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The first international contest to let students shape the future of interstellar travel.
About this project
Haven’t you once looked up into the night sky and were awestruck by this majestic, yet silent landscape? The carpet of stars and galaxies seemingly so close that you would just have to stretch out your hand to touch them? And maybe the obvious question came into your mind: Can we get there?
When I was a kid, on a warm summer night, I was lying on a spot of grass, alone, the hum of a highway far away, and asked myself exactly this question. Can I get there? Can I reach the stars? I could not answer this question. But I needed to find out…
The idea behind Project Dragonfly, sending small spacecraft, to another star, propelled by a laser beam, emerged in early 2013 when I visited Professor Gregory Matloff in New York. Greg is one of the key figures in interstellar research. We talked about different propulsion methods for going to the stars and realized that nobody had yet done a design for an interstellar laser-propelled mission. Soon after this conversation, Project Dragonfly was officially announced by the Initiative for Interstellar Studies. However, it took another year to get to the point where we were able to organize an international design competition in order to speed up our search for a feasible mission to another star, based on technologies of the near future.
-Andreas Hein, Deputy Director i4is, Project Lead Dragonfly
Today, we live in a unique period of time: we may soon have the technological capabilities to build and launch a spacecraft to the stars. Isn’t that amazing? Humanity has existed for over 200,000 years and now we live in a time where we can work towards going to the stars. More precisely, scientists and engineers have been working on approaches to get to the stars since about 50 years.
What is Project Dragonfly?
Many previous approaches for going to the stars have depended on extremely large and heavy spacecraft, based on concepts such as nuclear propulsion systems, for example nuclear fusion or antimatter. Besides the technological barriers to realising these propulsion systems, they have another disadvantage: they all have to carry their fuel with them, which is then burnt to generate the propulsive thrust. As interstellar travel requires velocities at least of a couple of percent of the speed of light, large quantities of fuel are required. And by large, we mean really large! Existing concepts of fusion-propelled spacecraft are as heavy as skyscrapers. Accelerating all the fuel which is ultimately burnt is actually not a very efficient way to get to the stars
Project Dragonfly aims at a different approach: the spacecraft don’t carry any propellant with them. But how can you propel a spacecraft without any propellant? The answer is that you use an external source of energy. The basic idea is not new - it is, in fact, very old. For centuries, humans have travelled the seas using sailing ships. We also plan to use a sail. But a sail which is made of an extremely thin reflective surface. This sail would be illuminated by a laser beam from a laser power station somewhere in the solar system. The photons of the laser beam push the sail, similar to the wind pushing a sail of a sail ship. And by pushing the sail, the spacecraft slowly accelerates. However, as the spacecraft does not use any on-board fuel, it can accelerate to very high velocities in the range of several percent of the speed of light.
Furthermore, Project Dragonfly builds upon the recent trend of miniaturization of space systems. Just a few decades ago, thousands of people were involved in developing the first satellite Sputnik. Today, a handful of university students are able to build a satellite with the same capability as Sputnik, which is much cheaper and weighs hundreds of times less than the first satellite. We simply think further. What could we do with the technologies in about 20-30 years from now? Would it be possible to build spacecraft that can go to the stars but are as small as today’s picosatellites or even smaller?
Why a competition?
Usually space engineers develop a preliminary engineering design. They use this initially study to see if such a mission is indeed possible and what technologies are needed. If the study is deemed feasible, investments in developing the required technologies and in hiring and training the right people can be made.
Thus, an engineering design is the first step towards realizing an interstellar mission. This is exactly the purpose of the Project Dragonfly Design Competition. Five international university teams are currently working on studies for a small laser-propelled interstellar spacecraft. The final design reports of the teams shall cover all areas, which are relevant to make the mission a success and to return 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 teams and i4is will meet in London later this year in order to evaluate their designs
The results from the competition shall serve as a basis for future technology development for the realisation of such a mission. With the increasing interest in cubesats and solar sails, this is becoming ever more likely.
originally posted by: DuckforcoveR
The bummer for me is that some if the coolest things to see in the night sky wouldn't be reached in my lifetime even at the full speed of light. But this is a fantastic start 😊
a reply to: JadeStar