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Propulsion of Spacecrafts to Relativistic Speeds Using Natural Astrophysical Sources
Manasvi Lingam1, 2 and Abraham Loeb2
1Department of Aerospace, Physics and Space Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne FL 32901, USA2Institute for Theory and Computation, Harvard University, Cambridge MA 02138, USA
In this paper, we explore the possibility of using natural astrophysical sources to acceleratespacecrafts to relativistic speeds. We focus on light sails and electric sails, which are reliant onmomentum transfer from photons and protons, respectively, because these two classes of spacecraftsare not required to carry fuel on board. The payload is assumed to be stationed near the astrophysicalsource, and the sail is subsequently unfolded and activated when the source is functional. Byconsidering a number of astrophysical objects such as massive stars, microquasars, supernovae, pulsarwind nebulae, and active galactic nuclei, we show that speeds approaching the speed of light mightbe realizable under broad circumstances. We also investigate the constraints arising from the ambientsource environment as well as during the passage through the interstellar medium. While both ofthese considerations pose significant challenges to spacecrafts, we estimate that they are not in-surmountable. Finally, we sketch the implications for carrying out future searches for technosignatures.
The 1950s-1970s witnessed an unprecedented invest-ment of time, money and resources in developing spaceexploration, but the decades that followed proved tobe more fallow (McDougall 1985; Burrows 1998; Nealet al. 2008; McCurdy 2011; Brinkley 2019). In recenttimes, however, there has been a renewed interest in theresumption of space exploration. For example, NASAhas announced their intentions to return humans to theMoon,1 and thereafter land people on Mars in the near-future.2 In parallel, a number of private companies suchas Space X have also announced their plans to make hu-manity a “multi-planetary species” (Musk 2017).
In light of the renewed interest in space exploration,increasing attention is being devoted to modeling newpropulsion systems (Frisbee 2003; Long 2011). Whilstchemical rockets still remain the de facto mode of spaceexploration, they are beset by a number of difficulties.First and foremost, their necessity of having to trans-port fuel on board imposes prohibitive requirements ontheir mass and economic cost. Second, by virtue of therocket equation, they are severely hampered in termsof the maximum speeds that they can reach. As a re-sult, numerous alternative technologies are being seri-ously pursued that do not require the on-board trans-
Corresponding author: Manasvi Lingam
1 https://www.nasa.gov/specials/apollo50th/back.html2 https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/
port of fuel (Tajmar 2003). Examples in this categoryinclude light sails (Zander 1924; Forward 1984; McInnes2004; Vulpetti 2012; Lubin 2016), magnetic sails (Zubrin& Andrews 1991; Djojodihardjo 2018) and electric sails(Janhunen 2004; Janhunen et al. 2010).
When it comes to interplanetary travel within the in-ner Solar system, speeds of order tens of km/s sufficeto undertake space exploration over a human lifetime.However, in the case of interstellar travel, there are sig-nificant benefits that arise from developing propulsiontechnologies that are capable of attaining a fraction ofthe speed of light. The recently launched BreakthroughStarhot initiative is a natural example, because it aimsto send a gram-sized spacecraft to Proxima Centauri at20% the speed of light by employing a laser-driven lightsail (Popkin 2017; Worden et al. 2018).3 Setting asidethe technical challenges, one of the striking aspects ofthis mission is the energetic cost that it entails - thelaser array that accelerates the light sail must have apeak transmission power of ∼ 100 GW (Parkin 2018).
Hence, this immediately raises the question of whetherit is feasible to harness natural astrophysical sourcesto achieve relativistic speeds to undertake interstellartravel (Loeb 2020).4 Fortunately, the universe is re-plete with high-energy astrophysical phenomena. Manyof them are highly efficient at accelerating particles suchas electrons, protons and even dust to relativistic speeds
3 https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/34 The pros and cons of interstellar travel have been extensively
debated, and a summary of the benefits arising from interstellartravel can be found in Crawford (2014).
(Rosswog & Bruggen 2007; Melia 2009; Longair 2011;Draine 2011; Hoang et al. 2015). Likewise, it ought tobe feasible to tap these sources and drive spacecraftsto relativistic speeds. Not only does it have the advan-tage of potentially cutting costs for technological speciesbut it may also lower their likelihood of being detectedbecause propulsion via laser arrays engender distinctivetechnosignatures (Guillochon & Loeb 2015; Benford &Benford 2016; Lingam & Loeb 2017).
In this paper, we investigate whether it is feasible toutilize natural astrophysical sources to achieve high ter-minal speeds, which can approach the speed of light insome cases. We will study two different classes of propul-sion systems herein - light sails in Sec. 2, and electricsails in Sec. 3. In both instances, we suppose that thepayload is parked at the initial distance from the sourcewith its sail folded and the latter is unfurled at the timeof launch (i.e., when the source becomes active). Oncethe acceleration phase is over, the sail would be foldedback to reduce damage and friction, with the payloaddesigned such that its cross-sectional area parallel tothe direction of the motion is minimized. We concludewith a summary of our findings and the limitations ofour analysis, and briefly delineate the ramifications fordetecting technosignatures in Sec. 4.
2. LIGHT SAILS
We will investigate the prospects for accelerating lightsails to high speeds using astrophysical sources.
2.1. Terminal velocity of relativistic light sails
Although we will deal with weakly relativistic lightsails for the majority of our analysis, it is instructive totackle the relativistic case first; this scenario was firstmodeled by Marx (1966). For a light sail powered byan isotropic astrophysical source of constant luminos-ity (L?), and supposing that the sail reflectance (R)is nearly equal to unity, the corresponding equation ofmotion is derivable from Equation (2) of Macchi et al.(2009) and Equation (9) of Kulkarni et al. (2018):
(1− β1 + β
where β = v/c, γ = 1/√
1− β2, and Σs is the mass perunit area of the sail; we adopt the fiducial value of Σ0 ≈2×10−4 kg/m2 as it could be feasible in the near-future(Parkin 2018). Note that v denotes the instantaneousvelocity of the sail, and r represents the time-varyingdistance between the sail.
In deriving this equation, we have not accounted forthe inward gravitational acceleration, but this term isnegligible provided that L? & 0.01L (Lingam & Loeb2020). Likewise, we have neglected the drag force asit does not alter the results significantly in the limits ofβ → 0 and β → 1 (Hoang 2017). We have also presumedthat the light sail preserves an orientation parallel to the
source at all points during its acceleration. This requiresthe selection of a suitable sail architecture (Manchester& Loeb 2017) as well as the deployment of nanophotonicstructures for self-stabilization (Ilic & Atwater 2019).Lastly, we implicitly work with the scenario in whichthe payload mass (Mpl) is distinctly smaller than, orcomparable at most, to the sail mass (Ms).
