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Proceedings Paper

Orbital simulations of laser-propelled spacecraft
Author(s): Qicheng Zhang; Philip M. Lubin; Gary B. Hughes; Carl Melis; Kevin J. Walsh
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Paper Abstract

Spacecraft accelerate by directing propellant in the opposite direction. In the traditional approach, the propellant is carried on board in the form of material fuel. This approach has the drawback of being limited in Delta v by the amount of fuel launched with the craft, a limit that does not scale well to high Delta v due to the massive nature of the fuel. Directed energy photon propulsion solves this problem by eliminating the need for on-board fuel storage. We discuss our system which uses a phased array of lasers to propel the spacecraft which contributes no mass to the spacecraft beyond that of the reflector, enabling a prolonged acceleration and much higher final speeds. This paper compares the effectiveness of such a system for propelling spacecraft into interplanetary and interstellar space across various laser and sail configurations. Simulated parameters include laser power, optics size and orbit as well as payload mass, reflector size and the trajectory of the spacecraft. As one example, a 70 GW laser with 10 km optics could propel a 1 kg craft past Neptune (~30 au) in 5 days at 4% the speed of light, or a 1 g “wafer-sat” past Mars (~0.5 au) in 20 minutes at 21% the speed of light. However, even lasers down to 2 kW power and 1 m optics show noticeable effect on gram-class payloads, boosting their altitude in low Earth orbits by several kilometers per day which is already sufficient to be of practical use.

Paper Details

Date Published: 1 September 2015
PDF: 12 pages
Proc. SPIE 9616, Nanophotonics and Macrophotonics for Space Environments IX, 961608 (1 September 2015); doi: 10.1117/12.2187748
Show Author Affiliations
Qicheng Zhang, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara (United States)
Philip M. Lubin, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara (United States)
Gary B. Hughes, California Polytechnic State Univ., San Luis Obispo (United States)
Carl Melis, Univ. of California, San Diego (United States)
Kevin J. Walsh, Southwest Research Institute (United States)

Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 9616:
Nanophotonics and Macrophotonics for Space Environments IX
Edward W. Taylor; David A. Cardimona, Editor(s)

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