To the Stars with Human Crews?

How long before we can send humans to another star system? Ask people active in the interstellar community and you’ll get answers ranging from ‘at least a century’ to ‘never.’ I’m inclined toward a view nudging into the ‘never’ camp but not quite getting there. In other words, I think the advantages of highly intelligent instrumented payloads will always be apparent for missions of this duration, but I know human nature well enough to believe that somehow, sometime, a few hardy adventurers will find a way to make the journey. I do doubt that it will ever become commonplace.

You may well disagree, and I hope you’re right, as the scenarios open to humans with a galaxy stuffed with planets to experience are stunning. Having come into the field steeped in the papers and books of Robert Forward, I’ve always been partial to sail technologies and love the brazen, crazy extrapolation of Forward’s “Flight of the Dragonfly,” which appeared in Analog in 1982 and which would later be turned into the novel Rocheworld (Baen, 1990). This is the novel where Forward not only finds a bizarre way to keep a human crew sane through a multi-decade journey but also posits a segmented lightsail to get the crew home.

Image: The extraordinary Robert Forward, whose first edition of Flight of the Dragonfly was expanded a bit from the magazine serial and offered in book form in 1984. The book would later be revised and expanded further into the 1990 Baen title Rocheworld. The publishing history of this volume is almost as complex as the methods Forward used to get his crew back from Barnard’s Star!

Forward was a treasure. Like Freeman Dyson, his imagination was boundless. Whether we would ever choose to build the vast Fresnel lens he posited in the outer Solar System as a way of collimating a laser beam from near-Sol orbit, and whether we could ever use that beam to reflect off detached segments of the sail upon arrival to slow it down are matters that challenge all boundaries of engineering. I can hear Forward chuckling. Here’s the basic idea, as drawn from his original paper on the concept.

Image: Forward’s separable sail concept used for deceleration, from his paper “Roundtrip Interstellar Travel Using Laser-Pushed Lightsails,” Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets 21 (1984), pp. 187-195. The ‘paralens’ in the image is a huge Fresnel lens made of concentric rings of lightweight, transparent material, with free space between the rings and spars to hold the vast structure together, all of this located between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. Study the diagram and you’ll see that the sail has three ring segments, each of them separating to provide a separate source of braking or acceleration for the arrival, respectively, and departure of the crew. Imagine the laser targeting this would require. Credit: Robert Forward.

I tend to think that Les Johnson is right about sails as they fit into the interstellar picture. In a recent interview with a publication called The National, Johnson (NASA MSFC) made the case that we might well reach another star with a sail driven by a laser. Breakthrough Starshot, indeed, continues to study exactly that concept, using a robotic payload miniaturized for the journey and sent in swarms of relatively small sails driven by an Earth-based laser. But when it comes to human missions to even nearby stars, Johnson is more circumspect. Let me quote him on this from the article:

“As for humans, that’s a lot more complicated because it takes a lot of mass to keep a group of humans alive for a decade-to centuries-long space journey and that means a massive ship. For a human crewed ship, we will need fusion propulsion at a minimum and antimatter as the ideal. While we know these are physically possible, the technology level needed for interstellar travel seems very far away – perhaps 100 to 200 years in the future.”

Johnson’s background in sail technologies for both near and deep space at Marshall Space Flight Center is extensive. Indeed, there was a time when his business card described him as ‘Manager of Interstellar Propulsion Technology Research’ (he once told me it was “the coolest business card ever”). He has also authored (with Gregory Matloff and Giovanni Vulpetti), books like Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interstellar Travel (Springer, 2014) and A Traveler’s Guide to the Stars (Princeton University Press, 2022), as well as editing the recent Interstellar Travel: Purpose and Motivations (Elsevier, 2023). In addition to that, his science fiction novels have explored numerous deep space scenarios.

Image: NASA’s Les Johnson, a prolific author and specialist in sail technologies. Credit: NASA.

So there’s a much more optimistic take on the human interstellar guideline than the one I gave in my first paragraph, and of course I hope it’s on target. We’re probably not going to be going to what is sometimes called an “Earth 2.0,” in Johnson’s view, because he doubts there are any such reasonably close to us. That’s something we’ll be learning a great deal more about as future space instrumentation comes online, but we can bear in mind that the explorers who tackled the Pacific in the great era of sail didn’t set out thinking they were going to find another Europe, either. The point is to explore and to learn what you can, with all the unexpected benefits that brings.

