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SYFY WIRE outer space

Soar the spaceways like Silver Surfer on this laser-driven light sail spaceship

By Jeff Spry
Silver Surfer

Let's face it, outer space covers a ridiculous amount of cosmic real estate and is nearly unfathomable to the human mind as our struggling neurons try to absorb just how vast it truly is.

When navigating the infinite spaceways of even our own Milky Way galaxy, most conventional rocket engines would empty their chemical fuel tanks long before they reached any exotic destinations.

The burden of invention rests on the world's wealth of visionary scientists and engineers to devise new methods of heavenly propulsion if we ever plan to get to our intended exploratory targets. Such advanced space transportation concepts include using antimatter, laser propulsion, fusion-driven vehicles, and even complex solar sails, like The Planetary Society's LightSail 2.

Light Sail 2

This last long-held theory, and one proposed even back in the 19th century, is to construct spaceships equipped with special light sails that would allow for gradual acceleration over a broad period of time that can accelerate slowly using the sun's warming rays or giant mirrors. And when our star's brilliance is unavailable, a more contemporary impetus could be achieved using intense, land-based laser beams to push the craft and keep it cruising along.

light sail

An updated variation on this shining technology has been recently published in the online scientific journal Physical Review Letters, whereby the huge issue of misalignment between sail and laser resulting in a spacecraft potentially pinwheeling off its path and into the void has now been addressed and corrected.

According to the study, Grover Swartzlander and his team from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York have successfully created and tested a centimeter-wide prototype for a laser-driven light sail in their laboratory that can self-stabilize via the employment of diffraction grating instead of traditional mirrors to hold the voyager on its intended route. 

Light Sail 3

This new design, using nematic liquid crystals contained in a plastic sheet and arranged in a periodic pattern, effectively bends incoming light to generate a sideways force, which will steady and steer the craft's trajectory if the sail is causing it to stray too far from the middle of the beam.

While the advancing technology is still in its infancy stages and more testing is required, Swartzlander's team that's developing this new beam-riding sail is optimistic that their breakthroughs could someday help guide interstellar probes to distant exoplanets where alien life might be discovered.

“Diffractive sails are not the next steps in space for the young field of space sail propulsion,” cautions Bruce Betts of the Planetary Society in a statement. “But if proven out and demonstrated [in space], diffractive sails may someday represent a revolutionary leap forward in sail propulsion.”

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