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Dynamically Stable Radiation Pressure Propulsion of Flexible Lightsails for Interstellar Exploration
preprintposted on 2023-01-26, 17:01 authored by Ramon Gao, Michael D. Kelzenberg, Harry A. Atwater
Lightsail spacecraft, propelled to relativistic velocities via photon pressure using high power density laser radiation, offer a potentially new route to space exploration within and beyond the solar system, extending to interstellar distances. Such missions will require meter-scale lightsails of submicron thickness, posing substantial challenges for materials science and engineering. We analyze the structural and photonic design of flexible lightsails, developing a mesh-based multiphysics simulator based on linear elastic theory, treating the lightsail as a flexible membrane rather than a rigid body. We find that flexible lightsail membranes can be spin stabilized to prevent shape collapse during acceleration, and that certain lightsail shapes and designs offer beam-riding stability despite the deformations caused by photon pressure and thermal expansion. Excitingly, nanophotonic lightsails based on planar silicon nitride membranes patterned with suitably designed optical metagratings exhibit both mechanically and dynamically stable propulsion along the pump laser axis. These advances suggest that laser-driven acceleration of membrane-like lightsails to the relativistic speeds needed to access interstellar distances is conceptually feasible, and that fabrication of such lightsails may be within the reach of modern microfabrication technology.