Tuesday, Feb 7th: Enabling the First Interstellar Missions

Event Date: 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 4:00pm

Event Date Details: 

Refreshments will be served at 3:40 p.m.

Event Location: 

  • Broida 1640
  • Physics Colloquium

Recent advances in photonics and directed energy systems now allow us to realize what was only a decade ago, simply science fiction. Spacecraft from fully-functional gram-level wafer-scale systems (“wafer sats”)  capable of speeds greater than ¼ c  that could reach the nearest star in 20 years to spacecraft for large missions capable of supporting human life with masses more than 105 kg (100 tons) for rapid interplanetary transit that could reach speeds of greater than 1000 km/s can be realized. With this technology spacecraft can be propelled to speeds currently unimaginable with our existing propulsion technologies.

To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and our definition of what a spacecraft is. In addition to larger spacecraft, capable of transporting humans, we focus on “spacecraft on a wafer” that include integrated optical communications, imaging and spectroscopy systems, navigation, photon thrusters, radiation and magnetic field sensors combined with directed energy propulsion. Since the propulsion system stays “at home” the costs can be amortized over a very large number of missions. Interplanetary shuttle missions, to Mars for example, could be enabled if a second unit were built at the target planet. In addition, the same photon driver can be used for planetary defense, space debris vaporization and de-orbiting, beaming energy to distant spacecraft, beaming power for high Isp ion engine missions, asteroid mining, sending power back to Earth for high value needs, stand-off composition analysis, long range laser communications, SETI searches, and even terraforming both on the Earth and Mars. This would be a profound voyage for humanity, one whose non-scientific implications would be enormous.  In April 2015 NASA began our Phase I funding followed by a Phase II effort in 2016. On April 12 the Breakthrough Foundation announced that they would support this effort with a 100M$ Research and Development program called Breakthrough Starshot that would explore the fundamental technology underlying this. On May 12 NASA announced the Phase II funding for our Directed Energy for Interstellar Studies (DEIS) program. On May 23 the FY 2017 congressional appropriations request for NASA directs NASA to study the feasibility of an interstellar mission to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the moon landing using our work as one option. We will discuss the transformative implications this program has for the future.

For technical information on this program see our website: