Towards Stable Interstellar Flight: Levitation of a Laser-Propelled Sailcraft*

Afroza Shirin, Edl Schamiloglu, Rafael Fierro

Exploring and traveling to distant stars has long fascinated humanity but has been limited due to the vast distances. The Breakthrough Starshot Program aims at eliminating this limitation by traveling to Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light-years away. Thus, it is only possible if a vehicle travels at a substantial fraction of the speed of light. The Breakthrough Starshot Program initiatives to develop a proof-of-concept that is accelerating a sail to relativistic speeds using a laser beam aimed at the sail. At this high speed, while a stable beam riding is one of the crucial concerns of this concept, the dynamic stability analysis of a sail is hardly present in the previous literature. Furthermore, it is important to investigate the dynamic stability in the experiment before driving the sail to relativistic speeds. As a proof of concept, we study the dynamic stability of the sail levitated at a certain height by a laser beam. The sail's dynamics are modeled as a rigid body whose shape is parameterized by a sweep function. We estimate the region of attraction (ROA) for dynamic stability analysis using Lyapunov theory and Sum-of-square (SOS) programming. The ROA confirms how much a levitated sail can tolerate the transverse and angular perturbations. We also conclude on some of the important parameters of the sail that affects the dynamic stability. Simulation results validate our theoretical analysis.

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