Project Dragonfly is competition to design interstellar laser sail probes that would be technological feasible by 2034 and launched by 2050

Project Dragonfly is a feasibility study for an interstellar mission, conducted by small, distributed spacecraft, propelled primarily by laser sails. The spacecraft shall be capable of reaching the target star system within a century and be able to decelerate. We believe that such a mission can be conducted with technology available by 2024-2034 as well as a space infrastructure, available by 2050.

The competition’s main objective is to identify innovative mission architectures that are feasible in terms of required technologies as well as required resources. The final design reports of the teams shall cover all areas, which are relevant for returning scientific data from such a mission: instruments, communication, laser sail design, power supply, secondary structure, deceleration propulsion etc. Furthermore, the technological as well as economic feasibility of the architecture shall be assessed by the teams.

The designs will be evaluated on the basis of the following criteria (preliminary list, subject to change):

Technical soundness: Are the physics and engineering right?
Technological feasibility: Is it likely that the technology is available in the next 10-20 years?
Economic feasibility: Are the resources needed for the mission reasonable? Does the design exploit synergies with future space infrastructure? Is there a reasonable chance that the mission can be conducted by 2050?
Innovation: Are there approaches to drastically increase the scientific return of such a mission without compromising feasibility?

Centauri Dreams looked at some of the details of how this is becoming feasible

Recent progress in various areas looks promising:

* The increased availability of highly sophisticated miniaturized commercial components: smart phones include many components which are needed for a space system, e.g. gyros for attitude determination, a communication system, and a microchip for data-handling. NASA has already flown a couple of “phone-sats”; Satellites which are based on a smart phone.

* Advances in distributed satellite networks: Although a single small satellite only has a limited capability, several satellites which cooperate can replace larger space systems. The concept of Federated Satellite Systems (FSS) is currently explored at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as at the Skolkovo Institute of Technology in Russia. Satellites communicate opportunistically and share data and computing capacity. It is basically a cloud computing environment in space.

* Increased viability of solar sail missions. A number of recent missions are based on solar sail technology, e.g. the Japanese IKAROS probe, LightSail-1 of the Planetary Society, and NASA’s Sunjammer probe.

* Greg Matloff recently proposed use of Graphene as a material for solar sails. With an areal density of a fraction of a gram and high thermal resistance, this material would be truly disruptive. Currently existing materials have a much higher areal density; a number crucial for measuring the performance of solar sails.

* Material sciences has also advanced to a degree where Graphene layers only a few atoms thick can be manufactured. Thus, manufacturing a solar sail based on extremely thin layers of Graphene is not as far away as it seems.

* Small satellites with a mass of only a few kilograms are increasingly proposed for interplanetary missions. NASA has recently announced the Interplanetary CubeSat Challenge, where teams are invited to develop CubeSat missions to the Moon and even deeper into space (NASA). Coming advances will thus stretch the capability of CubeSats beyond Low-Earth Orbit.

* Recent proposals for solar power satellites focus on providing space infrastructure with power instead of Earth infrastructure. The reason is quite simple: Solar power satellites are not competitive to most Earth-based alternatives but they are in space. A recent NASA concept by John Mankins proposed the use of a highly modular tulip-shaped space power satellite, supplying geostationary communication satellites with power.

* Large space laser systems have been proposed for asteroid defense

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