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Interstellar Space Travel Could Be Achieved Through Solar-Powered Rockets

by : Hannah Smith on :
Interstellar Space Travel Could Be Achieved Through Solar-Powered RocketsPA Images

Only two spacecraft have ever left our solar system, but the data collected by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 has left scientists wanting more. The problem is, getting anything from that far away is really, really difficult.

Now, a team of Maryland-based scientists have successfully tested a new solar thermal propulsion system that they say could be the key to interstellar space travel.

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The test was carried out by a team at Johns Hopkins University, using a simulator in the form of a shipping container lined with thousands of LEDs. It sounds fairly low-tech, but the simulator is able to shine with the equivalent intensity of 20 suns. The LEDs were used to heat liquid helium, which expanded and was then released through a tube, effectively demonstrating solar thermal propulsion.

NASA/ JPL-Caltech

It might seem like a small-scale science experiment, but Jason Benowski, who leads the team, says that it paves the way for something much larger.

Benowski, a material scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), told WIRED

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It’s really easy for someone to dismiss the idea and say, ‘On the back of an envelope, it looks great, but if you actually build it, you’re never going to get those theoretical numbers.’

What this is showing is that solar thermal propulsion is not just a fantasy. It could actually work.

Interstellar travel is difficult for a whole number of reasons. Firstly, it’s super far away. Pluto is only a third of the way to the edge of our solar system, and it took Voyager 1 36 years to enter interstellar space. The APL team is aiming to build a probe that can travel that 50 billions miles distance in half the time it took the Voyager modules.

NASA believes that the quickest way to do this is to harness the Sun’s thermal energy to power the spacecraft, a method it says could be up to three times more powerful than conventional combustion engines.

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In order to travel that far at that speed, the probe would need to perform a ‘slingshot’-style manoeuvre, using the Sun’s gravitational pull to dramatically increase its speed. That means scientists have to design a spacecraft that can handle getting closer to the Sun that any manmade object has before, without burning up. NASA estimates that the probe would have to spend 2.5 hours at temperatures of up to 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit to execute the manoeuvre.

Benowski’s team isn’t the only one working on solar thermal propulsion, but WIRED reports that they are the first to demonstrate a working prototype engine in action.

Benowski said:

We want to make a spacecraft that will go faster, further, and get closer to the Sun than anything has ever done before.

It’s like the hardest thing you could possibly do.

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APL is working with NASA on an Interstellar Probe study, and aims to submit a paper on its work by the end of next year. There’s still a long way to go before this kind of thing becomes a reality, but just showing that it’s possible is a big first step.

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