and a power issue, ruling them out. Both scientists added that surviving launch vibration and acceleration is a factor, as are changes in moments of inertia as fuel is burned for guidance and control.

Says McNutt:

“One way of dealing with this (looks good on paper) is actively moving masses around to compensate for pointing issues – but then one has to worry about the lifetime of mechanisms. Galileo actually had motors to control the boom deployments of its two RTGs to control the moments of inertia of the spinning section (a different “issue”). Of course, Galileo is also the poster child of what can happen if deployment mechanisms fail on a $1B + spacecraft – in that case the HGA deployment. The LECP [Low-Energy Charged Particle] stepper motors on Voyager have gone through over 7 million steps – but that was not the “plan” or “design.”

What counts is the result. Will engineers fifty years after launch be able to download meaningful scientific data from a craft like Interstellar Probe? The question frames the entire discussion as we move toward interstellar space. Rogers adds:

“We can always mitigate risk, but we have to think very carefully about the best, most reliable way to recover the science data requested. Sometimes simpler is better. The key is to get the most bits down to the ground. I would rather have a 1000 bit per second data rate that would work 8 hours per day than a 3000 bps data rate that worked 2 hours per day. X-band is also less susceptible to rain in Spain falling mainly on the plains.”

Indeed, and with RF as opposed to laser, we have less concern about where the clouds are. So the current thinking about using X-band resolves issues beyond pointing accuracy. Bear in mind that we are talking about a spacecraft deliberately crafted to be operational for 50 years or more, a seemingly daunting challenge in what McNutt calls ‘longevity by design,’ but every indication is that longevity can be achieved, as the Voyagers remind us despite their not being built for the task.

And while I had never heard of the Oxford Electric Bell before this correspondence, I’ve learned in these discussions that it was set up in 1840 and has evidently run ever since its construction. So we’ve been producing long-lived technologies for some time. Now we incorporate them intentionally into our spacecraft to move beyond the heliosphere.

As to Europa Clipper’s reaction wheels, they fit the timeframe of the mission, considering we have a decade to work with, from 2024 launch to end of operations (presumed in 2034). But aware of the previous problems posed by reaction wheels, Europa Clipper’s engineers have installed four rather than three to provide a backup, and we can hope that knowledge hard-gained through missions like Kepler will afford an even longer lifetime for the steel, aluminum, and titanium wheels aboard Clipper.

Image: Engineers install 2-foot-wide reaction wheels onto the main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The orbiter is in its assembly, test, and launch operations phase in preparation for a 2024 launch. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Many thanks to Ralph McNutt and Gabe Rogers for their help with this article. The study on optical communications I referenced above is Boone et al., “Optical and microwave communications system conceptual design for a realistic interstellar explorer,” Proc. SPIE 4821, Free-Space Laser Communication and Laser Imaging II, (9 December 2002). Abstract. The Brandt paper on IP is “Interstellar Probe: Humanity’s exploration of the Galaxy Begins,” Acta Astronautica Volume 199 (October 2022), pages 364-373 (full text). For broader context, be aware as well of Rogers et al., “Dynamic Challenges of Long Flexible Booms on a Spinning Outer Heliospheric Spacecraft,” published in 2021 IEEE Aerospace Conference (full text).


Interstellar Probe: Prospects for ESA Technologies

The Interstellar Probe concept being developed at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory is not alone in the panoply of interstellar studies. We’ve examined the JHU/APL effort in a series of articles, the most recent being NASA Interstellar Probe: Overview and Prospects. But we should keep in mind that a number of white papers have been submitted to the European Space Agency in response to the effort known as Cosmic Vision and Voyage 2050. One of these, called STELLA, has been put forward to highlight a potential European contribution to the NASA probe beyond the heliosphere.

Image: A broad theme of overlapping waves of discovery informs ESA’s Cosmic Vision and Voyage 2050 report, here symbolized by icy moons of a gas giant, an temperate exoplanet and the interstellar medium itself, with all it can teach us about galactic evolution. Among the projects discussed in the report is NASA’s Interstellar Probe concept. Credit: ESA.

Remember that Interstellar Probe (which needs a catchier name) focuses on reaching the interstellar medium beyond the heliosphere and studying the interactions there between the ‘bubble’ that surrounds the Solar System and interstellar space beyond. The core concept is to launch a probe explicitly designed (in ways that the two Voyagers currently out there most certainly were not) to study this region. The goal will be to travel faster than the Voyagers with a complex science payload, reaching and returning data from as far away as 1000 AU in a working lifetime of 50 years.