Next, after employing the relation dt = dr/(βc) andintegrating (1), we arrive at
√1 + βT (−1 + 2βT )
(1− βT )3/2
where d0 represents the initial distance from the source(i.e., when the light sail is launched) and βT is the nor-malized terminal velocity achieved by the light sail. In-stead of calculating βT , it is more instructive to expressour results in terms of the spatial component of the4-velocity, namely, UT = βT γT because UT → βT forβT 1 and UT → γT for βT 1.
The next aspect to consider is the initial launch dis-tance. While this appears to be a free parameter, it willbe constrained by thermal properties in reality (McInnes2004, Chapter 2.6). We introduce the notation ε = 1−R(note that ε 1) and denote the sail temperature atthe initial location by Ts. If we suppose that the sailbehaves as a blackbody, we obtain
≈ σT 4s , (3)
which can be duly inverted to solve for d0, thus yielding
d0 ≈ 0.17 AU( ε
We have introduced the fiducial values of ε ≈ 0.01 andTs ≈ 300 K. The choice for ε is somewhat optimistic be-cause this value is the aggregate across all wavelengths,but it might be realizable through the use of multilayerstacking techniques (Atwater et al. 2018, Figure 3).5
The temperature of 300 K was chosen on the premisethat it represents a comfortable value for organic life-forms as well as electronic instrumentation. After com-bining (3) and (2), the latter is expressible as
√1 + βT (−1 + 2βT )
(1− βT )3/2
]≈ T 2
5 In our subsequent analysis, we will primarily focus on light sailsin the optical, infrared and radio bands, implying that ε embodiesthe absorptivity at these wavelengths.
0.001 0.010 0.100 1 100.01
Terminal value of γβ
Figure 1. The luminosity of the source (units of L) as
a function of the terminal value of γβ, with the other free
parameters in (6) held fixed at their fiducial values.
and upon substituting the previously specified parame-ters, the above equation simplifies to
L?L≈ 5.8× 1011
√1 + βT (−1 + 2βT )
(1− βT )3/2
If we know the terminal speed that we wish to achieveusing a suitable astrophysical source, we can employ thisequation to estimate the requisite luminosity of the ob-ject. Before proceeding further, it is useful to considertwo limiting cases. First, in the non-relativistic regimecorresponding to βT 1, we obtain
L?L≈ 1.3× 1012 β4
Next, if we consider the ultrarelativistic regime whereinγT 1, we find that (6) reduces to
L?L≈ 9.3× 1012 γ6T
Hence, anticipating later results, it is evident that at-taining the ultrarelativistic regime is very difficult be-cause it necessitates L? 1013 L.
In Fig. 1, we have plotted the luminosity of the astro-physical source as a function of UT . We have restrictedthe lower bound to 0.01L because gravitational acceler-ation becomes important below this luminosity as notedpreviously, and the upper bound has been chosen basedon the most luminous quasars. In the case of UT 1,
we observe that the luminosity requirements are rela-tively modest. For example, we find that L? ≈ L leadsto βT ≈ 10−3. However, once we approach the regime ofUT ∼ 1, the associated luminosity becomes very large,eventually exceeding that of virtually all astrophysicalobjects. By inspecting the figure, it is observed that theplot behaves as a power law with an exponent of +4 upto UT & 0.1, as expected from (7).
2.2. Terminal speeds of light sails powered byastrophysical sources
At this point, it is useful to address some long-livedastrophysical sources in more detail. First, we con-sider the hottest and most massive stars in the Uni-verse, whose luminosity can be roughly approximatedby the Eddington luminosity (Kippenhahn et al. 2012,Equation 22.10). When expressed in terms of the stellarmass M?, the luminosity is given by
L? ≈ 3.8× 104 L
Hence, upon specifying M? ≈ 200M, given that itseems characteristic of certain massive Wolf-Rayet starsin the Large Magellanic Cloud, the above scaling yieldsL? ≈ 7.6×106 L and thereby evinces reasonable agree-ment with observations (Hainich et al. 2014; Crowtheret al. 2016). From Fig. 1, we find that this luminosityyields a terminal speed of βT ≈ 0.05.
Along similar lines, final speeds of ∼ 0.01c are attain-able by light sails near low mass X-ray binaries becausethese objects have bolometric luminosities of . 106L;these objects have the additional benefit of being long-lived, as their lifespans can reach ∼ 0.1 Gyr (Gilfanov2004). Another class of objects that give rise to similarspeeds are a particular category of X-ray binaries, knowncolloquially as microquasars (Becker 2008). As thesesources comprise black holes with masses of ∼ 1-10M(Mirabel 2001; Cherepashchuk et al. 2005), the use of(9) suggests that their typical luminosities are on theorder of 105 − 106L, thereby giving rise to βT ∼ 0.01.
The next class of objects to consider are Active Galac-tic Nuclei (AGNs), whose luminosities are estimatedvia (9); the only difference is that M? should be re-placed with the mass (MBH) of the supermassive blackhole (Krolik 1999). As per theory and observations,MBH ∼ 1011M constitutes an upper bound for super-massive black holes in the current universe (McConnellet al. 2011; Inayoshi & Haiman 2016; Pacucci et al.2017; Dullo et al. 2017; Inayoshi et al. 2019). Whenthis limit is substituted into (9) after invoking the factthat the Eddington factor is typically around unity dur-ing the quasar phase (Marconi et al. 2004), we findL? ∼ 3.8 × 1015 L. By plugging this value into (6),we end up with γT ≈ 2.9. In other words, the most lu-minous AGNs are capable of driving light sails into therelativistic regime, but not to ultrarelativistic speeds.
Table 1. Terminal momentum per unit mass achievable by
light sails near astrophysical objects
Source Terminal momentum (γβ)
Sun ∼ 10−4
Massive stars ∼ 0.01-0.1
Low-mass X-ray binaries ∼ 0.01
Microquasars ∼ 0.01
Supernovae ∼ 0.1-1
Active Galactic Nuclei . 10
Gamma-ray bursts < 10
Notes: γβ denotes the terminal momentum per unit mass.
It is important to recognize that this table yields the maxi-
mum terminal momentum per unit mass attainable by light
sails. In actuality, however, some of the sources will either
be too transient (e.g., GRBs) to achieve the requisite speeds
or manifest high particle densities that may cause damage
to light sails; these issues are further analyzed in Secs. 2.3
and 2.4. Based on these reasons, the above speeds should be
regarded as optimistic; for more details, see Sec. 2.2.
