‘Dynamic pitch’ trick could accelerate spacecraft in interstellar space: ScienceAlert

‘Dynamic pitch’ trick could accelerate spacecraft in interstellar space: ScienceAlert

Sailing to the stars on the scale of human life can be a matter of picking the right kind of wind.

Researchers from McGill University in Canada and the Tau Zero Foundation in the US have proposed a new way to traverse the extraordinary distances of interstellar space using a lot of nothing and a little inspiration from seabirds.

So far, one of the most promising solutions for space travel uses the spectrum of starlight emitted by the Sun. Although small in impact, the large numbers and high velocities make photons an intriguing source of energy for building the high speed needed to cross light years of void in a short amount of time.

Innovations in solar sail technology have progressed significantly over the years, with models as far as tested in the hostile environment of our inner solar system.

Although functional, all solar sails have one drawback in common: the sail itself. Solar sails must stretch for meters to capture the photons needed to propel a ship.

They also need the right shape and material to convert the tiny fraction of each photon’s momentum into motion. And they need to dissipate heat well enough not to warp and break.

This is not just a materials science headache; all these requirements add mass. Even if we used the lightest materials known, the fastest speeds we could achieve using the radiation from our Sun would be just over 2 percent the speed of light, which means that the journey to the nearest star will take several centuries.

Needless to say, sailing to the stars would be a lot easier if we could do away with the sail part.

Fortunately, another kind of storm is blowing from the solar surface, made not of photons but of plasma of ions, whipped into a fury by the snap and crackle of the Sun’s magnetic fields.

Although there are far fewer high-speed electrons and protons blasting from the Sun than photons, their charged masses are stronger.

Such particles would normally be a problem for typical sails, transferring their charges to the surface of the material like static charge on a wool jumper in winter, creating drag and changing the shape of the sail.

Yet, as anyone who has ever tried to push the poles of magnets knows all too well, an electromagnetic field can provide resistance without requiring a large, solid surface.

So, goodbye shiny material, and hello superconductor. A cable just a few meters long could, in theory, create a field wide enough to deflect the Sun’s charged wind on a scale of tens to hundreds of kilometers.

The system would act more like a magnetic parachute, towed by a stream of particles traveling at speeds of nearly 700 kilometers (about 430 miles) per second, or just under a quarter of a percent of the speed of light.

This is not bad, but as birds like the albatross knowwinds do not determine speed limits when it comes to flying high.

By entering and exiting air masses moving at different speeds, seabirds can capture the energy of the crosswind using what is known as dynamic elevation to gain speed before returning to their original trajectory.

Using a similar trick in the “headwind” of the break shock – turbulent zone of contrasting stellar winds used by astronomers to define the edge of our Solar System—a magnetic sail can exceed the speed of the solar wind, potentially putting it within range of solar sails based on radiation alone.

Although the technology may not initially appear to be much faster than the “traditional” solar sail method, other forms of turbulence at the fringes of interstellar space may provide a greater boost.

Even without a slight nudge from dynamic elevation, feasible plasma-based technology could put cubic satellites around Jupiter within months, not years.

Like the age of sail of yesteryear, there are many ways we can take advantage of the currents that flow through the vastness of space.

Yet the seabirds show us the way.

This research was published in Frontiers in space technology.

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