Looking for New Life with Photon Sails
It’s hard to imagine actual life on other planets, but scientists are more determined than ever to prove that life does exist beyond Planet Earth. Over 60 years ago, Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi proved for the first time that alien life could possibly broadcast their presence via radio waves detectable by searching astronomers. More recently, NASA sent a rover to Mars to search for signs of life, in addition to the efforts of various scientists exploring new planets and areas of the galaxy.
In parallel to NASA’s efforts, there are also a number of privately-funded quests including Breakthrough’s Starshot Initiative, which aims to use laser beams to push ultra-light nanocrafts to explore Promixa Centauri b, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that is believed to be inhabitable.
As a company built to pioneer new technologies in general, and laser beams in particular, Civan was an obvious choice to become part of a team that will help to develop the laser technology necessary to make the Starshot Initiative a success.
What is the Starshot Initiative?
The Breakthrough Initiatives comprise several space-related programs that seek to answer the most pressing question - are we Earthlings alone in the universe or are there others like us? And, if there are, can we reach them?
Starshot was launched in 2016 by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking who believe that it makes the most sense to first look for life in Alpha Centauri, our closest neighbor at four light years away.
Breakthrough ultimately intends to send camera-equipped spacecraft to take pictures of the life that may or may not exist on Proxima b. The current goal of the Starshot Initiative is a proof of concept for advanced technology using laser beams to enable ultra-light unmanned spacecraft to reach 20% of the speed of light. This proof of concept will lay the groundwork for a future flyby mission to Alpha Centauri, during which pictures will be taken that will reveal once and for all whether life exists there.
The limitations of current technology mean that it would take thousands of years to actually reach Alpha Centauri. By the time any pictures would return to earth, generations of scientists would already be gone! Civan is developing new technological advances that may be used to increase the speed of space travel to 100 million miles an hour, allowing a spacecraft to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years.
So what exactly is this technological breakthrough that will get us to distant galaxies?
Photon Sails are the Ticket
When you see a spaceship blast off from Cape Canaveral, you are watching a rocket-powered launch. Its trajectory and the distance it can go is limited by the power of the rocket that will eventually run out. Photon sails (also known as solar sails) are another way of propelling a spaceship through the sky by using the momentum created when light bounces off a reflective surface.
In contrast to rocket-fuel, a spacecraft powered by photon sails will continue accelerating as long as there is light to push it forward. By using photon sails, a spacecraft can travel at higher speeds (⅕-⅓ the speed of light) for longer distances- exactly what is needed to reach Alpha Centauri within a reasonable amount of time.
(Credit: BREAKTHROUGH INITIATIVES)
How To Power the Photon Sails
While a photon sail-powered spacecraft will keep accelerating as long as there is light to power it, how can we harness photonic energy and point the spacecraft in our desired direction? The answer lies in laser beams.
Lasers can direct beams of light to the photon sails and push them to the coordinates of Promixa Centauri b. Not only does this sound like science fiction, but it was actually first proposed in a science fiction novel called Rocheworld by Robert Forward. When the book was published in the 1970’s, it’s unlikely that anyone ever believed this method could actually work.
Today, we are getting closer, but two critical challenges still remain:
- Laser strength - Civan has produced the world’s first 100kw SM OPA laser , which is currently one of it’s kind. However, it’s a 100GW laser that is needed in order to propel a spacecraft fast enough and far enough to get to Alpha Centauri.
- Laser focus - in addition to strength, the laser must also be able to be focused on the photon sail with extreme accuracy while factoring in distortion from the Earth’s atmosphere.
(Civan Laser's OPA 12 100kW Single Mode Laser based on CBC)
Can Such a Laser be Built?
As a result of Civan’s unique experience in the development of coherent beam combining (CBC) lasers, we were chosen to be part of a team that will help design the concept for the 100 GW lasers needed for the Starshot Initiative.
The laser will be made up of billions of smaller lasers working together using coherent beam combining to focus on the photon sails, sending the unmanned spacecraft on their way.
(Coherent Beam Combining diagram)
We invite you to follow along on this journey as we help power the search for extraterrestrial life around distant stars.