Next, we turn our attention to supernovae (SNe).There are many categories of supernovae, each poweredby different physical mechanisms, owing to which theidentification of a standard luminosity is rendered dif-ficult. A general rule of thumb is to assume a peakluminosity of 109L (Branch & Wheeler 2017, Chap-ter 1), which yields βT ≈ 0.15 after using (6); in otherwords, typical SNe may accelerate light sails to rela-tivistic speeds (Loeb 2020). It is, however, importantto recognize that a special class of supernovae, knownas superluminous supernovae (SLSNe), have peak lu-minosities that are & 100 times larger than normalevents (Gal-Yam 2019). Calculations based on numeri-cal simulations and empirical data suggest that the up-per bound on the peak luminosity of SLNe is approxi-mately 5.2 × 1012 L (Sukhbold & Woosley 2016). Byapplying (6), we obtain βT ≈ 0.66, thereby suggestingthat extreme SLSNe could accelerate light sails to sig-nificantly relativistic speeds.
2.3. Acceleration time for weakly relativistic light sails
The previous consideration of SNe brings up a crucialcaveat that merits further scrutiny. Hitherto, we haveimplicitly operated under two implicit assumptions con-cerning the astrophysical object: (i) it has a constantluminosity (L?), and (ii) it remains functional for a suf-ficiently long time to effectively enable the light sail toattain speeds that are close to the terminal value calcu-lated in 6). It is apparent that these two assumptionswill be violated for objects that are highly luminous, butremain so only for a transient period of time; examplesof such objects are SNe and gamma-ray bursts (GRBs).
vF = 0.05 c
vF = 0.1 c
vF = 0.2 c
107 1010 10130.001
Luminosity of source (L⊙)
Figure 2. The distance travelled by the light sail (units of
pc) to achieve the desired final velocity (vF ) as a function of
the luminosity of the source (units of L) using (12). The
red, black and blue curves correspond to different choices of
vF , while the other parameters are held fixed at their nominal
values in (12).
In contrast, massive stars and AGNs are functional overlong timescales (& 106 yr).
Hence, it becomes necessary to address another ma-jor question: What is the time required for a light sailto achieve a desired final velocity (vF )? We will adoptvF ∼ 0.1c because this is close to the terminal speedsassociated with several high-energy astrophysical phe-nomena as well as comparable to the speed of laser-powered light sails such as Breakthrough Starshot. More-over, as this speed is weakly relativistic, it is ostensiblyreasonable to utilize the non-relativistic counterpart of(1) without the loss of much accuracy (McInnes 2004,Chapter 7.3). Upon integrating the non-relativistic ver-sion of (1), by taking the limit β 1, we get
v2 ≈ L?πcΣsd0
Hence, the distance covered by the light sail before itattains the desired speed of vF is defined as ∆r = rF −d0, where rF is the location at which v = vF is attained.Hence, upon further simplification, we end up with
∆r ≈ d0[
where we have introduced the notation βF = vF /c. Bymaking use of (3), the above equation reduces to
∆r ≈ 0.17 AU( ε
)−1 ( ε
It is apparent from inspecting the above equation that∆r > 0 necessitates very high luminosities. This re-quirement is expected, because Fig. 1 illustrates thatreaching a terminal speed on the order of 0.1c is feasibleonly for highly luminous sources. We have plotted ∆ras a function of L? in Fig. 2. To begin with, we noticethat ∆r > 0 only for sufficiently high luminosities asexplained previously. Second, at large luminosities, it isfound that ∆r becomes independent of L?. This trend isdiscernible from (12) after assuming that the first terminside the square brackets is much larger than unity.
It is convenient to define the following variable for theensuing analysis:
≈ 9.4× 10−4 c
)1/4 ( ε
By integrating (10) and invoking the definition of v∞,we end up with
r+ d0 tanh−1
)≈ v∞t. (14)
In particular, we are interested in calculating ∆t, whichis defined as the time at which r = rF and v = vF .This timescale is determined by substituting r = rF in(14), but the final expression proves to be tedious (albeitstraightforward to calculate), owing to which the explicitformula is not provided herein.
Fig. 3 shows ∆t as a function of L? for differentchoices of vF . We observe that ∆t is initially large butit rapidly reaches an asymptotic value, which is inde-pendent of L?. By considering the formal mathematicallimit of L? → ∞ and employing standard asymptotictechniques (Olver 1974), one arrives at ∆t ∼ 2d0vF /v
After using (4) and (13) in this asymptotic expressionfor ∆t, we find that the dependence on L? cancels out,thereby explaining why ∆t attains a value independentof L? in Fig. 3.
From an inspection of Fig. 3, it is evident thatAGNs comfortably satisfy the requirements for ∆t be-cause they are typically active over timescales compara-ble to the Salpeter time, which has characteristic values
vF = 0.05 c
vF = 0.1 c
vF = 0.2 c
107 1010 10130.1
Luminosity of source (L⊙)
Figure 3. The time required by the light sail (units of yr)
to achieve the desired final velocity (vF ) as a function of the
luminosity of the source (units of L) using (14). The red,
black and blue curves correspond to different choices of vF ,
while the other parameters are held fixed.
of ∼ 10-100 Myr (Shen 2013). In the case of SNe, wesee that ∆t ∼ 0.6 yr is necessary to achieve a speed of∼ 0.1 c, but this number can be lowered further by tun-ing the other parameters; for example, increasing thetemperature by 50% yields ∆t ∼ 43 days. This estimateis comparable to the typical peak luminosity timescaleof most classes of SNe, which is on the order of months(Sukhbold & Woosley 2016). Hence, it is conceivablethat the timescale over which SNe are operational suf-fices to power light sails to weakly relativistic speeds.
The situation is rendered very different, however,when we consider GRBs. In theory, the peak luminosi-ties of GRBs are sufficiently high to enable UT 1 tobe achieved in accordance with (6) and Fig. 1. This isbecause most GRBs that have been detected are char-acterized by peak values of L? > 1016L, although low-luminosity GRBs have also been identified (Zhang et al.2018). However, the real bottleneck is the timescale overwhich these phenomena are active - even the ultra-longGRBs have timescales of ∼ 104 s (Gendre et al. 2013;Kumar & Zhang 2015). Hence, upon comparison withFig. 3, we see that this timescale is insufficient to ac-celerate the light sails to ∼ 0.1c. In addition, the closeproximity of light sails to GRBs may cause damage toinstruments and biota due to the high fluxes of ioniz-ing radiation (Melott & Thomas 2011). Finally, thehigh output of X-rays and γ-rays may cause heating viaε→ 100% in (3), and diminished radiation pressure be-cause (1) would be corrected by a factor of (1 − ε)/2(Macchi et al. 2009, Equation 2) that can become small.