But note that ‘as far away as 1000 AU’ and realize that it’s a highly optimistic stretch goal. A recent paper, McNutt et al., examined in the Centauri Dreams post linked above, explains the target by saying “To travel as far and as fast as possible with available technology…” and thus to reach the interstellar medium as fast as possible and travel as far into it as possible with scientific data return lasting 50 years. From another paper, Brandt et al. (citation below) comes this set of requirements:

  • The study shall consider technology that could be ready for launch on 1 January 2030.
  • The design life of the mission shall be no less than 50 years.
  • The spacecraft shall be able to operate and communicate at 1000 AU.
  • The spacecraft power shall be no less than 300 W at end of nominal mission.

This would be humanity’s first mission dedicated to reaching beyond the Solar System in its fundamental design, and it draws attention across the space community. How space agencies work together could form a major study in itself. For today, I’ll just mention a few bullet points: ESA’s Faint Object Camera (FOC) was aboard Hubble at launch, and the agency built the solar panels needed to power up the instrument. The recent successes of the James Webb Space Telescope remind us that it launched with NIRSpec, the Near-InfraRed Spectrograph, and the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), both contributed by ESA. And let’s not forget that JWST wouldn’t be up there without the latest version of the superb Ariane 5 launcher, Ariane 5 ECA. Nor should we neglect the cooperative arrangements in terms of management and technical implementation that have long kept the NASA connection with ESA on a productive track.

Image: This is Figure 1 from Brandt et al., a paper cited below out of JHU/APL that describes the Interstellar Probe mission from within. Caption: Fig. 1. Interstellar Probe on a fast trajectory to the Very Local Interstellar Medium would represent a snapshot to understand the current state of our habitable astrosphere in the VLISM, to ultimately be able to understand where our home came from and where it is going.

So it’s no surprise that a mission like Interstellar Probe would draw interest. Earlier ESA studies on a heliopause probe go back to 2007, and the study overview of that one can be found here. Outside potential NASA/ESA cooperation, I should also note that China is likewise studying a probe, intrigued by the prospect of reaching 100 AU by the 100th anniversary of the current government in 2049. So the idea of dedicated missions outside the Solar System is gaining serious traction.

But back to the Cosmic Vision and Voyage 2050 report, from which I extract this:

The great challenge for a mission to the interstellar medium is the requirement to reach 200 AU as fast as possible and ideally within 25-30 years. The necessary power source for this challenging mission requires ESA to cooperate with other agencies. An Interstellar Probe concept is under preparation to be proposed to the next US Solar and Space Physics Decadal Survey for consideration. If this concept is selected, a contribution from ESA bringing the European expertise in both remote and in situ observation is of significance for the international space plasma community, as exemplified by the successful joint ESA-NASA missions in solar and heliospheric physics: SOHO, Ulysses and Solar Orbiter.

I’m looking at the latest European white paper on the matter, whose title points to what could happen assuming the JHU interstellar probe concept is selected in the coming Heliophysics Decadal Survey (as we know, this is a big assumption, but we’ll see). The paper, “STELLA—Potential European contributions to a NASA-led interstellar probe,” appeared recently in Frontiers of Astronomy and Space Science (citation below), highlighting possible European contributions to the JHU/APL Interstellar Probe mission, and offering a quick overview of its technology, payload and objectives.

As mentioned, the only missions to have probed this region from within are the Voyagers, although the boundary has also been probed remotely in energetic neutral atoms by the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) as well as the Cassini mission to Saturn. We’d like to go beyond the heliosphere with a dedicated mission not just because it’s a step toward much longer-range missions but also because the heliosphere itself is a matter of considerable controversy. Exactly what is its shape, and how does that shape vary with time? Sometimes it seems that our growing catalog of data has only served to raise more questions, as is often the case when pushing into territories previously unexplored. The white paper puts it this way:

The many and diverse in situ and remote-sensing observations obtained to date clearly emphasize the need for a new generation of more comprehensive measurements that are required to understand the global nature of our Sun’s interaction with the local galactic environment. Science requirements informed by the now available observations drive the measurement requirements of an ISP’s in situ and remote-sensing capabilities that would allow [us] to answer the open questions…

We need, in other words, to penetrate and move beyond the heliosphere to look back at it, producing the overview needed to study these interactions properly. But let’s pause on that term ‘interstellar probe.’ Exactly how do we characterize space beyond the heliosphere? Both our Voyager probes are now considered to be in interstellar space, but we should consider the more precise term Very Local Interstellar Medium (VLISM), and realize that where the Voyagers are is not truly interstellar, but a region highly influenced by the Sun and the heliosphere. The authors are clear that even VLISM doesn’t apply here, for to reach what they call the ‘pristine VLISM’ demands capabilities beyond even the interstellar probe concept being considered at JHU.

Jargon is tricky in any discipline, but in this case it helps to remember that we move outward in successive waves that are defined by our technological capabilities. If we can get to several hundred AU, we are still in a zone roiled by solar activity, but far enough out to draw meaningful conclusions about the heliosphere’s relationship to the solar wind and the effects of its termination out on the edge. In these terms, we should probably consider JHU/APL’s Interstellar Probe as a mission toward the true VLISM. Will it still be returning data when it gets there? A good question.

IP is also a mission with interesting science to perform along the way. A spacecraft on such a trajectory has the potential for flybys of outer system objects like dwarf planets (about 130 are known) and the myriad KBOs that populate the Kuiper Belt. Dust observations at increasing distances would help to define the circumsolar dust disk on which the evolution of the Solar System has depended, and relate this to what we see around other stars. We’ll also study extragalactic background light that should provide information about how stars and galaxies have evolved since the Big Bang.

Image: A visualization of Interstellar Probe leaving the Solar System. Credit: European Geosciences Union, Munich.

The white paper offers the range of outstanding science questions that come into play, so I’ll send you to it for more but ultimately to the latest two analytical descriptions out of JHU/APL, which are listed in the citations below. To develop instruments to meet these science goals would involve study by a NASA/ESA science definition team, and of course depends on whether the Interstellar Probe concept makes it through the Decadal selection. It’s interesting to see, though, that among the possible contributions this white paper suggests from ESA is one involving a core communications capability:

One of the key European industrial and programmatic contributions proposed in the STELLA proposal to ESA is an upgrade of the European deep space communication facility that would allow the precise range and range-rate measurements of the probe to address STELLA science goal Q5 [see below] but would also provide additional downlink of ISP data and thus increase the ISP science return. The facility would be a critical augmentation of the European Deep Space Antennas (DSA) not only for ISP but also for other planned missions, e.g., to the icy giants.

Q5, as referenced above, refers to testing General Relativity at various spatial scales all the way up to 350 AU, and the authors note that less than a decade after launch, such a probe would need a receiving station with the equivalent of 4 35-meter dishes, an architecture that would be developed during the early phases of the mission. On the spacecraft itself, the authors see the potential for providing the high gain antenna and communications infrastructure in a fully redundant X-band system that represents mature technology today. I’m interested to see that they eschew optical strategies, saying these would “pose too stringent pointing requirements on the spacecraft.”

STELLA makes the case for Europe:

The architecture of the array should be studied during an early phase of the mission (0/A). European industries are among the world leaders in the field. mtex antenna technology. (Germany) is the sole prime to develop a production-ready design and produce a prototype 18-m antenna for the US National Research Observatory (NRAO) Very Large Array (ngVLA) facility. Thales/Alenia (France/Italy), Schwartz Hautmont (Spain) are heavily involved in the development of the new 35-m DSA antenna.

As the intent of the authors is to suggest possible European vectors for collaboration in Interstellar Probe, their review of key technology drivers is broad rather than deep; they’re gauging the likelihood of meshing areas where ESA’s expertise can complement the NASA concept, some of them needing serious development from both sides of the Atlantic. Propulsion via chemical methods could work for IP, for example, given the options of using heavy lift vehicles like NASA SLS and the possibility, down the road, of a SpaceX Starship or BlueOrigin vehicle to complement the launch catalog. The availability of such craft coupled with a passive gravity assist at Jupiter points to a doubling of Voyager’s escape velocity, reaching 7.2 AU per year. (roughly 34 kilometers per second).

As to power, NASA is enroute to bringing the necessary nuclear package online via the Next-Generation Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (NextGen RTG) under development at NASA Glenn. But improvements in communications at this range represent one area where European involvement could play a role, as does reliability of the sort that can ensure a viable mission lasting half a century or more. Thus:

Development and implementation of qualification procedures for missions with nominal lifetimes of 50 years and beyond. This would provide the community with knowledge of designing long-lived space equipment and be helpful for other programs such as Artemis.

