Sailbeam and fusion runway designer Jordin Kare has died

Centauri Dreams that Jordin Kare has died at the age of 60 due to aortic heart valve failure.

He was involved in developing laser propulsion concepts. As a physicist and aerospace engineer, Kare focused primarily on laser propulsion, both from ground-to-orbit and deep space perspectives. A long-time researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he put together an early laser propulsion workshop at LLNL in 1986; his work on laser launch from ground to orbit drew support from the Strategic Defense Initiative.

He designed a laser sail system called SailBeam and a ‘fusion runway’ concept.

The gist of the sailbeam idea is this: Kare’s tiny sails, made of diamond film and pushed by a multi-billion watt orbiting laser, could be accelerated much closer to their power source than Forward’s sails and brought up to a substantial fraction of lightspeed within seconds. Kare coupled sail concepts with Cliff Singer’s pellet propulsion, reasoning that his tiny sails could intercept a large interstellar probe and become a source of propulsion as they were vaporized into plasma.

Aerospace engineer Dana Andrews worked with Kare on various magsail concepts and wrote about SailBeam himself in a paper cited below. Andrews pointed out that SailBeam solved a key problem in particle beam propulsion — a neutral particle beam will disperse as it travels. A stream of tiny sails driven by laser will not

Jordin wrote “High-acceleration Micro-scale Laser Sails for Interstellar Propulsion” which was a 2002 NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts study.

The SailBeam concept for interstellar propulsion uses a large (multi-GW) laser to accelerate a stream
of small laser sails to speeds of order 0.1 c. Each sail is a fractional-wavelength-thick film of very-low absorption dielectric material, such as diamond or glass, typically of order 10 cm in diameter, with a mass
of a few milligrams. The sails are accelerated by the pressure of the laser light they reflect, and because of
their low absorption, they can survive very high fluxes and accelerations, so the laser can launch one sail
every few seconds for a period of years. The resulting “beam” of millions of sails is used to push an interstellar vehicle, which may mass several tons, up to close to the sail velocity. The sails transfer their
momentum to the probe by being converted to plasma and reflected from a probe-generated magnetic field (a MagSail).

After several years of acceleration, the probe coasts to its destination, and uses its reconfigured
MagSail as a drag brake against the interstellar medium and the target star’s stellar wind, allowing the
probe to slow essentially to rest in the target system.

The purpose of the Phase 1 NIAC study was to attempt to understand the physical feasibility and physical and engineering limitations of the SailBeam concept, and to develop a system model to help understand the scaling of a SailBeam system.

The key results of the Phase 1 study are as follows:
1. No show stoppers were found; SailBeam can be made to work assuming only known physics and materials, although maximum system performance depends on improvements in materials, especially sail properties.

2. The most serious current limitation appears to be the relatively high absorption of real thin films, typically 10^-5 of the incident flux, as compared to the desired absorption of less than 10^-8. If lower absorption films cannot be fabricated, then SailBeam will still work, but will need to use larger, lower acceleration sails, with an associated penalty in the achievable velocity or the required laser and telescope size. However, the prospects for making lower-absorption films are good.

3. The most promising sail material is artificial diamond film, due to its high refractive index, low density,
and good mechanical properties. Diamond provides much higher performance than glass, which was the original concept baseline. Alternatives include zirconium oxide, titanium oxide, silicon (transparent in the mid-infrared), glass (doped SiO2) and pure SiO2.

4. Two- to four-layer sails are desirable to make efficient use of laser power. The reflectivity of a single quarter-wavelength layer of glass is only 19%, while the reflectivity of three quarter-wavelength glass layers spaced a quarter wavelength apart is 79%, reducing the laser power needed to accelerate a given mass of sails by a factor of 4.

5. MagSail coupling of microsail momentum is feasible, although it may drive the minimum vehicle mass. Sails can be converted to plasma by a kilojoule-class ultraviolet laser mounted on the vehicle, and reflected from a ~0.1 T field generated by a superconducting loop with a 100 meter radius carrying 16 million amperes. The mass of such a loop is about 1000 kg with foreseeable superconductor technology.

6. A SailBeam-launched probe can decelerate by using its MagSail to drag against the ionized component of the interstellar medium, although the MagSail loop should be redeployed to a larger radius and lower field configuration for optimum braking. Braking from 0.1 c to ~100 km/s takes typically 3 decades, consistent with 50 – 100 year interstellar travel times at 0.1 c. Faster deceleration may be possible using the M2P2 mini-magnetosphere sail concept. The drag of the MagSail in its launch configuration is significant compared to the average SailBeam thrust. We solve this by using a novel MagSail configuration, cancelling the SailBeam coupling field at large distances with the field from a larger, lower-current loop.

7. SailBeam scales poorly to low-velocity missions (below ~1% of c), including interstellar precursor missions, due to the inherent energy-inefficiency of using photon momentum for propulsion at low velocities. Using high-velocity microsails to carry kinetic energy, rather than momentum, is more flexible and efficient than the basic SailBeam concept, but requires more complex vehicles and still needs very large lasers and optics for the sail launcher. There may be ways to improve the performance of a SailBeam system for low-velocity missions, but a more promising option is to use the same technologies (large lasers and optics) for direct energy transmission, with laser-thermal or laser electric propulsion.

8. We developed preliminary concepts for sail stabilization and active sail guidance, but additional work is needed to refine these approaches. Active guidance is needed to enable the sails to intercept the vehicle over light-year distances, and can be implemented using simple photosensors and microelectronic/micromechanical hardware carried by the microsails.

9. The telescope requirements for SailBeam can be further reduced by using multiple “relay” telescopes spaced along the acceleration path. This also allows considerable extra system design freedom, including the ability to reduce the sail flux and acceleration and to use multiple smaller lasers to replace one large laser.