2.4. Constraints on the source environment
During the phase where the light sail is accelerated toits final velocity of vF in the vicinity of the astrophys-ical source, there are some key constraints imposed bythe ambient gas present in the environment. In partic-ular, the following condition must hold true in order toprevent slow-down by the accumulation of gas.
n(r) dr < Σs, (15)
wheremp is the proton mass, n(r) represents the numberdensity and ∆r is the acceleration distance estimatedin (12); the factor of 1.4 accounts for the contributionof helium to the mass density of the gas. To carryout the analysis, we shall assume that the gas densityobeys n(r) ≈ n0(d0/r)
2, which constitutes a reasonableassumption for massive stars (Beasor & Davies 2018),thereby simplifying (15) to
. Σs, (16)
after making use of (10). Upon further simplification,the above equation reduces to
n0 . 2.9× 108 m−3(
)4 ( ε
(17)In comparison, note that the characteristic value of thenumber density in the local interstellar medium (ISM)is around 106 m−3. There are two striking features thatemerge from (17) - it does not depend on the luminosityof the source nor does it depend on the area density ofthe light sail. However, this statement is valid only ifβF is held fixed. Instead, if we presume that βF = δβT(where δ < 1 constitutes the fraction of the terminalspeed achieved), we can utilize (7) to obtain
n0 . 3.3× 1012 m−3 δ−2(L?L
)2 ( ε
Thus, it is evident that n0 increases monotonically withΣs, whereas it declines when L? is increased, both ofwhich are consistent with expectations.
Another major process responsible for the damage oflight sails is ablation caused by impacts with dust grains.The limit on mass ablation is constructed from Bialy &Loeb (2018, Equation 13), thereby yielding
n(r)v2(r) dr < Σs, (19)
wherein χ = 0.2 is the fraction of kinetic energy of thedust grain used to vaporize the sail material, ϕdg is the
dust-to-grain mass ratio, m is the mean atomic weight ofthe ablated material, and U is the vaporization energy.In formulating this expression, it was assumed that thedust grains are moving at much lower speeds than thelight sail. After simplifying the integral, we end up with
. Σs, (20)
and we will tackle the case where βF = δβT . Using thisscaling, the above equation is expressible as
n0 . 1.4× 1012 m−3 δ−4(L?L
)2 ( χ
)−1( U4 eV
A more comprehensive analysis of the drag as well asthe ablation caused by dust grains and gas on weaklyrelativistic light sails has been undertaken in the contextof the ISM by Hoang et al. (2017).
The constraints on n0 set by the astrophysical sourceenvironment are jointly embodied by (18) and (21). Ifall the other parameters are held fixed, we note that (21)constitutes the more stringent constraint for L? > Lc,whereas (18) becomes the more crucial constraint in theregime where L? < Lc. The critical luminosity Lc thatdemarcates these two regimes is
Lc ≈ 0.17L δ−4(
)−4 ( ε
)−2( U4 eV
Hence, if all the parameters are held fixed at their fidu-cial values, we find that L? > Lc is valid for most astro-physical objects of interest provided that δ is not muchsmaller than unity. In other words, the primary con-straint on n0 is apparently set by (21). We will, there-fore, use this result in our subsequent analysis.
The constraint on the number density translates to alimit on the mass-loss rate (M?) of the source via
M? ≈ Ωr2ρw(r)uw(r), (23)
under the assumption of spherical symmetry. Note thatΩ denotes the solid angle over which the mass-loss rateoccurs, whereas ρw(r) and uw(r) are the mass densityand the velocity of the wind. At distances > d0, wewill suppose that uw(r) remains roughly constant, whichappears to be reasonably valid for stars (Vink et al. 2000;Gombosi et al. 2018). We specify r = d0 and utilize
ρ(d0) = 1.4mpn0 in parallel with (18), thus arriving at
M? . 2× 10−10M yr−1δ−4(
)−4 ( ε
)−1 ( ϕdg0.01
)−1( U4 eV
In comparison, the current solar mass-loss rate is givenby M ≈ 2 × 10−14M yr−1 (Linsky 2019). Here, wehave opted to normalize uw by u = 500 km/s, as it cor-responds to the solar wind speed near the Earth (Marsch2006). The most striking aspect of (24) is the fact thatL? is absent therein, which implies that the upper boundon M? is independent of the source luminosity.
Next, we shall direct our attention to massive stars.Observations indicate that the terminal value of uw (de-noted by u∞) is close to the escape speed (vesc) from thestar (Vink et al. 2001; Cranmer & Saar 2011). Thus, itis possible to determine u∞, by utilizing the relationshipu∞ ≈ 1.3vesc (Vink et al. 2000), as follows:
where we have employed the mass-radius relationship formassive stars (Demircan & Kahraman 1991, pg. 320).By combining this relationship with (24), we have ob-tained a heuristic upper bound on the stellar mass-lossrate that permits the efficient functioning of light sailacceleration. The empirical mass-loss rates for massivestars exhibit significant scatter and depend on a numberof parameters such as the pulsation period, gas-to-dustmass ratio, and the luminosity (Goldman et al. 2017).We shall, however, adopt the simple prescription pro-vided in Beasor & Davies (2018, Equation 3) for massivestars at their end stages, which is expressible as
M? ≈ 2.8× 10−25M yr−1(L?L
In the case of intermediate mass stars, we adopt themass-luminosity scaling from Eker et al. (2015, Table 3)and combine it with (24) and (25) to arrive at
Mmax ≈ 9M δ−0.38, (27)
with the rest of the parameters in (24) held fixed at theircharacteristic values. The relevance of Mmax stems fromthe fact that stars with M? &Mmax are potentially inca-pable of accelerating light sails to their terminal speedswithout causing excessive damage in the process. Theabove expression suggests that smaller choices of δ canincrease this threshold to some degree; for example, ifwe choose δ ∼ 0.1, we end up with Mmax ≈ 21.6M.
It is, however, necessary to appreciate that the ambi-ent gas density and the mass-loss rate associated withmassive stars (or AGNs) is not spherically symmetric be-cause it exhibits a strong angular dependence relative tothe rotation axis of the central object (Puls et al. 2008;Smith 2014). Hence, through the selection of launchsites where the density of gas and dust is comparativelylower, the above limit on Mmax could be enhanced to asignificant degree. We will not present an explicit esti-mate of this boost herein due to the inherent complexityof mass-loss from massive stars.
The next astrophysical objects of interest that wedelve into are SNe. The ejecta produced during theexplosion move at typical speeds of ∼ 0.1c (Kelly et al.2014; Branch & Wheeler 2017). By substituting this
estimate for uw in (24), we end up with M? . 1.2 ×10−8M yr−1 δ−4 when all the other parameters areheld fixed. In comparison, the mass-loss rate of the pro-genitor just prior to the explosion is ∼ 0.01-0.1M yr−1
(Kiewe et al. 2012) and it increases by a few orders ofmagnitude during the explosion. Hence, unless δ is suf-ficiently small, it is likely that SNe will cause significantdamage to light sails situated in their vicinity.