This area strikes me as promising. We’ve already seen how spacecraft never designed for missions of such duration have managed to go beyond the heliosphere (the Voyagers), and developing the hardware with sufficient reliability seems well within our capabilities. Other areas ripe for further development are pointing accuracy and deep space communication architectures, thus the paper’s emphasis on ESA’s role in refining the use of integrated deep space transponders for Interstellar Probe.

Whether the JHU/APL Interstellar Probe design wins approval or not, the fact that we are considering these issues points to the tenacious vitality of space programs looking toward expansion into the outer Solar System and beyond, a heartening thought as we ponder successors to the Voyagers and New Horizons. The ice giants and the VLISM region will truly begin to reveal their secrets when missions like these fly. And how much more so if, along the way, a propulsion technology emerges that reduces travel times to years instead of decades? Are beamed sails the best bet for this, or something else?

The paper is Wimmer-Schweingruber et al., “STELLA—Potential European contributions to a NASA-led interstellar probe,” a whitepaper that was submitted to NASA’s 2023/2024 decadal survey based on a proposal submitted to the European Space Agency (ESA) in response to its 2021 call for medium-class mission proposals. Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, 17 November 2022 (full text).

For detailed information about Interstellar Probe, see McNutt et al., “Interstellar probe – Destination: Universe!” Acta Astronautica Vol. 196 (July 2022), 13-28 (full text) as well as Brandt et al., “Interstellar Probe: Humanity’s exploration of the Galaxy Begins,” Acta Astronautica Volume 199 (October 2022), pages 364-373 (full text).


Solar Gravitational Lens: Sailcraft and In-Flight Assembly

The last time we looked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s ongoing efforts toward designing a mission to the Sun’s gravitational lens region beyond 550 AU, I focused on how such a mission would construct the image of a distant exoplanet. Gravitational lensing takes advantage of the Sun’s mass, which as Einstein told us distorts spacetime. A spacecraft placed on the other side of the Sun from the target exoplanetary system would take advantage of this, constructing a high resolution image of unprecedented detail. It’s hard to think of anything short of a true interstellar mission that could produce more data about a nearby exoplanet.

In that earlier post, I focused on one part of the JPL work, as the team under the direction of Slava Turyshev had produced a paper updating the modeling of the solar corona. The new numerical simulations led to a powerful result. Remember that the corona is an issue because the light we are studying is being bent around the Sun, and we are in danger of losing information if we can’t untangle the signal from coronal distortions. And it turned out that because the image we are trying to recover would be huge – almost 60 kilometers wide at 1200 AU from the Sun if the target were at Proxima Centauri distance – the individual pixels are as much as 60 meters apart.

Image: JPL’s Slava Turyshev, who is leading the team developing a solar gravitational lens mission concept that pushes current technology trends in striking new directions. Credit: JPL/S. Turyshev.

The distance between pixels turns out to help; it actually reduces the integration time needed to pull all the data together to produce the image. The integration time (the time it takes to gather all the data that will result in the final image) is in fact reduced when pixels are not adjacent at a rate proportional to the inverse square of the pixel spacing. I’ve more or less quoted the earlier paper there to make the point that according to the JPL work thus far, exoplanet imaging at high resolution using these methods is ‘manifestly feasible,’ another quotation from the earlier work.

We now have a new paper from the JPL team, looking further at this ongoing engineering study of a mission that would operate in the range of 550 to 900 AU, performing multipixel imaging of an exoplanet up to 100 light years away. The telescope is meter-class, the images producing a surface resolution measured in tens of kilometers. Again I will focus on a specific topic within the paper, the configuration of the architecture that would reach these distances. Those looking for the mission overview beyond this should consult the paper, the preprint of which is cited below.

Bear in mind that the SGL (solar gravitational lens) region is, helpfully, not a focal ‘point’ but rather a cylinder, which means that a spacecraft stays within the focus as it moves further from the Sun. This movement also causes the signal to noise ratio to improve, and means we can hope to study effects like planetary rotation, seasonal variations and weather patterns over integration times that may amount to months or years.

Image: From Geoffrey Landis’ presentation at the 2021 IRG/TVIW symposium in Tucson, a slide showing the nature of the gravitational lens focus. Credit: Geoffrey Landis.

Considering that Voyager 1, our farthest spacecraft to date, is now at a ‘mere’ 156 AU, a journey that has taken 44 years, we have to find a way to move faster. The JPL team talks of reaching the focal region in less than 25 years, which implies a hyperbolic escape velocity of more than 25 AU per year. Chemical methods fail, giving us no more than 3 to 4 AU per year, while solar thermal and even nuclear thermal move us into a still unsatisfactory 10-12 AU per year in the best case scenario. The JPL team chooses solar sails in combination with a close perihelion pass of the Sun. The paper examines perihelion possibilities at 15 as well as 10 solar radii but notes that the design of the sailcraft and its material properties define what is going to be possible.