Johnson’s early interest in sails, by the way, was fired not so much by Forward’s Rocheworld as by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel The Mote in God’s Eye (Simon & Schuster, 1974), where an incoming laser sail from another civilization is detected. The realization that unusual astronomical observations point to a technology, and a laser-beaming one at that, is an exciting part of the book. Here the authors’ human starship crew describes the detection of a strange light emanating from a smaller star (the Mote) in front of a much larger supergiant (the Eye):

“…I checked with Commander Sinclair. He says his grandfather told him the Mote was once brighter than Murcheson’s Eye, and bright green. And the way Gavin’s describing that holo – well, sir, stars don’t radiate all one color. So -”

“All the more reason to think the holo was retouched. But it is funny, with that intruder coming straight out of the Mote…”

“Light,” Potter said firmly.

“Light sail!” Rod shouted in sudden realization…”

For more on all this, see my Our View of a Decelerating Magsail in these pages. It’s not surprising that Niven and Pournelle ran their lightsail concept past Robert Forward at a time when the idea was just gaining traction. We all have career-changing literary experiences. I can remember how a childhood reading of Poul Anderson’s The Enemy Stars (J.B. Lippincott, 1959) utterly fired my imagination toward the idea of leaving the Solar System entirely. It was a finalist for the Hugo Award that year following serialization in Astounding, though I didn’t encounter it until later.

Johnson’s work at Marshall Space Flight Center takes in the deployment of a large solar sail quadrant for the Solar Cruiser mission that was first unfurled in 2022 to demonstrate TRL 5 capability, and has just been deployed at contractor Redwire Corp.’s facility in Longmont, Colorado to demonstrate TRL 6. In NASA’s terms, that means going from “Component or breadboard validation in relevant environment” (TRL 5) to “System or subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space).” In other words, this is progress. At TRL 6, a system is considered “a fully functional prototype or representational model.” Says Johnson in a recent email:

“25 years ago, when I first met Dr. Forward, he inspired me to plan a development program for solar sails that would eventually lead us to the stars. With Bob’s help, I laid out a milestone driven roadmap that began with the space flight of a 10 m² solar sail, which we did in 2010 with NanoSail-D.

“Next on the plan was the development of something an order of magnitude larger. This was achieved with the development and launch of the 86 m² Near Earth Asteroid Scout solar sail in 2022 and the soon to be launched ACS-3 sail. The Solar Cruiser sail is an order of magnitude larger still at 1653 Square meters. The next step is 10,000!”

Image: NASA and industry partners used two 100-foot lightweight composite booms to unfurl the 4,300-square-foot sail quadrant for the first time Oct. 13, 2022, at Marshall Space Flight Center, making it the largest solar sail quadrant ever deployed at the time. On Jan. 30, 2024, NASA cleared a key technology milestone, demonstrating TRL6 capability at Redwire’s new facility in Longmont, Colorado, with the successful deployment of one of four identical solar sail quadrants. Credit: NASA (although I’ve edited the caption slightly to reflect the TRL level reached).

Solar sails are becoming viable choices for space missions, and the Breakthrough Starshot investigations remind us that sails driven not just by sunlight but by lasers are within the bounds of physics. A key question that will be informed by our experience with solar sails is how laser-driven techniques scale. Theoretically, they seem to scale quite well. Are the huge structures Forward once wrote about remotely feasible (perhaps via nanotech construction methods), or is Johnson right that fusion and one day antimatter may be necessary for craft large enough (and fast enough) to carry human crews?

A Novel Strategy for Catching Up to an Interstellar Object

Reaching ‘Oumuamua through some kind of statite technology, an idea we’ve been kicking around recently, brings up the interesting work of Richard Linares at MIT, who has been working on a “dynamic orbital slingshot” for rendezvous with future objects from the interstellar depths (ISOs). Linares received a Phase I grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program to pursue the idea of a network of statites on sentry duty, any one of which could release the stored energy of the sail to enter a trajectory that would take it to a flyby of an object entering our system on a hyperbolic orbit.

The concept is simplicity itself, once you realize that a statite balances the pressure of solar photons against the Sun’s gravitational pull, and essentially hovers in place. As I mentioned when covering Greg Matloff and Les Johnson’s paper on using statites to achieve fast rectilinear trajectories to reach interstellar interlopers, Robert Forward was the one who came up with the idea and practical uses for it. He could envision, for example, communications satellites in polar position to cover high latitudes on Earth.

Here’s what Forward said about the statite concept in his wonderful essay collection Indistinguishable from Magic (1995):

…I have the patent on it — U.S. Patent 5,183,225 “Statite: Spacecraft That Utilizes Light Pressure and Method of Use”… The unique concept described in the patent is to attach a television broadcast or weather surveillance spacecraft to a large highly reflective lightsail, and place the spacecraft over the polar regions of the Earth with the sail tilted so the light pressure from the sunlight reflecting off the lightsail is exactly equal and opposite to the gravity pull of the Earth.