Lastly, we turn our attention to AGNs.6 There aretwo contrasting phenomena at work, namely, the inflowof gas that powers SMBHs and feedback-driven outflows(Fabian 2012). These two processes are not mutually ex-clusive and are simultaneously at play in regions such asthe AGN torus, thereby rendering modeling very diffi-cult (Hickox & Alexander 2018). Hence, for the sakeof simplicity, we will suppose that the accretion occursentirely within the Bondi radius (rB), whose magnitudeis (Di Matteo et al. 2003, Equation 1):
rB ≈ 4.6× 10−2 pc
where Tgas represents the temperature of the gas. Thisapproach is consistent with the fact that AGN-drivenoutflows may play important roles at distances as smallas ∼ 0.1 pc (Arav et al. 1994; Hopkins et al. 2016).By comparing this result with (4), after using (9) andassuming an Eddington factor of roughly unity (Marconiet al. 2004), we find d0 > rB for SMBHs. Hence, we willrestrict ourselves to the consideration of outflows.
The accretion of gas in AGNs is accompanied by wide-angle (i.e., non-collimated) outflows whose velocitiesvary widely. Although many quasars exhibit outflowswith speeds of ∼ 0.1c (Krolik 1999; Gibson et al. 2009;Moe et al. 2009), observations of other AGNs have iden-tified winds and outflows at . 0.01c (Fabian 2012, Sec-tion 2.3). Upon substituting the optimistic case given
6 We will not tackle GRBs since they are transient events anddo not therefore achieve speeds close to their asymptotic valueswithin the time period these phenonema are functional.
by uw ∼ 0.1c into (24), we end up with
M? . 1.2× 10−8M yr−1 δ−4. (29)
In order to model the outflow mass-loss rate, we will em-ploy a simple prescription, namely, that the inflow rate isproportional to the inflow (i.e., accretion) rate; the lat-ter, in turn, is modeled using the Eddington accretionrate (Shen 2013). The proportionality constant ζ ex-hibits significant scatter - it ranges between ∼ 0.1-1000(Crenshaw & Kraemer 2012), although values of ζ ∼ 100appear to be more common (Kurosawa & Proga 2009;DeBuhr et al. 2012; Hopkins et al. 2016). As per thepreceding assumptions, the mass-loss rate arising fromAGN outflows is expressible as
M ≈ 2.2M yr−1 Γe (1− εBH)
where Γe is the Eddington ratio and εBH represents theradiative efficiency of the SMBH. Hence, by comparingthis expression with (29), we see that AGN outflowscould cause significant damage to light sails in the eventthat δ is not much smaller than unity.
In view of the preceding discussion, it would appearas though there are noteworthy hindrances to deployinglight sails in the vicinity of many high-energy astrophys-ical objects. However, there exist at least two avenuesby which the aforementioned issues are surmountablein principle. First, by carefully selecting the timing atwhich the light sail is “unfurled”, one might be ableto operate in an environment where most of the ambi-ent gas and dust has been cleared out (e.g., by shockwaves), thus leaving behind radiation pressure to drivethe spacecraft. Second, as we have seen, most of the hin-drances arise from high ambient gas and dust densities.Hence, if the spacecraft is equipped with a suitable sys-tem to deflect these particles (provided that they possessa finite electrical charge or dipole moment) by means ofelectric or magnetic forces, one may utilize this deviceto prevent impacts and the ensuing ablation.
This physical principle is essentially identical to theone underlying magnetic (Zubrin & Andrews 1991) andelectric (Janhunen 2004) sails, which are reliant uponthe deflection of charged particles and the consequenttransfer of momentum to the spacecraft. Thus, not onlycould one potentially bypass the dangers delineated thusfar but also achieve a higher final speed in the process.We will not delve into this topic further as we brieflyaddress electric sails in Sec. 3. Likewise, it might alsobe feasible in principle to utilize an interstellar ramjet(Bussard 1960; Crawford 1990; Long 2011) for the dualpurposes of scooping up particles and gainfully employ-ing them to attain higher speeds in the process.
We have not considered the slow-down arising fromthe hydrodynamic drag herein. This is because, as we
demonstrate in the next section, the drag force is poten-tially less effective in comparison to slow-down arisingfrom the direct accumulation of gas; in particular, thereader is referred to (31) and (34) for the details. In asimilar vein, we have not tackled the damage from sput-tering as it contributes to the same degree as slow-downfrom gas accumulation (Bialy & Loeb 2018); see also(31) and (35) in the next section.
2.5. Effects of the interstellar medium
We assume henceforth that the light sail enters theinterstellar medium (ISM) at the velocity vF ; dependingon the interval over which the source remains active,vF may be close to the terminal velocity as explainedearlier. Once the light sail enters the ISM, it will besubject to impacts by gas, dust and cosmic rays. Thissubject has been extensively studied by Hoang et al.(2017) and Hoang & Loeb (2017), but we will adopt theheuristic analysis by Bialy & Loeb (2018) instead.
The first effect that merits consideration is the slow-down engendered by the accumulation of gas by the lightsail. The mean number density of protons in the ISMalong the spacecraft’s trajectory is denoted by 〈n〉 andnormalized in terms of 106 m−3 as noted previously. Themaximum distance that is traversed by the spacecraftprior to experiencing significant slow-down (Da) is
Da ≈ 2.8 pc
The next effect that we address is collisions with dustgrains, as they cause mass ablation upon impact. Thecorresponding maximal distance (Dd) is expressible as
Dd ≈ 5× 10−5 pc
)( vF0.1 c
)−1 ( ϕdg0.01
An alternative expression for Dd at weakly relativisticspeeds (i.e., for vF > 0.1c) is derivable from Hoang(2017, Equation 29) as follows:
Dd ≈ 54.8 pc
wherein Rmin is the minimum size of interstellar dustgrains. It must be noted, however, that the above equa-tion was derived specifically for very thin light sails.
