Beamed Energy Propulsion… sailing across the Milky way.
“Presently, beamed energy is the most promising technology to lower the cost of space transportation” ~NASA
Space elevators… cool, asteroid mining… awesome, antimatter engines… nextgen, maglev… op. (overpowered for ye oldies) PDEs… impressive. Sure these are all awesome ideas but NASA predicts that it is Beamed energy propulsion which will be first to propel the space travel cost way down (pun totally intended). In fact, they are hoping this innovation will bring down the price for space exploration from $10 000 (why… check out The Prison of Earth #1) to only a few ten dollar bills (the same cost for those overpriced Pokemon packs parents are buying for their kids these days).
So how will it do this? It is actually pretty straight forward… it works on 2 simple facts:
- If a space ship doesn’t have to carry a whole bunch of energy and fuel it will be lighter and easier to propel.
- light travels very fast, when it bumps into something that object will move a bit… the same way something moves when the wind blows on to it.
A photonic propelled vehicle harvests light to be propelled forward (told you it is straight forward). By using light from an outside source to create thrust it no longer needs huge hardware to direct chemical explosions we use to get to space and even larger compartments to hold all the fuel. How does it harvest this light:
- A large concentrated beam is produced by a huge space laser (yes current world leaders are creating a secret Star Wars Deathstar).
- These rays are directed towards the spaceship.
- The ship will then harvest that light through solar sails. The solar sails will then reflect the light from the ray backwards and propel the spaceship forward.
These sails work exactly like sails on normal ships hence the name… but instead of wind they use light. Solar sails are actually mirrors. when a photon hits it the ship will move forward (hardly) but with a laser, all of these photons are concentrated and provide plentiful energy to move the ship forward.
In fact, a space laser can propel what astronomers call wafer satellites, these are very small satellites (lighter than one gram) which have micro sensors, and other essential gadgets. Such satellites can be accelerated to 20% the speed of light (1,000,000,000x faster than your car) with a space based laser. Okay so bigger spaceships can’t go at 20% of light speed but they can still go very fast. This is because:
1. The whole energy cycle (heavy rocket = large energy source = more mass to carry the energy = more energy to propel the new mass = more energy source) would be destroyed.
2. Much less energy is needed and we will have lighter spaceships, That means we can use all the mass of the spaceship for cargo and send much more into space.
3. This technology will make it possible for easy and accessible interplanetary travel and possibly open the gate to interstellar travel (though currently unlikely).
Companies like breakthrough initiatives have started a “$100 million research”(to put that in perspective that is over 3000 X-boxes) called breakthrough starshot enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight.The same company has already sent a few small satellite into orbit with a group of land-based lasers. It believes that space lasers will be next widespread rocket design. Though this technology still faces many obstacles and though starshot is awesome and all, it still lies a few decades away (in most estimations), why will it take so long…
- The energy source, with current technology it would take over 70 gigawatts (that is equivalent to 70 nuclear power plants) to power an interstellar spaceship for a small satellite (not even a full blown ship). That is an unreasonable amount of energy.
- For longer range travel (out of earth’s orbit) we need to put the laser into space, this itself cause 2 problems firstly the cost to send it up secondly how are we going to build it in space
- With current technologies we cannot build an interstellar ship powered by solar sails alone… but what about in conjunction with other energy sources that is for another article?
True these problems currently limit the use photonic or beamed-energy propulsion but in the near future, this technology will make space travel much more accessible and cheap.
Beamed energy propulsion in a nutshell
Photonic propulsion is very likely to be used in the future. With its simple yet effective system it may be the first to get us to another star and start our journey on exploring our small corner of the galaxy.
- Light can provide kinetic energy to far away objects by propelling it forward.
- This can allow rockets to achieve much higher speeds and may unlock interstellar travel as it allows lighter spacecraft and higher energy concentration.
- Photonic propulsion still faces many obstacles like the energy to power the laser, the cost, limitations of current technology and construction.
Photonic propulsion is not some ghetto idea that doesn’t work… far from it. Breakthrough Initiative has already tested this technology and hopes to start using light to propel rockets by 2050. This stuff is legit.
Think Big, Think Ahead, Think Like a BOSS, and don’t forget to Do Stuff.