You can see why we need a new term here. If you deploy a sail in the configuration Forward describes, it essentially sits over the polar region while the Earth rotates below it. In other words, technically it is not a satellite. ‘Statite’ is a Forward coinage to describe such a hovering object in space. He wrote of a statite he dubbed the ‘Hovering Hawke’ in one of his short stories. It would be placed too far from the surface to be effective as a communications satellite, but could offer direct broadcasting to places on Earth that are without that capability. Weather surveillance is another use.

Polesitters become interesting when we consider the nature of a geostationary orbit. Put a satellite directly over the equator at 35,786 kilometers altitude and it will appear stationary over the Earth, a useful trait for communications. But the satellite must be positioned directly above the equator, matching Earth’s rotation, to maintain its position relative to the surface.

If we put our satellite at an angle relative to the equator, its apparent motion on Earth will be a figure eight, in what is called an inclined geosynchronous (not geostationary) orbit. That’s useful for areas not covered by geostationary satellites but not good enough for continuous coverage of a specific area, especially the more latitudinally challenged regions like the poles, and that’s why the polesitter is attractive. It can give us continuous coverage even when the region it sits above is far from the equator.

Image: Analog‘s December, 1990 issue contained an article by Robert Forward describing the ‘polesitter’ concept, one of many innovative ideas the scientist introduced to a broad audience. Credit: Condé Nast.

There’s always a catch, and here’s the catch with polesitters, as Forward explained it in his article. When the summer months arrive and the polar regions are in sunlight, keeping the statite precisely balanced (to maintain the hover) becomes quite tricky. He saw that such seasonal instability demanded that a statite be relatively far from Earth, and calculated that it cannot get any closer than 250 Earth radii to the surface.

But Linares and team are not thinking about statites supplying services to Earth. The NIAC work explores using statites to set up an early warning system for interstellar objects, one that will allow fast intercepts before these interlopers blow through our system and return to interstellar space. Consider what happens when we ‘turn off’ the statite capability on our satellite (as from rotating the sail to an edge-on position, for example, or simply releasing a CubeSat). At this point, the released object has no forces impinging upon it but gravity. Let me quote Linares from a white paper on the subject:

…a statite at 1 AU has a free-fall trajectory of about 64 days. This fast response time to a potential ISO can be thought of as a slingshot effect, since the solar sail is used to “store energy” that is released when desired. Additionally, to achieve a flyby some Delta-V is required to adjust from the free-fall path to a flyby trajectory. The proposed mission for the statite concept is to utilize a constellation of such devices to achieve wider coverage over a spherical region of 1 AU for potential ISO missions. Additionally, the orbital plane can be adjusted with relatively low Delta-V.

Image; A constellation of statites as envisioned by Richard Linares for intercepting a future interstellar interloper. Credit: MIT/Richard Linares.

The levitating sail has an inertial velocity of zero, and when released from ‘hover,’ it enters a Keplerian orbit. So as Linares points out, we can turn any one of the statites in our constellation of statites into a ‘sundiver,’ hurtling toward the Sun before its trajectory is adjusted by use of the sail (or perhaps other propulsion). Which statite is deployed simply depends upon the optimum trajectory to the incoming ISO.

We are now on a fast track toward reaching the interstellar object with at least a flyby. Linares calls this a “dynamic orbital slingshot for rendezvous with interstellar objects.” And the idea is to have a constellation of these statites always at the ready for the next ‘Oumuamua. Or, considering how odd ‘Oumuamua seems to be, perhaps I should say “the next Borisov.” Even so, with this net, who knows what we might catch?

The paper makes the case that a statite free-falling toward the Sun from an initial position at 1 AU and then deploying its sail away from the Sun at perihelion can achieve speeds of up to 25 AU/year, making it possible to deliver payloads to the outer Solar System. Now we’re in Matloff/Johnson ‘sundiver’ territory. Voyager 1 has reached 3.6 AU per year by comparison, making the statite concept attractive beyond its value as a station-keeper for quick response missions to interstellar comets/asteroids.

For more on Richard Linares’ work, see “Rendezvous Mission for Interstellar Objects Using a Solar Sail-based Statite Concept,” a white paper available on arXiv.