As the light sail moves through the ISM, it will expe-rience hydrodynamic drag due to the ambient gas. Atlow speeds, the drag force is linearly proportional to thekinetic energy of the sail (Draine 2011), but this scalingbreaks down at higher speeds. The maximum distancethat can be covered by a weakly relativistic light sail be-fore major slow-down due to hydrodynamic drag (Dg)
is estimated from Hoang (2017, Equation 28):
Dg ≈ 4.3× 104 pc
where ∆` represents the thickness of the light sail. Thelast effect that we shall tackle entails sputtering due togas, as it causes the ejection of particles from the lightsail and thereby depletes its mass. The maximum traveldistance before sputtering becomes a major hindrance(Ds) is expressible as (Bialy & Loeb 2018, Equation 17):
Ds ≈ 3 pc
(35)where Y represents the total sputtering yield, with theassociated normalization factor chosen in accordancewith Tielens et al. (1994, Figure 10). Aside from sput-tering, mechanical torques arising from collisions withambient gas can result in spin-up and subsequent rota-tional disruption. At high speeds, however, this mecha-nism is apparently less efficient than sputtering in termsof causing damage unless the thickness of the light sailis < 0.01µm (Hoang & Lee 2019, Figure 5).
An inspection of (31)-(35) reveals that the upperbound on the distance is potentially . 1 pc for the pa-rameter space described in the previous sections. Hence,at first glimpse, it would appear as though light sailsmoving at high speeds are not capable of travelling overinterstellar distances. There is, however, a crucial factorthat has been hitherto ignored. If the sail is “folded” insome fashion (e.g., retracted or deflated) or dispensedwith altogether, the area density will be elevated byorders of magnitude. To see why this claim is valid,we shall consider the limiting case wherein the payloadmass is roughly equal to the sail mass.7 The size of thesail is denoted by Ls, whereas the density and size ofthe payload are ρpl and Lpl, respectively. As the casedelineated above amounts to choosing ΣsL2
s ≈ ρplL3pl,
reformulating this equation appropriately yields(LsLpl
≈ 1.2× 107(Ls
(36)where ρpl has been normalized in units of ρ0 ≈ 8 × 103
kg/m3, namely, the density of steel. The significanceof (36) lies in the fact that this represents the amplifi-cation of the effective area density (stemming from thedecrease in cross-sectional area) provided that the sailis completely folded. In other words, one would need
7 This constitutes the limiting case because one of the underlyingassumptions in the paper was Mpl . Ms.
to replace Σs with (Ls/Lpl)2 Σs in (31)-(35). Hence, byclosing the light sail, it ought to be feasible in princi-ple for the spacecraft to travel distances on the order ofkiloparsecs without being subject to major damage dueto the impediments arising from the ISM.
3. ELECTRIC SAILS
Aside from light sails, several other propulsion systemsdo not require the spacecraft to carry fuel on board; fora summary, see Long (2011). Here, we will focus on justone of them, namely, electric sails. The basic conceptunderlying electric sails is that they rely upon electro-static forces to deflect charged particles, and transfermomentum to the spacecraft in doing so. The princi-ples underlying electric sails were first delineated in Jan-hunen (2004), after which many other studies have beenundertaken in this area (Toivanen & Janhunen 2009;Janhunen et al. 2010; Seppanen et al. 2013; Bassettoet al. 2019). Another option is to implement the deflec-tion of charged particles using magnetic forces (Zubrin& Andrews 1991), but we shall not tackle this methodof propulsion herein. It is conceivable that the net effec-tiveness of electric and magnetic sails is comparable forcertain parametric choices (Perakis & Hein 2016).
3.1. Basic properties of electric sails
In order to determine the acceleration produced byelectric sails, one must calculate the force per unit length(dFs/dz) and the mass per unit length (dMs/dz). Theformer is difficult to estimate because it entails a com-plex implicit equation (Janhunen et al. 2010). However,to carry out a simplified analysis, it suffices to make useof Janhunen & Sandroos (2007, Equation 8) and Toiva-nen & Janhunen (2009, Equation 3). The force per unitlength for the electric sail is expressible as
dFsdz≈ 2Kmpn (v − uw)
where K is a dimensionless constant of order unity andrD is the Debye length that is defined as
wherein ε0 is the permittivity of free space and Te signi-fies the electron temperature. In reality, (37) has beensimplified because we neglected a term that is not far re-moved from unity, as it would otherwise make the anal-ysis much more complicated; see Lingam & Loeb (2020)for additional details. In addition, the factor of v − uwoccurs in lieu of v because prior studies were concernedwith the regime where v uw was valid. The mass perunit length for the sail material is given by
where Rs and ρs denote the radius and density of thewire that comprises the electric sail. In order to main-tain the sail at a constant potential, an electron gun isrequired, but we will suppose that its mass is smallerthan (or comparable to) the sail mass; this assumptionis reasonably valid at large distances from the source(Lingam & Loeb 2020). The acceleration can be calcu-lated by dividing (37) with (39).
There are, however, some major issues that arise evenwhen it comes to analyzing the spherically symmetriccase. First, the density profile does not always obey thecanonical n ∝ r−2 scaling; instead, it varies across jets,winds or outflows associated with different astrophysi-cal sources. For example, the classic Blandford-Paynemodel for winds from magnetized accretion discs obeysn ∝ r−3/2 (Blandford & Payne 1982), whereas the out-flows from Seyfert galaxies are characterized by n ∝ r−αwith α ≈ 1-1.5 (Bennert et al. 2006; Behar 2009). Sec-ond, the scaling of the temperature is also not invari-ant: the Blandford-Payne model yields a power-law ex-ponent of −1 while the solar wind exhibits an exponentof roughly −0.5 near the Earth (Le Chat et al. 2011).Lastly, the velocity uw is not independent of r in theregime of interest (namely, r & d0), although it eventu-ally reaches an asymptotic value (denoted by u∞ 6= 0)as per both observations and models (Parker 1958; Vla-hakis & Tsinganos 1998; Beskin 2010).
Thus, this complexity stands in contrast to light sails,where the radiation flux falls off with distance as perthe inverse square law. Hence, at first glimpse, it wouldappear very difficult to derive generic properties of elec-tric sails. We will, however, show that a couple of usefulidentities can nonetheless be derived. First, we considerthe limiting case of uw ≈ u∞ as it constitutes a rea-sonable assumption at large values of r. We will alsointroduce the scalings n ∝ r−α and Te ∝ r−ξ and leavethe exponents unfixed. To simplify our analysis, we em-ploy the normalized variables v ≡ v/u∞, and r ≡ r/d0.Using these relations along with (37)-(39), we arrive at
a ≡ v dvdr≈ CE (v − 1)
where CE is a dimensionless constant that encapsulatesthe material properties of the electric sail as well as cer-tain astrophysical parameters (e.g., source luminosity).In formulating the above expression, we have neglectedthe gravitational acceleration and hydrodynamic dragfor reasons elucidated in Sec. 2.1. After integrating thisequation, we end up with
ln(1− v) +v
1− v≈ 2CEα+ ξ − 2
after specifying v = 0 at r = 1.Due to the uncertainty surrounding CE , α and ξ, we
have plotted the normalized acceleration distance (givenby r − 1) as a function of the final speed for various
choices of these parameters in Fig. 4. The right-handpanel, which satisfies the criterion α + ξ < 2, yieldsresults that are consistent with intuition. As we thesail speed approaches u∞, the acceleration distance di-verges. On the other hand, the left-hand panel exhibitsslightly unusual behavior that is dependent on CE . Atlarge values of CE , we observe that the acceleration dis-tance diverges in the limit of v → 1 as before. However,when we have CE . 1, we noticed that the accelerationdistance becomes singular at sail speeds that are con-spicuously smaller than u∞. In other words, this impliesthat one cannot reach speeds close to u∞, irrespectiveof the distance travelled by the spacecraft. We will notestimate the acceleration time, because reducing (41) toquadrature is not straightforward to accomplish.
