Apr 1, 2022

Lightsail technology billows into the future

Posted by in categories: computing, space

Alpha Centauri seems almost within grasp as promising research soars into reality.

Lightsails were once a thing of science fiction, evolving through several variations over the last 40 years. Now, science fiction is becoming reality. Advances in laser technology and new ultrastrong, ultralight materials open up the possibility of venturing beyond our solar system in the not-too-distant future.

Researchers from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania recently published two papers outlining various shapes and heat-dissipating materials they tested to evaluate lightsails beyond previous limits. The research was conducted in conjunction with the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, a project with the goal of sending a microchip-sized probe to the Alpha Centauri system, which, at just over 4 light-years away, is the closest and possibly most habitable neighboring star system. Breakthrough Starshot plans to use a high-powered laser array to propel tiny lightsail probes through space at a top speed of some 20 percent the speed of light. Incorporated into the sails would be minuscule scientific instruments, such as cameras, magnetometers, and communicators that could beam information back to Earth as they fly through the Alpha Centuari system.

A parachute that can withstand the heat

Aaswath Raman, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UCLA, has laid out two elements key to creating a functioning lightsail: it must be extremely lightweight, and it needs to reflect or disperse heat incredibly well.

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