Consider a particle accelerator. On Earth, these systems accelerate charged particles like electrons to relativistic velocities so that physicists can study subatomic phenomena. Now imagine the Sprite as a particle. A Sprite is a thin computer chip that is nearly the complete basis of a spacecraft. It would be electrostatically charged, like a toy balloon on a dry day, and in that way resembles a very large electron. Could we build a kind of particle accelerator to launch Sprites out of the solar system at very high speed? The Navy already has a railgun that uses electromagnetic effects to launch large masses. Their recent successes show that the concept is perfectly sound. In fact, if you could direct the energy of their 30 kg railgun into a, say, 30 mg Sprite, that’s a factor of 1000 higher speed. Such a Sprite could be the first interstellar explorer. Michio Kaku and Mason Peck have discussed the wild notion of a ring-shaped Sprite accelerator on the moon or in Jupiter’s orbit (in fact, the idea appeared on his Sci Fi Science TV show). In principle, such a launch system could send a Sprite to the nearest star system in a few decades.
More Sprite chipsat propulsion
Sprite sends a current through a wire that extends from the spacecraft, grounded in the ionospheric plasma. The current interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, like the windings in an electric motor, producing a force. That force can accelerate the spacecraft. Just like the solar-sailing example, an Electro Dynamic tether.
A thin Sprite can act as a solar sail. A 25 micron Sprite is stiff enough that it needs no deployable booms or trusses, and it’s therefore effectively thinner (less mass for the area) than the larger solar sails.
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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