Interstellar Light Sails


G. L. Matloff (2012), JBIS65, 255-260

Refcode: 2012.65.255
Keywords: Solar Sail, Laser/Maser Sail, interstellar propulsion

The light sail, which is pushed through space by momentum exchange from impacting and reflected photons, is the only suggested method of interstellar propulsion that has thus far been successfully tested in space. The solar photon sail, unfurled as close to the Sun as possible, offers the possibility of ~2,000-year duration voyages to Alpha Centauri using currently existing sail materials and departure from the present-day Sun. Improvements in sail material technology and departure from more luminous stars may greatly reduce interstellar transit time. During interstellar cruise, the sail could be wrapped around the habitat to provide cosmic ray shielding. The sail could be unfurled late in the flight to decelerate the spacecraft to planetary velocities. Collimated laser and maser beams, projected from power stations closer to the Sun than the starship, could overcome the limitations imposed by the inverse-square law and allow higher interstellar cruise velocities, if beam aim and collimation can be maintained over trillion-kilometer distances. This paper reviews progress on interstellar light sailing, discusses combination with other interstellar propulsion modes, and indicates some directions for future research.