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Journal Article

Low-cost precursor of an interstellar mission


Heller,  René
Department Solar and Stellar Interiors, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Max Planck Society;

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Heller, R., Anglada-Escudé, G., Hippke, M., & Kervella, P. (2020). Low-cost precursor of an interstellar mission. Astronomy and Astrophysics, 641: A45. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/202038687.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0006-FAEB-8
The solar photon pressure provides a viable source of thrust for spacecraft in the solar system. Theoretically it could also enable interstellar missions, but an extremely small mass per cross section area is required to overcome the solar gravity. We identify aerographite, a synthetic carbon-based foam with a density of 0.18 kg m−3 (15 000 times more lightweight than aluminum) as a versatile material for highly efficient propulsion with sunlight. A hollow aerographite sphere with a shell thickness ϵshl  =  1 mm could go interstellar upon submission to solar radiation in interplanetary space. Upon launch at 1 AU from the Sun, an aerographite shell with ϵshl  =  0.5 mm arrives at the orbit of Mars in 60 d and at Pluto’s orbit in 4.3 yr. Release of an aerographite hollow sphere, whose shell is 1 μm thick, at 0.04 AU (the closest approach of the Parker Solar Probe) results in an escape speed of nearly 6900 km s−1 and 185 yr of travel to the distance of our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. The infrared signature of a meter-sized aerographite sail could be observed with JWST up to 2 AU from the Sun, beyond the orbit of Mars. An aerographite hollow sphere, whose shell is 100 μm thick, of 1 m (5 m) radius weighs 230 mg (5.7 g) and has a 2.2 g (55 g) mass margin to allow interstellar escape. The payload margin is ten times the mass of the spacecraft, whereas the payload on chemical interstellar rockets is typically a thousandth of the weight of the rocket. Using 1 g (10 g) of this margin (e.g., for miniature communication technology with Earth), it would reach the orbit of Pluto 4.7 yr (2.8 yr) after interplanetary launch at 1 AU. Simplistic communication would enable studies of the interplanetary medium and a search for the suspected Planet Nine, and would serve as a precursor mission to α Centauri. We estimate prototype developments costs of 1 million USD, a price of 1000 USD per sail, and a total of < 10 million USD including launch for a piggyback concept with an interplanetary mission.