Update: Kickstarter campaign launched to support Dragonfly, please pledge and share with your networks.
I4IS has recently announced the Project Dragonfly Design Competition. Project Dragonfly is a feasibility study for an interstellar mission, conducted by small, distributed spacecraft, propelled primarily by laser sails. The spacecraft shall be capable of reaching the target star system within a century and be able to decelerate. We believe that such a mission can be conducted with technology available by 2024-2034 as well as a space infrastructure, available by 2050.
The competition's main objective is to identify innovative mission architectures that are feasible in terms of required technologies as well as required resources.
Why such a competition now? There are several reasons for this:
- Recent advances in small satellite technology are disrupting the way space missions are conducted.
- Interplanetary missions with CubeSats will be feasible in the near future, e.g. NASA has recently announced a range of prizes to advance the development of this capability. The Planetary Society is currently preparing its Lightsail 1 spacecraft, based on CubeSat technology and propelled by a solar sail.
- Missions based on small, distributed and federated space systems allow for unprecedented capabilities in terms of reliability, availability, as well as data return by using multiple, interoperating spacecraft.
- Advances in material sciences, especially nano materials, allow for sail materials with unprecedented capabilities, such as extremely low density, high tensile strength, and thermal stability.
- Advances in manufacturing allow for manufacturing sails with a thickness of only a few atomic layers.
- Advances in multi-functional materials allow for creating structures which can function as sensors, secondary structure, power generator, as well as electric conductors at the same time.
We believe that the time has come to explore, how these advances can be combined in a way that a small interstellar mission can be realized at reasonable cost and based on space infrastructure which will probably exist in next few decades.
The goal is thus to come up with a mission design, which is elegant and lean, as good engineering should be. If we succeed in developing such a design, it would be the first time in history that an interstellar mission is within our grasp.
Flying to the stars within our lifetime is then no longer fantasy but a mere project management and engineering challenge.
By Andreas Hein