Interstellar Precursor? The Statite Solution

What an interesting object Methone is. Discovered by the Cassini imaging team in 2004 along with the nearby Pallene, this moon of Saturn is a scant 1.6 kilometers in radius, orbiting between Mimas and Enceladus. In fact, Methone, Pallene and another moon called Anthe all orbit at similar distances from Saturn and are dynamically jostled by Mimas. What stands out about Methone is first of all its shape and, perhaps even more strikingly, the smoothness of its surface. We’d like to know what produces this kind of object and would also like to retrieve imagery of both Pallene and Anthe. If something this strange has equally odd companions, is there something about its relationship with both nearby moons and Saturn’s rings that can produce this kind of surface?

Image: It’s difficult not to think of an egg when looking at Saturn’s moon Methone, seen here during a Cassini flyby of the small moon. The relatively smooth surface adds to the effect created by the oblong shape. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Our path to interstellar missions will see us ramp up the velocities of our probes to objects in our own system, made more accessible by shorter mission times, sail technologies and miniaturization. There is no shortage of targets between high-interest moons like Europa, Titan and Enceladus and Kuiper Belt Objects like Arrokoth. For that matter, the interstellar interloper ‘Oumuamua may yet be within range of faster missions (and in fact we’ll be examining ‘Oumuamua prospects in at least one upcoming article). But the point is that intermediate steps to interstellar will enhance exploration of objects we’ve already visited and take us to numerous others.

One way to proceed is discussed by Greg Matloff and Les Johnson in a recent paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society that grew out of a presentation at the 6th International Space Sailing Symposium this summer. Here the idea is to adjust the parameters of a solar sail so that a balance is achieved between the gravitational force of the Sun and the solar photon radiation impinging upon it. The parameters are clear enough: We need a sail of a specific thickness (areal density), and tightly constrained figures for its reflectance and absorbance. We want to cancel out the gravitational acceleration imposed by the Sun through the propulsive effects of solar photons, allowing us to effectively ‘hover’ in place.

Hovering isn’t traveling, but bear with me. We’ve looked at this kind of sail configuration before and discussed its development in the hands of Robert Forward. It was Forward who dubbed the configuration a ‘statite,’ implying that when the force on the sail from solar radiation exactly balances the gravitational force acting upon it, the spacecraft is effectively in what the paper calls a ‘force-free environment.’

This gets interesting in terms of fast probes because while the statite is normally considered to remain stationary (and it will do so when the sail is stationary relative to the Sun during sail deployment), something else happens when the craft is orbiting the Sun when the sail is deployed. The sail now moves in a straight line at its orbital velocity at the time of deployment. The authors style this ‘rectilinear sun-diving.’ As Matloff noted in an email the other day:

“To do this operationally, it is necessary to maintain the sail normal to the Sun – broadside facing the Sun – during the acceleration process. The sail moves off at its velocity relative to the Sun at sail deployment because radiation pressure force on the sail balances solar gravitational attraction. This is a consequence of Newton’s First Law.”

Using this method we can fling the sail and payload outward. What is known as the sail’s lightness factor is the ratio of solar radiation forces divided by the solar gravitational force, and in the case of the rectilinear trajectory described above, the lightness factor is 1. So consider a sail being deployed from a circular orbit of the Sun at 1 AU. The statite, free of other forces, now moves out on a rectilinear trajectory at 30 kilometers per second, which is the Earth’s orbital velocity. The number is noteworthy because it practically doubles the interstellar velocity of Voyager 1. Matloff and Johnson point out that at this velocity, the Sun’s gravitational focus at 550 AU is reachable in 87 years.

Moving at the same pace gets us to Saturn (and the interesting Methone) in 1.5 years. I’m going to run through the other two scenarios the scientists consider to show the range of possibilities. Assume an orbit that is not circular but rather one having a perihelion of 0.7 AU and aphelion at 1 AU. Deploying the sail at perihelion allows the spacecraft to reach 38 kilometers per second, getting to the inner gravitational focus in about 66 years. Finally, with an aphelion at 1 AU and perihelion at 0.3, our craft achieves a velocity after sail deployment of 66 km/sec, reaching the focus in 38 years.

As regards to ‘Oumuamua, the third scenario, with sail deployment at perihelion some 0.3 AU out from the Sun, achieves enough interstellar cruise velocity to catch the object roughly around 2045, when it will be some 220 AU from the Sun. To these times, of course, must be added the time needed to move the sail from aphelion to the sail deployment point at perihelion, but the numbers are still quite satisfactory.

This is especially true given that we are talking about relatively near-term technologies that are under active development. Matloff and Johnson calculate using an areal mass thickness of 1.46 X 10-3kg/m2 for the proposed missions. They show current state of the art solar sail film as 1.54 X 10-3kg/m2 (this does not include deployment mechanisms, structure, etc). The point is clear, however: Achieving 30 km/sec or more offers us fast passage to targets within the outer Solar System as we analyze options for missions beyond it, using technologies that are not far removed from present capability.

