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1 September 2015 Orbital simulations of laser-propelled spacecraft
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Abstract
Spacecraft accelerate by directing propellant in the opposite direction. In the traditional approach, the propellant is carried on board in the form of material fuel. This approach has the drawback of being limited in Delta v by the amount of fuel launched with the craft, a limit that does not scale well to high Delta v due to the massive nature of the fuel. Directed energy photon propulsion solves this problem by eliminating the need for on-board fuel storage. We discuss our system which uses a phased array of lasers to propel the spacecraft which contributes no mass to the spacecraft beyond that of the reflector, enabling a prolonged acceleration and much higher final speeds. This paper compares the effectiveness of such a system for propelling spacecraft into interplanetary and interstellar space across various laser and sail configurations. Simulated parameters include laser power, optics size and orbit as well as payload mass, reflector size and the trajectory of the spacecraft. As one example, a 70 GW laser with 10 km optics could propel a 1 kg craft past Neptune (~30 au) in 5 days at 4% the speed of light, or a 1 g “wafer-sat” past Mars (~0.5 au) in 20 minutes at 21% the speed of light. However, even lasers down to 2 kW power and 1 m optics show noticeable effect on gram-class payloads, boosting their altitude in low Earth orbits by several kilometers per day which is already sufficient to be of practical use.
© (2015) COPYRIGHT Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE). Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.
Qicheng Zhang, Philip M. Lubin, Gary B. Hughes, Carl Melis, and Kevin J. Walsh "Orbital simulations of laser-propelled spacecraft", Proc. SPIE 9616, Nanophotonics and Macrophotonics for Space Environments IX, 961608 (1 September 2015); https://doi.org/10.1117/12.2187748
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