Remember that we have also been looking at the ongoing work at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory involving a mission called Interstellar Probe, which likewise is in need of high velocity to reach the distances needed to study the heliosphere from the outside (a putative goal of 1000 AU in 50 years has been suggested). Because the JHU/APL effort has just released a new paper of its own, I’ll also be referring to it in the near future, because thus far the researchers working under Ralph McNutt on the problem have not found a close perihelion pass, coupled with a propulsive burn but without a sail, to be sufficient for their purposes. But more on that later. Keep it in mind in relation to this, from the JPL paper:

…the stresses on the sailcraft structure can be well understood. For the sailcraft, we considered among other known solar sail designs, one with articulated vanes (i.e., SunVane). While currently at a low technology readiness level (TRL), the SunVane does permit precision trajectory insertion during the autonomous passage through solar perigee. In addition, the technology permits trimming of the trajectory injection errors while still close to the Sun. This enables the precision placement of the SGL spacecraft on its path towards the image cylinder which is 1.3 km in diameter and some 600+ AU distant.

Is the SunVane concept the game-changer here? I looked at it 18 months ago (see JPL Work on a Gravitational Lensing Mission), where I used the image below to illustrate the concept. The sail is constructed of square panels aligned along a truss. In the Phase II study for NIAC that preceded the current papers, a sail based on SunVane design could achieve 25 AU per year – that would be arrival at 600 AU in 26 years in conjunction with a close solar pass – using a craft with total sail area of 45,000 square meters (that’s equivalent to a roughly 200 X 200 square meter single sail).

Image: The SunVane concept. Credit: Darren D. Garber (Xplore, Inc).

With sail area distributed along the truss rather than confined to the sail’s center of gravity, this is a highly maneuverable design that continues to be of great interest. Maneuverability is a key factor as we look at injecting spacecraft into perihelion trajectory, where errors can be trimmed out while still in close proximity to the Sun.

But current thinking goes beyond flying a single spacecraft. What the JPL work has developed through the three NIAC phases and beyond is a mission built around a constellation of smaller spacecraft. The idea is chosen, the authors say, to enhance redundancy, enable the needed precision of navigation, remove the contamination of background light during SGL operations, and optimize the return of data. What intrigues me particularly is the use of in-flight assembly, with the major spacecraft modules placed on separate sailcraft. This will demand that the sailcraft fly in formation in order to effect the needed rendezvous for assembly.

Let’s home in on this concept, pausing briefly on the sail, for this mission will demand an attitude control system to manage the thrust vector and sail attitude once we have reached perihelion with our multiple craft, each making a perihelion pass followed by rendezvous with the other craft. I turn to the paper for more:

Position and velocity requirements for the incoming trajectory prior to perihelion are < 1 km and ?1 cm/sec. Timing through perihelion passage is days to weeks with errors in entry-time compensated in the egress phase. As an example, if there is a large position and/or velocity error upon perihelion passage that translated to an angular offset of 100” from the nominal trajectory, there is time to correct this translational offset with the solar sail during the egress phase all the way out to the orbit of Jupiter. The sail’s lateral acceleration is capable of maneuvering the sailcraft back to the desired nominal state on the order of days depending on distance from the Sun. This maneuvering capability relaxes the perihelion targeting constraints and is well within current orbit determination knowledge threshold for the inner solar system which drive the ?1 km and ?1 cm/sec requirements.

Why the need to go modular and essentially put the craft together during the cruise phase? The paper points out that the 1-meter telescope that will be necessary cannot currently be produced in the mass and volume range needed to fit a CubeSat. The mission demands something on the order of a 100 kg spacecraft, which in turn would demand solar sails of extreme size as needed to reach the target velocity of 20 AU per year or higher. Such sails will be commonplace one day (I assume), but with the current state of the art, in-flight robotic assembly leverages our growing experience with miniaturization and small satellites and allows for a mission within a decade.