The authors note that we can’t assume a constant value for solar radiation; the solar constant actually varies by about 0.1% in response to the Sun’s activity cycle. Hence the need to explore options like adjusting the curvature of the sail or using reflective vanes for fine-tuning. Controlling the sail will obviously be critical. The paper continues:

Control of the sail depends upon the ability of the system to dynamically adjust the center of mass (CM) versus the center of (photon) pressure (CP). Any misalignment of the CM versus the CP will induce torques in the sail system that have to be actively managed lest the offset result in an eventual loss of control. The sail will encounter micrometeorites and interplanetary dust during flight that will create small holes in the fabric, changing its reflectivity asymmetrically and inducing unwanted torques. Depending upon how the sail is packaged and deployed, there may also be fold lines, wrinkles, and small tears that occur with similar end results.

Hence the need for a momentum management system, which could involve possibilities like reflective control devices for roll or diffractive sail materials that manipulate the exit direction of incoming photons as needed to counter these effects. The authors point out that the solar sail propulsion systems for this kind of mission are at TRL-6 despite recent failures such as the loss of the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout Cubesat mission, which carried an 86 square meter solar sail that was lost after launch in late November 2022. With solar sails under active development, however, the prospect for exploring rectilinear sundiver missions in the near term seems quite plausible.

The paper is Matloff & Johnson, “Breakthrough Sun Diving: The Rectilinear Option,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 76 (2023), 283-287.

A ‘Pinched’ Beam for Interstellar Flight

Take a look at the image below. It’s a jet coming off the quasar 3C273. I call your attention to the length of this jet, some 100,000 light years, which is roughly the distance across the Milky Way. Jeff Greason pointed out at the Montreal symposium of the Interstellar Research Group that images like this suggest it may be possible for humans to produce ‘pinched’ relativistic electron jets over the much smaller distances needed to propel a spacecraft out of the Solar System. This is an intriguing image if you’re interested in high-energy beams pushing payloads to nearby stars.

Greason is a self-described ‘serial entrepreneur,’ the holder of some 29 patents and chief technologist of Electric Sky, which is all about beaming energy to craft much closer to home. But he moonlights as chairman of the Tau Zero Foundation and is a well known figure in interstellar studies. Placing beaming into context is a useful exercise, as it suggests alternative ways to generate and use a beam. In all of these, we want to carry little or no fuel aboard the craft, drawing our propulsion from the home system.

Image: Composite false-color image of the quasar jet 3C273, with emission from radio waves to X-rays extending over more than 100,000 light years. The black hole itself is to the left of the image. Colors indicate the wavelength region where energetic particles give off most of their energy: yellow contours show the radio emission, with denser contours for brighter emission (data from VLA); blue is for X-rays (Chandra); green for optical light (Hubble); and red is for infrared emission (Spitzer). Credit: Y. Uchiyama, M. Urry, H.-J. Röser, R. Perley, S. Jester.

Laser beaming to a starship comes first to mind, going back as it does to the days of Robert Forward and György Marx, who explored options in the infancy of the technology. Later work on laser ad well as microwave beaming has included such luminaries as Geoffrey Landis, Gregory Matloff and James Benford, not to mention today’s intense laser effort via Breakthrough Starshot and the ongoing work at UC-Santa Barbara under Philip Lubin. A separate track has followed beamed options using elementary particles or, indeed, larger particles; the name Clifford Singer comes first to mind here, though Landis has done key work. A major problem: Beam power is inversely proportional to effective range. If we’re after faster, bigger ships, we need to find a way to extend the range of whatever kind of beam we’re sending.

We’ve lost some of the scientists who have dug deeply into these matters. Dana Andrews died last January, and Jordin Kare left us some six years ago (I will have more to say about Dr. Andrews in a future post). Kare developed ‘sailbeam,’ which was a string of micro-sails sent as fuel fodder to a larger starship. Pushing neutral particles to the long ranges we need faces problems of beam divergence, and charged particle beams are even more tricky, because like charges cause the beam to diverge.

Greason outlined another possibility at Montreal, one he described as ‘no more than half of an idea,’ but one he’s hoping to provoke colleagues to explore. This beaming option uses the ‘pinch’ phenomenon, in which charged beams in a low-density plasma can confine themselves over long distances. The mechanism: A beam carrying a current creates a circular axial magnetic field which in turn confines the beam. ‘Pinching’ is a means of self-confinement of the beam that has been studied since the 1930s. A pinch forming a jet explains why solar proton events can strike the Earth despite the 1 AU distance, and why galaxy-spanning jets like that in the image above can form.

