Image compliments of Musser_Solar_Sails_BREAKER
The next space probes could use solar e-sails and nano-technology to propel them to Alpha-Centauri (closest star system to Earth) within the next 40 years. The physics is sound and the nano-technology to be used to create the worlds smallest satellite is already in place. (Each probe consists of a radio transmitter, antennas, micro-controller, solar cell and magnetometer). Here's how it's supposed to work:
A conventional rocket carries the probes into low Earth orbit. The rocket then releases hundreds of tiny probes (about 1 square inch). Each probe unfurls a solar sail (12 feet by 12 ft). Then thousands of Earth-based lasers are directed toward each probe for about a minute each and the radiation from the lasers is caught by the sails to generate power and provide propulsion. Acceleration generated by this radiation is calculated to reach approximately 20% of the speed of light, propelling the probes faster and farther than any other satellite in history.
It took the space probe, New Horizons, 9.5 years to reach Pluto. With solar e-sails, it would take only 3 days!
This idea of e-sails is still in its infancy and there are some big problems to overcome. First there is the enormous challenge of hitting such a small target in space using Earth-based lasers. This has never been done before and verges on the incredible. The production of such high-powered, super-accurate lasers over such a great distance requires a major technological break-through. Second, the materials required for the solar sails to catch the laser radiation is a daunting task because if it catches more than 1 1/100,000 of the incoming light it will melt the probe. If it does not catch enough, it will not produce the propulsion and speeds required.
Oh and by the way, travelling through the Oort cloud, encountering space dust and meteorites can simply destroy the probes entirely.
So there are huge challenges ahead, but the concept is intriguing because it shortens space travel to our next nearest star system within our life-time.
Maddalena Environmental Inc.