A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight

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P. Lubin (2016), JBIS, 69, pp.40-72

Refcode: 2016.69.40
Keywords: Interstellar studies, interstellar exploration, wafersats, laser propulsion

In the nearly 60 years of space flight we have accomplished wonderful feats of exploration that have shown the incredible spirit of the human drive to explore and understand our universe. Yet in those 60 years we have barely left our solar system with the Voyager 1 spacecraft launched in 1977 finally leaving the solar system after 37 years of flight at a speed of 17 km/s or less than 0.006% the speed of light. As remarkable as this, to reach even the nearest stars with our current propulsion technology will take 100 millennium. We have to radically rethink our strategy or give up our dreams of reaching the stars, or wait for technology that does not currently exist. While we all dream of human space flight to the stars in a way romanticized in books and movies, it is not within our power to do so, nor it is clear that this is the path we should choose. We posit a path forward, that while not simple it is within our technological reach. We propose a roadmap to a program that will lead to sending relativistic probes to the nearest stars and will open up a vast array of possibilities of flight both within our solar system and far beyond. Spacecraft from gram level complete spacecraft on a wafer (“wafersats”) that reach more than ¼ c and reach the nearest star in 20 years to spacecraft with masses more than 105 kg (100 tons) that can reach speeds of greater than 1000 km/s. These systems can be propelled to speeds currently unimaginable with existing propulsion technologies. To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and in many cases what a spacecraft is. In addition to larger spacecraft, some capable of transporting humans, we consider functional spacecraft on a wafer, including integrated optical communications, imaging systems, photon thrusters, power and sensors combined with directed energy propulsion. The costs can be amortized over a very large number of missions beyond relativistic spacecraft as such planetary defence, beamed energy for distant spacecraft, sending power back to Earth, stand-off composition analysis of solar system targets, long range laser communications, SETI searches and even terra-forming. Exploring the nearest stars and exo-planets would be a profound voyage for humanity, one whose non-scientific implications would be enormous. It is time to begin this inevitable journey far beyond our home.


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