Image: Jeff Greason, chief technologist and co-founder of Electric Sky.

We normally hear about a ‘pinch’ in the context of fusion research, but here we’re more interested in the beam’s persistence than its ability to compress and heat a plasma. The beam persists until it loses energy by collisions, which causes the current sustaining it to weaken and lose confinement. Although Greason said that ion beams may prove feasible, he noted that we’re getting into territory where we simply lack data to know what will work. Issues of charge neutralization and return currents from the beam come into play, as do long-range oscillations that can affect the beam. But the idea of applying a magnetic field to a stream of electrons along a specific axis to create the z-pinch is well established. If we can create an electron beam using this method, we can resurrect the idea of using charged particle beams to push our starship.

How to use power beamed in this fashion once it arrives at the target craft is a significant question. Greason spoke of the beam striking a plasma-filled waveguide which can ‘couple to backwards plasma wave modes,’ in effect launching plasma in the opposite direction as reaction mass. This keys to existing work on plasma accelerators (so-called “wakefield” accelerators), which use similar physics. How much of the beamed energy can be returned in this way remains up for investigation.

The consequences of mastering pinched beaming technologies would be immense. If we can increase the range of a beam from 0.1 AU to 1000 AU, we open up the possibility of sending much larger spacecraft, up to 105 larger, at the same power levels. We go from a gram-sized spacecraft as contemplated by Breakthrough Starshot’s laser methods to one of 10 kilograms. In doing this we have also changed the acceleration time from minutes to months. That increased payload size is particularly useful when it allows a braking system aboard for long-term study of the target.

This method demands a space-based platform – these ideas are inapplicable when applied to a ground installation and a beam through the atmosphere. Beaming from a location near the Sun offers obvious access to power and could be made possible through a near-Solar statite; i.e., an installation that ‘hovers’ over the Sun at Parker Solar Probe distances. Greason adds that to add maximum stability to the beam, the statite would have to transmit from a location between the Sun and the target star; i.e, the flow should be with the current of the solar wind as opposed to across the stream.

Image: Can we operate a statite at 0.05 AU from the Sun? This NASA visualization of the Parker Solar Probe highlights the kind of conditions the craft would be operating in.

The operative statite technology is thermionics, where electrons ‘boil’ out of a hot cathode and collect on a cold anode. Greason’s statite winds up with approximately 50 kilowatts per square meter of useful power; factoring in the thickness of the foils used in the installation, he calculates 150 kilowatts per square kilogram. A 1 gigawatt electron beam results. So operating at about 11 solar radii, we can produce the beam we need while also being forced to tackle the issues involved in maintaining a statite in position. One possibility is a plasma magnet sail to make use of the supersonic solar wind, a notion Greason has been exploring for years. See Alex Tolley’s The Plasma Magnet Drive: A Simple, Cheap Drive for the Solar System and Beyond for more.

Greason’s tightly reasoned, no-nonsense approach makes him a hugely appealing speaker. He’s offering a concept that opens out into all kinds of research questions, and spurring interested parties to advance the construct. A symposium of like-minded scientists and engineers like that in Montreal provides the kind of venue to gin up that support. The implication of being able to reach 20 percent of lightspeed with a multi-kilogram spacecraft is driver enough. A craft like that could begin exploration of nearby stars in stellar orbit there, rather than blowing through the destination system within a matter of minutes. What smaller beam installations near Earth could do for interplanetary exploration is left to the imagination of the reader.

Crafting the Interstellar Sail at Delft

Breakthrough Starshot’s concept for a flyby of Alpha Centauri would reach its destination in a single human generation. We’ve discussed sail materials in the last couple of posts, but let’s step back to the overview. Using a powerful ground-based laser, we illuminate a sail on the forward side of which are embedded instruments for communications, imaging and whatever we choose to carry. We need a sail that is roughly 4 meters by 4 meters, and one that weighs no more than a single gram.

As Richard Norte pointed out to the Interstellar Research Group’s Montreal symposium (video here), a US penny weighs 2.5 grams, which gives an idea what we are up against. We need a payload at gram-scale and a sail that is itself no more than a gram. Obviously our sail must be of nanoscale thickness, and able to take a beating, for we’re going to light it up for 10 minutes with that laser beam to drive it to 20 percent of lightspeed. We’re engineering, then, in the realm of nanotechnology, but working on combining our nanoscale components into large objects that can be fabricated at the macro-scale.

This is an uncharted frontier in the realm of precision and microsystems engineering, and it’s one that Norte and his team at Delft University of Technology are pushing into one experiment at a time, with recent funding from the EU and Limitless Space Institute. Things get fascinating quickly at this scale. To make a membrane into a mirror, you puncture your material with nanoscale holes, producing reflectivity at specific wavelengths. The Delft work is with silicon nitride, and in the current thinking of the Starshot team, this material formed as a metagrating is layered between the instruments on the lightsail and the sail body, becoming the means for keeping the sail on the beam and providing attitude control while protecting the instruments.

Image: Delft University of Technology’s Norte, whose lab focuses on novel techniques for designing, fabricating and measuring nanotechnologies needed for quantum optics and mechanics. Credit: Delft University of Technology.

At Delft, as Norte made clear, we’re a long way from achieving the kind of macrostructures that Starshot is looking at, but remember that Starshot is conceived as a multi-decade research effort that will rely on advances along the way. The Delft team is showing us how to make the thinnest conceivable mirror, using machine learning optimization techniques to optimize nanotechnology. The material of choice turns out to be silicon nitride, as we saw in our previous Starshot discussion. Says Norte:

”Of all the material people have used for making photonic crystals, silicon nitride winds up being one of the best. We can make it big, we can make it reflective, we can make it without wrinkles, and it actually has parts per million absorption. This extremely low absorption means we won’t blow this thing up when we shine a laser on it.”

Image: Scanning electron microscope image of a silicon nitride membrane. Credit: Richard Norte/Delft University of Technology. 9:47

The question is how to move to larger mirrors, given that the state of the art when Starshot was announced was at the 350-micron to a side scale. It would be helpful if we could simply ‘stitch’ smaller units together to craft a larger sail, but Norte likens that idea to trying to stitch two soap bubbles together – the structure is so amorphous, filled with the holes of the lattice – that we have to rely on manufacturing techniques that can produce larger wafers rather than combinations of smaller ones.

Scaling up is no small challenge. Norte told the audience at Montreal that his team can now make photonic crystals in the range of 450 mm to the side. The crucial term here is ‘aspect ratio,’ which relates the thickness of a metamaterial to its diameter or width. Interacting with light on the nanoscale means designing around the aspect ratio of these structures to achieve specific nanophotonic effects. Tuning the size and spacing of the holes in the lattice governs the wavelength at which the sail will reflect light.

No less important is the coupling of the laser beam with the sail, because while we are planning to accelerate these sails to speeds that are, by current standards, fantastic, we can only do so by optimizing how they interact with the beam. ‘Alignment resilience’ refers to the reaction of the sail as it is hit by the beam. New ways to arrange the nanoscale holes in the material weigh reflectivity against cost and efficiency, and Norte pointed out that a sail will need to be reflective over a wide range of light, given that it will experience large Doppler shifts in its abrupt change in velocity.

Getting this right will involve considering misalignments between the laser and the sail that can be self-adjusting depending on the design of the mirror lattice, and perhaps faster to accelerate. We seem at the moment to be decades away from being able to make meter-scale photonic crystal lightsails, a daunting thought, but Norte has an exhilarating thought about what we can do today with a sail of the 450 mm size now possible. An Alpha Centauri mission reaches target in centuries, perhaps as few as 200 years. This is assuming a one-gram payload and 70 percent reflectivity.

A wafer size fabrication of 100 mm can be used to build a sail that reaches Voyager 1 distance in 162 days, by Norte’s calculation. Even using the tiny 4.5 cm wafer Delft has already made, we could make that journey in about a year. Using the same 4.5 cm demonstrator alone, we reach Mars with a 1-gram payload in 32 hours, Saturn in 22 days, Uranus in 46 days and Neptune in 74 days. Contrast that with the speed of our fastest flyby probes. Voyager 2 took 12 years, for instance, to reach Neptune.

“It’s a compelling thought,” says Norte. “We can. send microchips to Mars the way we send international mail, just shotgunning them out there in 32 hours. Or we can get them to Titan’s oceans in less than a month. This is possible in nanotechnology today.”

Experimental work at Delft involves developing a sail that can be fabricated in a plasma etcher that allows the team to remove the silicon underneath, suspend the structure, and move it (without breaking vacuum) for lift by a laser. The dynamics of the sail under the beam can be explored, as can the question of beam-riding. Out of all this, Norte said, should come new levels of optical levitation, novel structural engineering, a new generation of sensors and detectors. In other words, new material science ahead.

Aerographite and the Interstellar Ark

The science fiction trope that often comes to mind in conjunction with the interstellar ark idea is of the crew that has lost all sense of the mission. Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958), published in the US as Starship, is a classic case of a generation ship that has become the entire world. The US title, of course, gave away the whole plot, which is sort of ridiculous. Have a look at the British cover, which leaves the setting mysterious for most of the book, and the American one, which blatantly tells you what’s going on. I wonder what Aldiss thought of this.

