Space travel can be agonizingly slow. The New Horizons probe took almost 10 years to reach Pluto. Traveling to Proxima Centauri b would require thousands of years with even the biggest rockets. Although it is the closest habitable planet to Earth. New research calculated that low-power lasers on Earth could launch and maneuver small probes equipped with silicon or boron nitride sails. It will propel them to much faster speeds than rocket engines.
Instead of catching wind, “laser sails” would catch laser beams. They could push spacecraft to nearly the speed of light. Scientists have been working on this concept. One privately funded project called the Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to send a small, sailed probe weighing about a gram to Proxima Centauri b. The flight will take only 20 years. It would be propelled to 20% of light speed by a 100 GW.
Scientists wondered if much lower-power, smaller laser arrays could find use in applications where conventional electric and chemical rockets are now used. The lasers might be able to adjust the orbit of satellites after launch or propel tiny sailed probes on interplanetary or interstellar missions. This would not require large amounts of fuel.
Scientists performed calculations. They showed even lasers with powers of about 100 kW and array sizes of about a meter could power a 1-gram probe at velocities far exceeding the current record. This took only minutes to hours of laser illumination. The lasers could maneuver small probes between different Earth orbits in only a day, according to their calculations. It is not possible with current electrical and chemical rockets.
Scientists determined that the best materials for the laser sails were silicon nitride and boron nitride structured at the nanoscale. These have allowed high reflectivity and rapid cooling. Scientists calculated allowed high reflectivity and rapid cooling. It will reach five times higher velocities than the New Horizons probe. This prototype sailed spacecraft could pave the wave for fast space exploration and future interstellar flight. These are driven by low-power lasers.