[FPSPACE] Via Nanotech to the Stars

LARRY KLAES ljk4 at msn.com
Fri Jul 10 19:16:17 EDT 2009

Near-lightspeed nano spacecraft might be close 


Researchers creating the tiny engines that could drive mini-starships


An artist’s conception shows an 11-pound (5-kilogram) disk-shaped nanosatellite in space, with tiny microthrusters placed around the edge of the disk.


By Daniel H. Wilson


msnbc.com contributor


updated 8:44 a.m. ET, Wed., July 8, 2009


Massive particle accelerators are exploring the world of the very small, but similar technology may someday propel needle-sized spacecraft to distances on a scale so large as to be almost unimaginable — between star systems.


Thanks to research on nano-sized thrusters that act like portable particle accelerators, tiny spacecraft might be accelerated to near-lightspeed and sent to explore nearby stars — perhaps within our lifetimes.


The $10 billion Large Hadron Collider at Europe’s CERN particle-physics lab was built with the goal of figuring out what exactly the universe is made of. The 17-mile-round machine can accelerate charged protons to nearly the speed of light. Once they reach top speed, the particles are smashed into targets, creating spectacular (and short-lived) collisions that spew out exotic forms of matter for scientists to study.


The principles behind atom smashing may one day show us more than what the rest of the universe is made of. They may actually take us there.


Full article here:




To quote:


The solution to interstellar space exploration may lie in the use of micro or nano-sized spacecraft that can be accelerated to incredible speeds. Protons in a particle accelerator can reach near-lightspeed because they are so small and light. 


Similarly, very small unmanned space probes could be light enough to reach the speeds necessary for interstellar space exploration.


Researchers at the University of Michigan are creating the nano-sized engines that could someday drive a new wave of these mini-starships.


Funded by the Air Force, Brian Gilchrist and his colleagues are developing a new type of thruster that uses nanoparticles as propellant. Much of the engine is etched directly onto a wafer-thin piece of silicon via micro-electromechanical systems technologies, known as MEMS, that are more commonly used in the semiconductor industry. Measuring no thicker than a half-inch (1 centimeter, including the fuel) and with tens of thousands of accelerators able to fit on an area smaller than a postage stamp, these “stick-on” thrusters could power tiny spacecraft over vast distances.


The technology is called a “nano-particle field extraction thruster,” or nanoFET. 


The tiny thrusters that work much like miniaturized versions of massive particle accelerators. The device uses a series of stacked, micron-thick “gates” that alternate between conductive and insulating layers to create electric fields. These small but powerful electric fields charge and accelerate a reservoir of conductive nanoparticles, shooting them out into space and creating thrust.


“In that a particle accelerator uses an electrical field to propel charged particles to high speeds — that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Gilchrist said.


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