Harnessing the momentum of light could transform space exploration and spaceflight in the 21st century. We have been exploring the idea of using nano scale light-matter interactions to enable and develop photonic structures propelled by radiation pressure. The motivation for laser-driven spaceflight is fundamental: chemical fuels, ion engines, fission or fusion schemes all have low inherent energy efficiency, which limits the maximal velocity of a spacecraft.
For example, it took the Voyager probes 35 years just to reach the outskirts of our solar system; with current rocket propulsion technology, it would take many millennia to reach our neighboring star system, Alpha Centauri, and the nearest known candidate habitable exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b. Propelling ultra-light spacecraft by the radiation pressure from a high-power laser array is the only known means of traversing such distances in a meaningful timespan.
Though the idea of light-propelled spacecrafts is almost a century old, recent rapid technological advances in light sources, materials, and fabrication have opened up the possibility of relativistic space travel. In 2016, this renewed interest culminated in the announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, which aims to lay the foundations for the first launch of a light-driven spacecraft to escape the solar system.
If you’re curious about this idea, we encourage you to take a look at some of our published works below:
“Nanophotonic heterostructures for efficient propulsion and radiative cooling of light sails”, Nano Letters 18(9), p.5583 (2018). A short summary.
“Self-stabilizing photonic levitation and propulsion of nanostructured macroscopic objects”, Nature Photonics, 13(4), p.289 (2019).
Additional references include “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight” by P. Lubin, and “The Breakthrough Starshot System Model” by K. Parkin. We also encourage you to take a look at the works of Prof. Avi Loeb from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
If you have any questions, do not hesitate to get in touch.