1. Nuclear fusion, assisted by magnetic sails, gets us to Alpha Centauri in ~50 years.
How do we get there faster? Absent annihilation drives, powered by gamma-ray lasing matter-antimatter reactions or Hawking decaying force-fed mini-black holes, then we need to get the power-supply off the space vehicle and send fuel, momentum and energy to the vehicle as it accelerates. “Centauri Dreams” has covered a number of notable options just recently – the laser-powered ramjet, the laser-powered rocket and, of course, the Bussard ramjet itself.
Then there’s the various light, laser, microwave and momentum sails that have been proposed over time.
Laser pushed sail using space based solar power
We’ll assume a 1,000 tonne payload, 1,000 tonne mag-sail and 400 tonnes of laser-sail. A 5,000 terawatt laser accelerates the sail to 0.5c in about 0.8 years – a total energy expenditure of 1.26E+23 joules. How much power is 5,000 terawatts? Earth receives 174,400 terawatts from the Sun, absorbing 122,200 terawatts of that. Balancing out the heat-flows in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, equator-wards of the Tropics is a region that gains energy, while pole-wards of the Tropics are regions which lose net energy back into space. Energy flows northwards and southwards via the winds and oceans – the winds carrying about 5,000 terawatts in both directions. Thus our laser-sail needs about 50% of the Earth’s wind-power available.
In the late 1970s NASA and the US DoE studied Solar Power Satellites (SPS) – one estimate was that a 5 gigawatt SPS would mass ~50,000 tonnes. Thus 5,000 terawatts would require 1 million SPS with a total mass of ~50 billion tonnes. Of course techniques have improved considerably since the 1970s – some ultra-light SPS designs approach ~1,000 tonnes per gigawatt. To go much lighter we need to move them closer to the Sun – if we can operate them at 1,000 K then we can park them just 0.1 AU from the Sun. There our “1 gigawatt” SPS can generate 100 gigawatts. Thus ~5 million tonnes of near-Solar SPS will power the lasers for our starships.
Two Stage Magsail Scenario
Adam Crowl has computed the fastest time to Alpha Centauri via a Mag-Sail equipped Two-Stage “Daedalus” [nuclear fusion]. In this case both stages will be use to reach the cruise speed, then the mag-sail will be deployed at the appropriate point in the voyage. The minimum trip-time is when the cruise-speed is 0.13488c, the mission time 45.82 years and an initial mass of 181,480 tonnes. So, yes, Alpha Centauri can be reached in under 50 years by “Daedalus”. Interestingly exactly 50 years needs a mass of 66,040 tonnes (this includes the 1,000 tonne mag-sail.)
How far can it reach in under 100 years? About Tau Ceti’s distance – 11.9 ly. To reach GJ 581c requires ~152 years and about 540,000 tonnes initial mass, minimum. For the same mass as the minimum time to Alpha Centauri, the trip to GJ 581c takes 164 years.
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Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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