On the subject of interstellar traveling challenges, there are no easy routes. The distances are massive, the amounts of energy required to hop on the journey are enormous, and the time frames involved are colossal.
Researchers have now started to consider the travel between stars using ships that use the natural phenomena to attain relativistic speeds. Experts have found situations where objects in the Universe are able to do this, including hypervelocity stars and meteors accelerated by supernova eruptions.
On the matter of the subject, Harvard professors Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb recently analyzed how an interstellar spacecraft would be able to use the waves generated by a supernova explosion in a similar way sailing ships use the wind.
The research that details their findings, “Propulsion of Spacecrafts to Relativistic Speeds Using Natural Astrophysical Sources,” appeared online not long ago. As the researchers explain in the paper, it is feasible that a civilization advanced enough could utilize the jets of energy generated by supernovae to speed up a spacecraft to relativistic velocities.
These vehicles would be able to use the explosive power utilizing a light sail, also known as a solar sail, or magnetic sail, two propulsion ideas that have been analyzed thoroughly by astrophysicists. These concepts depend on the electromagnetic radiation produced by the Sun to create pressure against a highly-introspective sail, therefore, generating propulsion in a manner that doesn’t need engines or propellant.
Using Natural Phenomena as Fuel
Initially, Loeb detailed his idea in an article published in the journal Scientific American on February 6th of this year, titled “Surfing a Supernova.” According to him, a supernova would be able to accelerate a light sail that weighs no more than a half a gram per square meter to relativistic velocities, even if it were millions of kilometers away.
In other words, the energy and brightness produced by a supernova are identical to what a billion suns would create in an average month. While solar wind would be capable of only fueling a light sail to one-thousandth the speed of light (0.01% or 0.001 c), a supernova could accelerate such a sail in a rather easy manner to one-tenth the speed of light (0.1 c).
To test this theory, Lingam and Loeb estimated how a light sail could be sped up by the eruption of a number of astrophysical bodies. This includes gigantic stars, microquasars, supernovae, active galactic nuclei, as well as pulsar wind nebulae.
Lingam, the lead author of the resulting research, explained: “We developed mathematical models to determine the maximum speed that is attainable by light sails and electric sails. The maximum speeds varied depending on the propulsion system utilized as well as the astrophysical objects in consideration.”
Overall, the advantages of this concept are obvious. In comparison to the regular light sails and magnetic sails, a sail that benefits from the energy generated by an exploding star would be able to attain relativistic velocities with no need for expensive tools.
With more cosmic objects to be on the lookout for, the next-generation telescopes appearing soon might help researchers find alien life and a way to travel to stars with vehicles relying on natural phenomena.