Ars Technica glimpsed a possible future at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory: a solar simulator “that can shine with the intensity of 20 Suns…”
“They think it could be the key to interstellar exploration.”
“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,'” says Benkoski, a materials scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory and the leader of the team working on a solar thermal propulsion system. “What this is showing is that solar thermal propulsion is not just a fantasy. It could actually work.”
In 2019, NASA tapped the Applied Physics Laboratory to study concepts for a dedicated interstellar mission. At the end of next year, the team will submit its research to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Heliophysics decadal survey, which determines Sun-related science priorities for the next 10 years… In mid-November, [APL’s] Interstellar Probe researchers met online for a weeklong conference to share updates as the study enters its final year. At the conference, teams from APL and NASA shared the results of their work on solar thermal propulsion, which they believe is the fastest way to get a probe into interstellar space.
The idea is to power a rocket engine with heat from the Sun, rather than combustion. According to Benkoski’s calculations, this engine would be around three times more efficient than the best conventional chemical engines available today. “From a physics standpoint, it’s hard for me to imagine anything that’s going to beat solar thermal propulsion in terms of efficiency,” says Benkoski. “But can you keep it from exploding…?” If the interstellar probe makes a close pass by the Sun and pushes hydrogen into its shield’s vasculature, the hydrogen will expand and explode from a nozzle at the end of the pipe. The heat shield will generate thrust. It’s simple in theory but incredibly hard in practice.
A solar thermal rocket is only effective if it can pull off an Oberth maneuver, an orbital-mechanics hack that turns the Sun into a giant slingshot. The Sun’s gravity acts like a force multiplier that dramatically increases the craft’s speed if a spacecraft fires its engines as it loops around the star…
The big takeaway from his research, says Dean Cheikh, a materials technologist at NASAâ(TM)s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is there’s a lot of testing that needs to be done on heat shield materials before a solar thermal rocket is sent around the Sun. But it’s not a deal-breaker. “Additive manufacturing is a key component of this, and we couldn’t do that 20 years ago. Now I can 3D-print metal in the lab.”