This concept shows a manned spacecraft capable of traveling to other stars

This concept shows a manned spacecraft capable of traveling to other stars

An astronomer published an article that takes the idea of ​​space solar sailing to a new level. He proposes a spacecraft that uses a propulsion system powered by a laser beam, and this could enable the first manned interstellar journey in human history.

Many consider that solar sails – a concept presented by Carl Sagan from the 1970s and that now proves to be functional, thanks to LightSail 2 -, are a great bet to take a ship to other star systems. These sails are small, light, and driven by the photons emitted by the Sun. But Alberto Caballero, author of the new study, argues that they may not be the best option, since they are not able to transport people.

Then he created the concept and design of Solar One, a much larger spaceship, also powered by sail, but using the energy of a laser powered by a small nuclear fission reactor. If it works, it could reach 30% the speed of light and reach the Alpha Centauri system – the closest to us – in 15 years. And, even better, taking two astronauts on board.

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It will be necessary to combine three existing technologies to make Solar One real: a very large sunlight candle, a nuclear fission reactor and an updated version of the HELLADS laser system (High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, a demonstrator of laser weapon system operated by DARPA).

Concept diagram for the construction of Solar One
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The reactor would be a version of the Mega Power Reactor, of the National Laboratory of Los Alamos, which weighs 35 tons. It is capable of producing up to 10 MW, or the equivalent of 2 MW of continuous energy for 12 years. And the solar sail would be an updated version of Sunjammer, a sail proposed by NASA that measures 1,444 m².

The ship's crew module, on the other hand, would be capable of carrying two astronauts. The sail would produce an incredible force of more than 170,000 newtons, resulting in constant acceleration. "The main aspect of this idea lies in the extremely large size of the candle," said Alberto.

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A micro-fission reactor like this can cost about $ 16 million, and the laser system would cost about $ 21 million. NASA's Sunjammer mission, which built the great sail, cost $ 27 million. A rocket would also be needed for the launch, and a candidate is SpaceX's Starship, which would cost about $ 30 million.

Based on these estimates, Alberto estimates that the total cost of Solar One could be below $ 100 million. Which is not much, considering the grandeur of a mission towards a neighboring star. The biggest challenges would be technical, how to protect the sail from impacts with asteroids.

This is just a concept, and planning a real mission is far more complex – especially when putting human lives at risk. But if the proposal's effectiveness is proven, it may be that humanity will be able to leave the Solar System and visit distant worlds sooner than imagined.