Can laser beams propel vessels in space?

18 March 2014


Can laser beams propel vessels in space?


Tamela - There is a pressure from light, isn't there?

Richard - Yeah, there is pressure from light. So yes, in theory, it should be able to. So, we've got the development of solar sails for instance.

Tamela - Exactly. That's what I was thinking of as well.

Richard - Yeah. You can certainly use the propulsion from the stream of charged particles that are coming from the sun to move along. So, if you imagine the sun, it's belting out these particles all the time. So, if you can use those, you can actually use that to push you along.

Tamela - But it's radiation as well. It's actually photons providing the pressure. When you look at pictures of stellar nurseries, we have lots of really bright young stars. You see these clouds that have been hollowed out because of that radiation pressure just pushing the matter away. So, definitely, photons do provide a pressure. in terms of lasers, that's a different..

Chris - Can I show off?

Richard - You know do you?

Chris - I know something that enables me to show off very slightly, which is there's this lovely thing called the YORP effect which is the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack effect, which is probably why it's called YORP. This actually is exactly the phenomenon you're describing. We know for instance where the impactor that wiped other dinosaurs came from. It came from the asteroid belt. It was dislodged in the vicinity of Mars probably about 70 million years ago. The thing that probably did the dislodging was light, because these asteroids, if you've got light impacting on one side of them, the photons of light are going to impart momentum to them and give them a nudge. This can cause the things to move a little bit. This can make them then bash into other things and that's exactly what happened. We think it nudged the asteroid a little bit and caused it to break up and ultimately impact on the Earth. But this effect is very real and with lots of light falling on a big surface for a long time, it does impart a nudge. That nudge can ultimately move very big things along a course.

Richard: - I can answer a different question on lasers in space. It doesn't address the propulsion system. They are using lasers in space right now as a new satellite, alpha sat, which was launched around about this time last year. That uses lasers for communication because you can do then speed of light communication. It's in geostationary orbit so it's way very high above the Earth, sort of sitting there above the Earth. It can communicate. It's using laser to communicate with satellites which were in low earth orbit, which were only a few hundred kilometres above the Earth.

Chris: - Probably, one of the most famous laser beams is the one which is bouncing off of a mirror on the surface of the moon because lots of people say, "How do we know how far it is to the moon? How do we know that people went to the moon?" Well, they put a mirror there and there's a laser beam being bounced every day between the Earth and the moon, and that's how we know that the moon is getting about 2 cm further from the Earth every year. Why is it doing that? Because, as it goes around the Earth, it's attracting water on the Earth's surface towards it in a tidal bulge. But, because the Earth is turning, that bulge is slightly ahead of the moon. So, it's exerting a pull on the moon and this means the moon rather like a slight shot, is speeding up a bit. The Earth is losing a bit of energy. The moon is gaining a bit of energy. And if it's going faster, and the gravity between the two isn't changing, so the moon therefore, is going to move away very slightly. So, year on year, it's slowly escaping. So in fact, tides are getting slightly smaller on Earth. So, if we were to wait a billion years or so, we might have very, very small tides which would probably come as a relief to people who live along the east coast the next time there's a storm surge.

Richard: - And isn't it amazing that there's an Apollo era, more than 40-year-old, experiment still working. We're still using Apollo science on the moon.

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