Will spacecraft be powered by the sun? Credit: NASA.
We would like to fly to the stars. They are too seductive. Or at least send probes there. But first we need a proper unit for it. Researchers and engineers at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in the United States are currently testing such a device. It uses sunlight. With his help, he should get spaceships in the periphery of the solar system and even adjacent stars.
According to the research team, such solar operation is no longer just a distant dream of science fiction. They have a “solar simulator” available for research purposes. It is a modified container with thousands of LEDs installed. It can shine like 20 suns. Thanks to him, it turns out that it makes sense to think about solar power. This is also confirmed by team member Jason Benjoski, according to which solar powered spaceships cease to be a fantasy.
Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, logo,
The surrounding universe attracts us. We are only very interested in what lies behind the heliopause, which is one of the boundaries of the solar system. The problem is that the heliopause is very distant and exploration of space beyond this limit is therefore very complicated. So far, only two of our machines have come behind it – Voyager 1 and 2, which took about half a century to get there.
This is the motivation for NASA’s collaboration with scientists in applied physics in a program called Interstellar Probe. They are developing a propulsion for spaceships that would make them much faster. NASA announced this collaboration in October 2019, along with a prediction that a ship with a new propulsion could travel to the depths of the solar system as early as 2030.
NSTAR xenon ion test. Credit: NASA.
Solar heat propulsion should be the driving force that will change the rules of the game’s flights inside and outside the solar system. That’s a wonderful thing. Forget the classic “chemical” engine. The solar heating unit will probably be built into the ship’s heat shield. Part of the use of this propulsion is that the spacecraft will make an Oberth maneuver around the sun, ie increase its speed through a close approach. At the same time, however, it also sucks the surrounding hydrogen into the propulsion system of the shield, which then expands near the sun and explodes with a jet. The ship’s heat shield arranges the traction in this way.
If all goes well, the Interstellar Probe will accelerate from 13.4 kilometers per second to 89.4 kilometers per second in a single maneuver around the sun. Which is pretty decent speed. A certain lack of beauty is that the probe spends about 2 and a half hours in an environment with a temperature of about 2500 ° C during such a maneuver. Not even the sophisticated heat shield from the Parker Solar Probe, which now examines the sun carefully, could withstand it. Obviously, it will want new materials that will hold in hell and at the same time, hydrogen will still flow in them. Benjoski believes that 3D metal printing will be the key to designing such an ultra-durable sunscreen.
Futurism 20. 11. 2020.
Wired 20. 11. 2020.