Be that as it may, interstellar arks are conceived as having large crews and taking a lot of time to move between stars, usually on the order of thousands of years. We can trace the concept in the scientific literature back to Les Shepherd’s famous 1952 paper on human interstellar travel, a key paper in the evolution of the field. An interesting adaptation of the paper appeared in Science Fiction Plus in April of the following year (see The Worldship of 1953). Alan Bond and Anthony Martin, whose names will always evoke Project Daedalus, likewise discussed interstellar arks, and Greg Matloff, whose presentation we looked at in the last post, has been working the numbers on these craft for much of his career.

Let’s look, then, at what Matloff and Joseph Meany say in their paper on aerographite. Here we’re talking about a sailcraft driven by solar photons rather than beamed energy, one that is based on an inflatable, hollow-body sail (itself a concept that goes back at least to the 1980s). Working with Roman Kezerashvili, Matloff has in the past addressed hollow-body sails made of beryllium as well as graphene, last discussing the latter in an interstellar ark concept in 2014. Here he and Meany set up an aerographite-graphene variant using a 90% absorptive and 10% reflective layer of aerographite that effectively pushes against the Sun-facing surface of graphene.

We’re in the realm of big numbers again. The radius of the sail is 764 kilometers, with the sail massing 5.49 X 106 kilograms. The as yet unpublished paper on this work shows that the payload mass (2.56 X 107 kilograms) is considerably higher than would be possible using a hollow-body sail made only of graphene. It’s interesting that for the close solar pass envisioned in the ‘sundiver’ maneuver for the sail, Matloff chooses a perihelion of 0.1 AU in order to hold down the g forces for the human crew. The point came up in the question session after his Montreal talk, for there do seem to be technologies for sustaining (for a short period) g-forces of 3 g and beyond, which would allow for a closer perihelion pass.

In any case, our ark reaches Alpha Centauri in about 1375 years carrying a crew of several hundred. If that figure seems exasperatingly high, consider that in the past few decades we’ve gone from the routine assumption that an interstellar mission would take millennia to the now plausible suggestion that we can get it down to a century or so. Massive arks, of course, take much longer, but this number isn’t bad. NASA’s Les Johnson told me in 2003, when I mentioned a thousand-year mission, that he would love to see a plan for one that could make the journey that fast. But here we are, discussing materials and techniques that can go well below that for unmanned probes. And then there is that Breakthrough Starshot concept of 20 percent of lightspeed…

We are, in other words, making progress. But so much remains to be done with regard to this particular material. Indeed, the work on graphene reminds us how little we know about the physical properties of aerographite. The paper lays out some large questions:

  • Will what we know of aerographite’s properties be sustained when we reduce the thickness to a single micron?
  • Will aerographite be stable at the temperatures demanded by our perihelion calculations?
  • Will aerographite equal the performance of graphene when exposed to the space environment?
  • What about trajectory adjustment for a non-reflecting surface like aerographite?

Thus the paper’s conclusion:

It is wise to consider the above discussion as very preliminary. There are many unknowns regarding aerographite and graphene that must be addressed before the missions discussed can be considered feasible.

One unknown is the closest feasible perihelion distance. Just because the Parker Solar Probe will likely survive its close perihelion pass does not mean that a carbon hyper-thin sail will do the same. It is necessary for some researcher to perform an exhaustive study of the effects of the near-Sun space environment upon these substances. A good consideration of the issues to be addressed is the exhaustive study for beryllium solar-photon sails performed by Kezerashvili [9].

One last note on early aerographite sails: What interesting problems they pose for tracking. We’d have to use infrared to follow their course, and a space-based telescope to do that because of infrared absorption in Earth’s atmosphere. Heller and team figured out in their aerographite paper that JWST could track a 1 m aerographite sail out to 2 AU. But swarm configurations (and we’ll be talking about this concept again in the near future) produce a signature that could be detected well beyond the Kuiper Belt. An onboard laser would greatly simplify the problem if we could find ways to power it up aboard the highly miniaturized craft that would be our first experiments.

The paper is Matloff & Meany, ”Aerographite: A Candidate Material for Interstellar Photon Sailing,” submitted to JBIS and ultimately to be published as part of the proceedings of the Interstellar Research Group’s 2023 symposium. The 2014 paper on graphene arks is “Graphene Solar Photon Sails and Interstellar Arks,” JBIS Vol. 67 (June 2014), 237-246 (abstract). The paper on beryllium sails by Roman Kezerashvili is “Thickness Requirements for Solar Sail Foils,” Acta Astronautica 65 (2009), 507-518 (abstract).