This paper analyses the nature and feasibility of using directed energy to propel probes through space at relativistic speeds. Possible mission scenarios are considered by varying the spacecraft mass, thickness of the sail and power of the directed energy array. We calculate that gram-scaled probes are capable of achieving relativistic speeds and reaching Alpha Centauri well within a human lifetime. A major drawback is the diffraction of the beam which reduces the incident power on the sail resulting in a terminal velocity for the probes. Various notions of efficiency are discussed and we conclude that directed energy propulsion provides a viable direction for future space exploration.
We describe a novel method for probing bulk molecular and atomic composition of solid targets from a distant vantage. A laser is used to melt and vaporize a spot on the target. With sufficient flux, the spot temperature rises rapidly, and evaporation of surface materials occurs. The melted spot creates a high-temperature blackbody source, and ejected material creates a plume of surface materials in front of the spot. Molecular and atomic absorption occurs as the blackbody radiation passes through the ejected plume. Bulk molecular and atomic composition of the surface material is investigated by using a spectrometer to view the heated spot through the ejected plume. The proposed method is distinct from current stand-off approaches to composition analysis, such as Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS), which atomizes and ionizes target material and observes emission spectra to determine bulk atomic composition. Initial simulations of absorption profiles with laser heating show great promise for Remote Laser-Evaporative Molecular Absorption (R-LEMA) spectroscopy. The method is well-suited for exploration of cold solar system targets—asteroids, comets, planets, moons—such as from a spacecraft orbiting the target. Spatial composition maps could be created by scanning the surface. Applying the beam to a single spot continuously produces a borehole or trench, and shallow subsurface composition profiling is possible. This paper describes system concepts for implementing the proposed method to probe the bulk molecular composition of an asteroid from an orbiting spacecraft, including laser array, photovoltaic power, heating and ablation, plume characteristics, absorption, spectrometry and data management.
For interstellar missions, directed energy is envisioned to drive wafer-scale spacecraft to relativistic speeds. Spacecraft propulsion is provided by a large array of phase-locked lasers, either in Earth orbit or stationed on the ground. The directed-energy beam is focused on the spacecraft, which includes a reflective sail that propels the craft by reflecting the beam. Fluctuations and asymmetry in the beam will create rotational forces on the sail, so the sail geometry must possess an inherent, passive stabilizing effect. A hyperboloid shape is proposed, since changes in the incident beam angle due to yaw will passively counteract rotational forces. This paper explores passive stability properties of a hyperboloid reflector being bombarded by directed-energy beam. A 2D cross-section is analyzed for stability under simulated asymmetric loads. Passive stabilization is confirmed over a range of asymmetries. Realistic values of radiation pressure magnitude are drawn from the physics of light-mirror interaction. Estimates of beam asymmetry are drawn from optical modeling of a laser array far-field intensity using fixed and stochastic phase perturbations. A 3D multi-physics model is presented, using boundary conditions and forcing terms derived from beam simulations and lightmirror interaction models. The question of optimal sail geometry can be pursued, using concepts developed for the baseline hyperboloid. For example, higher curvature of the hyperboloid increases stability, but reduces effective thrust. A hyperboloid sail could be optimized by seeking the minimum curvature that is stable over the expected range of beam asymmetries.
Arrays of phase-locked lasers are envisioned for planetary defense and exploration systems. High-energy beams focused on a threatening asteroid evaporate surface material, creating a reactionary thrust that alters the asteroid’s orbit. The same system could be used to probe an asteroid’s composition, to search for unknown asteroids, and to propel interplanetary and interstellar spacecraft. Phased-array designs are capable of producing high beam intensity, and allow beam steering and beam profile manipulation. Modular designs allow ongoing addition of emitter elements to a growing array. This paper discusses pointing control for extensible laser arrays. Rough pointing is determined by spacecraft attitude control. Lateral movement of the laser emitter tips behind the optical elements provides intermediate pointing adjustment for individual array elements and beam steering. Precision beam steering and beam formation is accomplished by coordinated phase modulation across the array. Added cells are incorporated into the phase control scheme by precise alignment to local mechanical datums using fast, optical relative position sensors. Infrared target sensors are also positioned within the datum scheme, and provide information about the target vector relative to datum coordinates at each emitter. Multiple target sensors allow refined determination of the target normal plane, providing information to the phase controller for each emitter. As emitters and sensors are added, local position data allows accurate prediction of the relative global position of emitters across the array, providing additional constraints to the phase controllers. Mechanical design and associated phase control that is scalable for target distance and number of emitters is presented.