Sailships vs. Fusion Rockets: A Contrarian View

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J. Benford (2017), JBIS, 70, pp.175-183

Refcode: 2017.70.175
Keywords: Interstellar, nuclear fusion, fusion rocket, rocket equation, Project Icarus, starship, interstellar precursor, directed energy, sail, Starwisp, microwave, millimetre wave, laser, propulsion, Star Shot

The problem with rockets for interstellar flight is that they will be very large, very inefficient and very costly. But starships need not be a rocket, as Project Icarus design concepts are. Beam-powered sails -- sailships -- are a better choice. Sailships in principle allow higher speeds than nuclear rockets. The best feature of beaming energy is that the Beamer -- with all its mass and complexity -- is left behind, while the relatively simple ultra-light sail, carrying its payload, is driven to the stars. The Beamer can then be used for many sailship missions. For beam-driven sails, there are few physics issues. We have experimentally demonstrated flight, beam-induced spin for stability and some aspects of beam-riding. The engineering requirement is for large assemblies of both modular sources of the photons, and large antenna/optic arrays. Engineering and cost are the major questions for development. Key issues for sailships in light of the Star Shot project and relative merits of competing source technologies are assessed. This is a submission of the Project Icarus Study Group.

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