Next, we shall formalize the above results by carry-ing out a mathematical analysis of (41) for two distinctcases. The first scenario corresponds to α + ξ ≤ 2 andapplying this limit to (41) yields v → 1. In other words,we end up with v∞ ≈ u∞ in this regime, which was alsoproposed in Janhunen (2004). However, for a numberof astrophysical systems (e.g., stellar winds) as well asclassic theoretical models such as Blandford & Payne(1982), we must address the case with α + ξ > 2. Bytaking the limit of r →∞, the solution of (41) is
v∞u∞≈ 1 +
where W (x) is the Lambert W function (Corless et al.1996; Valluri et al. 2000) and we have introduced theauxiliary variable Υ = 2CE/(α+ξ−2). Before analyzing(42) in detail, it is important to recognize a subtle point.By inspecting (41), we see that 0 ≤ v ≤ 1 because v > 1would lead to the logarithmic function giving rise to non-real values. In other words, to ensure the existence ofphysically consistent solutions, we require v∞/u∞ ≤ 1to be valid; in turn, we see that this inequality statesthat the upper bound on v∞ is the terminal wind speed.
Depending on the magnitude of CE (and therefore Υ),there are two different regimes that require explication.First, let us consider the physically relevant scenariowhere CE 1 holds true, which is potentially applica-ble to astrophysical sources with high luminosities. Asthis choice is essentially equivalent to taking the limitΥ 1, employing the latter yields
Υ + ln (Υ + 1)
Υ + 1 + ln (Υ + 1)
which reduces further to v∞ ≈ u∞ when Υ→∞. Next,suppose that we consider the opposite case whereinCE 1. As this limit is tantamount to working withΥ 1, applying standard asymptotic techniques for theLambert W function near the branch point (de Bruijn1958; Corless et al. 1996) leads to
CE = 0.01
CE = 1
CE = 100
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.00.001
Final velocity (u∞)
CE = 0.01
CE = 1
CE = 100
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.00.001
Final velocity (u∞)
Figure 4. In both panels, the distance over which the electric sail must be accelerated (in units of the launch distance d0) is
shown as a function of the final velocity (in units of asymptotic wind speed u∞). The black, red and blue curves correspond to
different choices of CE in (41). In the left-hand panel, we have chosen α = 2 and ξ = 0.5, based on the parameters for stellar
winds (Lingam & Loeb 2020). We have specified α+ ξ = 1.5 in the right-hand panel, as this might be compatible with outflows
detected in Seyfert galaxies.
and substituting Υ→ 0 implies that v∞ → 0.In summary, we found that choosing α + ξ ≤ 2 gave
rise to v∞ = u∞. On the other hand, for the physicallypertinent case of α + ξ > 2 and CE 1, we approxi-mately arrived at the same result; this is evident uponinspecting (43). Hence, without much loss of generality,it is safe to assume that the terminal speed of electricsail for a given astrophysical object is set by the asymp-totic value of the wind speed. In principle, one couldalso analyze the acceleration time and distance alongthe lines of Sec. 2.3 and assess the constraints set bythe source environment and the ISM.8 However, we re-frain from undertaking this study for two reasons: (i)many of the parameters as well as the scalings are non-universal and poorly determined, and (ii) the equationof motion is much more complicated, as seen from (41),which makes subsequent analysis difficult.
3.2. Terminal speeds of electric sails powered byastrophysical sources
Due to the aforementioned reasons, we shall confineourselves to listing the observed values of u∞ for var-ious astrophysical systems. It is natural to commenceour discussion with stellar winds. By inspecting (25),it is apparent that u∞ only varies by a factor of ∼ 3even when M? is increased by two orders of magnitude.Hence, insofar as stellar winds are concerned, the ter-minal wind speeds are on the order of 10−3 c in most
8 As the electric sail is fundamentally composed of a wire mesh,it has a much smaller cross-sectional area with respect to a so-lar sail with the same dimensions, consequently facilitating themitigation of damage caused by gas and dust.
cases; note that this statement also holds true for low-mass stars such as M-dwarfs (Dong et al. 2017, 2018;Lingam & Loeb 2019). Next, we consider SNe becausethe ejecta expelled during the explosion move at speedsof ∼ 0.1c, as noted in Sec. 2.4. Hence, this could serveas a rough measure of the final speeds attainable byelectric sails in such environments.
In the case of AGNs, there are two phenomena thatneed to be handled separately. The first are diffuse out-flows that are characterized by u∞ . 0.1c (Merritt 2013,Equation 2.44). These outflows have been identified inmost quasars through the detection of broad absorptionlines at ultraviolet wavelengths (Gibson et al. 2009). Incontrast, relativistic jets from AGNs (i.e., blazars) typi-cally exhibit Lorentz factors of O(10) (Padovani & Urry1992; Marscher 2006); it is suspected that the jet emis-sion is powered by magnetic reconnection (Sironi et al.2015). Hence, at least in principle, it is possible forelectric sails to attain such speeds provided that the re-lationship v∞ ≈ u∞ is still preserved.9 The Lorentz fac-tors for jets arising from microquasars are of order unity(Mirabel & Rodrıguez 1999), suggesting that these ob-jects also constitute promising sources for acceleratingelectric sails to relativistic speeds.
Pulsar wind nebulae (PWNe) will be the last examplethat we shall study here. PWNe comprise highly ener-getic winds that are powered by a rapidly rotating andhighly magnetized neutron star (Gaensler & Slane 2006;
9 A rigorous analysis of this complex issue is beyond the scope ofthe paper, as it would entail the formulation and solution of theequations of motion for relativistic electric sails.
Table 2. Terminal momentum per unit mass achievable by
electric sails near astrophysical objects
Source Terminal momentum (γβ)
Stars ∼ 10−3
Supernovae ∼ 0.1
AGN outflows ∼ 0.1
Blazar jets ∼ 10
Microquasars ∼ 1
Pulsar wind nebulae . 104 − 106
Notes: γβ denotes the terminal momentum per unit mass.