If in-flight assembly is used, because of the difficulties in producing very large sails, the spacecraft modules…are placed on separate sailcraft. After in-flight assembly, the optical telescope and if necessary, the thermal radiators are deployed. Analysis shows that if the vehicle carries a tiled RPS [radioisotope power system]…where the excess heat is used for maintaining spacecraft thermal balance, then there is no need for thermal radiators. The MCs [the assembled spacecraft] use electric propulsion (EP) to make all the necessary maneuvers for the cruise (?25 years) and science phase of the mission. The propulsion requirements for the science phase are a driver since the SGL spacecraft must follow a non inertial motion for the 10-year science mission phase.

According to the authors, numerous advantages accrue from using a modular approach with in-space assembly, including the ability to use rideshare services; i.e., we can launch modules as secondary payloads, with related economies in money and time. Moreover, such a use means that we can use conventional propulsion rather than sails as an option for carrying the cluster of sailcraft inbound toward perihelion in formation. In any case, at some point the sailcraft deploy their sails and establish the needed trajectory for the chosen solar perihelion point. After perihelion, the sails — whose propulsive qualities diminish with distance from the Sun — are ejected, perhaps nearing Earth orbit, as the sailcraft prepare for assembly.

Flying in formation, the sailcraft reduce their relative distance outbound and begin the in-space assembly phase while passing near Earth orbit. The mission demands that each of the 10-20 kg mass spacecraft be a fully functional nanosatellite that will use onboard thrusters for docking. Autonomous docking in space has already been demonstrated, essentially doing what the SGL mission will have to do, assembling larger craft from smaller ones. It’s worth noting, as the authors do, that NASA’s space technology mission directorate has already begun a project called On-Orbit Autonomous Assembly from Nanosatellites-OAAN along with a CubeSat Proximity Operations Demonstration (CPOD) mission, so we see these ideas being refined.

What demands attention going forward is the needed development of proximity operation technologies, which range from sensor design to approach algorithms, all to be examined as study of the SGL mission continues. There was a time when I would have found this kind of self-assembly en-route to deep space fanciful, but there was also a time when I would have said landing a rocket booster on its tail for re-use was fanciful, and it’s clear that self-assembly in in the SGL context is plausible. The recent deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope reinforces the same point.

The JPL team has been working with simulation tools based on concurrent engineering methodology (CEM), modifying current software to explore how such ‘fractionated’ spacecraft can be assembled. Note this:

Two types of distributed functionality were explored. A fractionated spacecraft system that operates as an “organism” of free-flying units that distribute function (i.e., virtual vehicle) or a configuration that requires reassembly of the apportioned masses. Given that the science phase is the strong driver for power and propellant mass, the trade study also explored both a 7.5 year (to ?800 AU) and 12.5 year (to ?900 AU) science phase using a 20 AU/yr xit velocity as the baseline. The distributed functionality approach that produced the lowest functional mass unit is a cluster of free-flying nanosatellites…each propelled by a solar sail but then assembled to form a MC [mission capable] spacecraft.

Image: Various approaches will emerge about the kind of spacecraft that might fly a mission to the gravitational focus of the Sun. In this image (not taken from the Turyshev et al. paper), swarms of small sailcraft capable of self-assembly into a larger spacecraft are depicted that could fly to a spot where our Sun’s gravity distorts and magnifies the light from a nearby star system, allowing us to capture a sharp image of an Earth-like exoplanet. Credit: NASA/The Aerospace Corporation.

The current paper goes deeply into the attributes of the kind of nanosatellite that can assemble the final design, and I’ll send you to it for further details. Each of the component craft has the capability of a 6U CubeSat/nanosat and each carries components of the final craft, from optical communications to primary telescope mirror. Current thinking is that the design is in the shape of a round disk about 1 meter in diameter and 10 cm thick, with a carbon fiber composite scaffolding. The idea is to assemble the final craft as a stack of these units, producing the final round cylinder.

What a fascinating, gutsy mission concept, and one with the possibility of returning extraordinary data on a nearby exoplanet. The modular approach can be used to enhance redundancy, the authors note, as well as allowing for reconfiguration to reduce the risk of mission failure. Self-assembly leverages current advances in miniaturization, composite materials, and computing as reflected in the proliferation of CubeSat and nanosat technologies. What this engineering study is pointing to is a mission to the solar gravity lens that seems feasible with near-term technologies.

The paper is Helvajian et al., “A mission architecture to reach and operate at the focal region of the solar gravitational lens,” now available as a preprint. The earlier report on the study’s progress is “Resolved imaging of exoplanets with the solar gravitational lens,” (preprint). The Phase II NIAC report on this work is Turyshev & Toth, “Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission,” Final Report NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Phase II (2020). Full text.