It is important to recognize that this table yields the maxi-
mum terminal speeds attainable by electric sails, because it
assumes that the terminal sail speeds approach the asymp-
totic values of the winds, outflows and jets. However, this
assumption may not always be valid, as explained in Sec.
3.1. Lastly, we note that the values presented are fiducial,
and a more complete analysis is provided in Sec. 3.2.
Kargaltsev et al. 2015). The energy loss is caused bythe magnetized wind emanating from the neutron star,and is expressible as (Slane 2017, Equation 2):
E = −BpR
6c3sin2 Θ, (45)
where Bp is the dipole magnetic field strength at thepoles, Rp and ωp are the radius and rotation rate ofthe pulsar, and Θ is the angle between the pulsar mag-netic field and rotation axis. The minimum particlecurrent (N) that is necessary for the sustenance of acharge-filled magnetosphere is estimated using Gaensler& Slane (2006, Equation 10), which equals
where Ze represents the ion charge; this relationshipwas first determined by Goldreich & Julian (1969). Themaximum Lorentz factor (γmax) that is achievable inpulsar winds occurs near the termination shock, the lo-cation at which the ram pressure of the wind and theambient pressure in the PWN balance each other, andhas been estimated to be (Slane 2017, pg. 2164):
γmax ≈ 8.3× 106
It is important to note, however, γ is typically on theorder of 100 just outside the light cylinder, which is de-fined as c/ωp (Gaensler & Slane 2006, Section 4.4). Theanalysis of data from young PWNe in conjunction withspectral evolution models yielded bulk Lorentz factors ofγ ∼ 104− 105 for the pulsar winds (Tanaka & Takahara
2011, Table 2). It is worth noting that the characteris-tic synchrotron emission lifetime of particles in PWNe is∼ 103 yr (Slane 2017, Equation 10). Most PWNe thathave been detected are young (with ages of ∼ 103 yr),but some PWNe discovered by the Suzaku X-ray satel-lite have ages of ∼ 105 yr and are apparently still active(Bamba et al. 2010). Hence, the lifetime over whichPWNe are functional may suffice to accelerate putativeelectric sails close to the bulk speeds of pulsar winds.
Lastly, another chief advantage associated with elec-tric sails merits highlighting. Hitherto, we have seenthat a variety of sources are capable of accelerating lightsails or electric sails to relativistic speeds on the orderof 0.1c. However, after the spacecraft has been launchedtoward the target planetary system, it will need to even-tually slow down and attain speeds of order tens ofkm/s to take part in interplanetary maneuvers. Elec-tric sails are a natural candidate for enforcing compar-atively rapid slow down through the process of momen-tum transfer with charged particles in the ISM. Morespecifically, Perakis & Hein (2016) concluded that space-crafts with total masses of ∼ 104 kg could be sloweddown from 0.05 c to interplanetary speeds over decadaltimescales by utilizing an electric sail.10
In this work, we investigated the possibility of har-nessing high-energy astrophysical phenomena to drivespacecrafts to relativistic speeds. In order to bypass theconstraints imposed by the rocket equation, we focusedon light sails and electric sails because: (i) neither ofthem are required to carry fuel on board, (ii) they pos-sess the capacity to attain high speeds, and (iii) theyare both relatively well-studied from a theoretical stand-point and successful prototypes have been constructed.
Our salient results are summarized in Tables 1 and2. From these tables, it is apparent that speeds on theorder of & 0.1c are realizable by a number of astrophysi-cal sources, and Lorentz factors much greater than unitymight also be feasible in certain environments. In thecase of light sails, we carried out a comprehensive anal-ysis of whether the astrophysical sources last enough topermit the attainment of relativistic speeds as well as theconstraints on the source environment and the passagethrough the ISM. We concluded that all of these effectspose significant challenges, but could be overcome inprinciple through careful design. When it came to elec-tric sails, there were several uncertainties involved, ow-ing to which we restricted ourselves to estimating theirmaximum terminal speeds.
Our analysis entailed the following major caveats.First, we carried out the calculations in simplified (i.e.,one-dimensional) geometries wherever possible, which
10 In principle, stellar radiation pressure is also suitable for slowingdown light sails near low-mass stars (Heller & Hippke 2017).
constitutes an idealization for most sources. Second,our analysis did not take engineering constraints intoaccount, with the exception of thermal stability. In thiscontext, there are many key issues such as preserving sailstability, possessing requisite structural integrity, miti-gating spacecraft charging,11 and sustaining high broad-band reflectance (due to the Doppler shift) that are nottackled herein. In the same vein, we do not addresseconomic feasibility and the ethics of space exploration,both of which are indubitably of the highest importance.Our work should, therefore, be viewed as a preliminaryconceptual study of the maximum terminal speeds thatmay be achievable by light/electric sails in the vicinityof high-energy astrophysical objects.
Aside from the obvious implications for humanity’sown long-term future, our results might also offer somepointers in the burgeoning search for technosignatures.In particular, searches for technosignatures could focuson high-energy astrophysical sources, as they representpromising potential sites for technological species to po-sition their spacecrafts; this complements the earlier no-tion that these high-energy phenomena constitute excel-lent Schelling points (see Wright 2018 for a review). Wecaution, however, that these spacecrafts have a low like-lihood of being detectable due to the intrinsic temporalvariability of high-energy astrophysical sources (Longair2011). The best option may prove to be searching forradio signals in the vicinity of these sources, if thesespacecrafts are communicating with one another.
Another option is to search for techosignatures of rela-tivistic spacecraft as they move through the ISM (View-ing et al. 1977). Some possibilities include the detec-tion of cyclotron radiation emitted by magnetic sails(Zubrin 1995), extreme Doppler shifts caused by re-flection from relativistic light sails (Garcia-Escartin &Chamorro-Posada 2013), and radiation signatures gen-erated by scattering of cosmic microwave backgroundphotons from the relativistic spacecraft (Yurtsever &Wilkinson 2018). Finally, it has been suggested since the1960s that searches for probes (or artifacts) in our Solarsystem may represent a viable line of enquiry (Bracewell1960); a number of targets such as the Earth-Moon La-grange points (Freitas & Valdes 1980), the surface of theMoon (Davies & Wagner 2013), and the upper atmo-sphere of the Earth (Siraj & Loeb 2020) have been pro-posed. What remains unknown, however, is the proba-bility of success for any of the aforementioned strategies,because it ultimately comes down to the question of howmany technological species are extant in the Milky Way.
This work was supported in part by the BreakthroughPrize Foundation, Harvard University’s Faculty of Artsand Sciences, and the Institute for Theory and Compu-tation (ITC) at Harvard University.
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