DE-STAR is designed to vaporize or divert asteroids that threaten Earth. This isn't science fiction—I build things that have to work in practice. DE-STAR stands for Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation. It looks like an open matchbook with lasers on one flap and a photovoltaic panel for power from sunlight on the other. By synchronizing the laser beams, we can create a phased array, which produces a steerable 70-gigawatt beam. An onboard system receives orders on what to target. Our laser beam would then produce a spot about 100 feet in diameter on an asteroid that's as far away from the satellite as we are from the sun. The laser would raise an asteroid's surface temperature to thousands of degrees Celsius—hot enough that all known substances evaporate. In less than an hour, DE-STAR could have completely vaporized the asteroid that broke up over Russia this winter, if we had seen it coming. Plus, as the material evaporates, it creates a thrust in the opposite direction, comparable to the space shuttle's rocket booster. That means you could divert the asteroid by changing its orbit with a shorter laser blast.
DE-STAR could also power things on Earth or in space. You could send the electrical power it produces—not via laser beam but via microwaves. Or you could use the laser to directly propel spacecraft. But here's the thing: For full-blown asteroid vaporization, each flap of the matchbook would have to be six miles long. We've never built a structure this size in space, but if there were the worldwide will, I could see building this within 30 to 50 years. But since it's completely modular, we propose starting smaller. We could begin with a version that's three feet per side right now. With that, you could cook your dinner from 600 miles away.
—Philip Lubin is a physicist at UC Santa Barbara and co-inventor of DE-STAR with statistician Gary Hughes, of California Polytechnic State University.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.
You know what would be a lot simpler and work better? Just using mirrors to focus sunlight on the asteroid.
Why does it have to go through solar panels? Couldn't we just use a giant Fresnel lens or Fresnel reflector and some mirrors? (see wikipedia)
That would make it much easier and cheaper to build a huge version of it. No giant arrays of sensitive electronics that can fail or dealing with the huge and dangerous electric output of a 6sq mile array of solar panels in space without the filter of the earth's atmosphere. I bet you could even make large fresnel lenses that can just roll up before it's deployed for easy transportation.
I hate to be derisive (... OK, y'all know that's not true) but this looks like a drawing Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) might make. It's at the same time over-complicating and over-simplifying the problem. Scott and info have hit this on the head. On the surface, you can focus the sun thru a 6' Fresnel lens to melt concrete. In space and with a large array of lenses (or just one big lens) should be many times more effective with fewer points of failure.
Has no one here remembered Ian Fleming's "Diamonds are Forever"?
Sounds great, until someone hacks it and uses it to vaporize anyone or anything on earth that he wants.
unfortunately I agree with marcoreid
what if such a device fell into the wrong hands?
It'd be a lot easier to defend against than if a nuke fell into the wrong hands. you could also set a minimum focus distance for it.
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Lessee. No mention of batteries, which are heavy and not known for fast energy transfers. Or supercapacitors that don't exist. And you would still need to recharge if your first hit fails. So: ~10 watts per square foot. 90 billion watts. So 9 billion square feet. That gets you a matchbook of 95,000 feet, per side. 18 miles. That gets you something the size of 323 square miles. Math: (((9,000,000,000)^0.5)/5280)^2 ... But wait, there's more! They want the other side of the matchbook to be the laser array in the same size. So essentially he's talking about putting something the area of Louisville AND San Diego into orbit -- which doesn't really work, because then you get no sun at all for a significant time, or into a LaGrange point, which takes even more fuel. Then there's the laser side of this ... Come to think of it, that drawing might as well be a scale model!
Their math is hinted at in the press release: "But DE-STAR 4 –– at 10 kilometers in diameter, about 100 times the size of the ISS –– could deliver 1.4 megatons of energy per day to its target, said Lubin, obliterating an asteroid 500 meters across in one year."
Nations would never allow it to be built as it could be used as a space based weapon against countries and to kill people.
@ that new guy
Why would you need an electricity storage? It would be deployed at an orbit where you always get sunlight. They propose the sides of the "matchbook" to be 6 miles, that would mean 36 miles each leaf. Not doable at this stage, but if it was really and emergency?
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The reality is that currently there has proven to be those who can and likely will hijack a platform like this. If they'll hack the ISS, they'll damn sure hack this with a quickness. Likely, the DeStar project is hacked already. Most everything else is.
As for laser vs lens and mirrors, you might think it cheaper on the surface, but it would cost considerably more for you to grind a massive lens-far bigger than 6 ft-and build, launch, and deploy that lens along with your fragile mirror setup than it would for me to build an optical fiber freelaser using millions and millions of little pieces of fiber cable all aimed at a central point. And I'd use less in overall electrical crap than you. All running off of fiber freelaser-even converting incoming lasercomms into usable power.
Oh yeah. Security for such an arcane device is gonna have to go oldschool. Coin-op, maybe. One coin on the planet, made by a lasercutter that no longer exists by the CNC of a freehand artist somewhere or other on Earth who has no idea what's being made or for whom. No pay utility bill, no nice bright lights.
Call the coin One Sol. "Yeah, I inherited THIS one from my Granddad who said some nutball ran up and gave it to him one day; said it was a Solari and it was the most valuable coin on Earth" "Nah, the Iranian dude down at the pawn shop said it must be some commemorative gimmick or something 'cause it ain't in the books and he'd gimme $10 bucks." "So yeah, I figger I'll keep it till copper gets up to $300" "Not bad fer a 50 year old copper slug lookin thing with some weird scribbles."
and i certainly hope that the asteroids are intelligent enough to know that they are being targeted and needs must be to stop moving around and rotating so that they can be broadsided with a full salvo of deadly photons from a distance of 1 A.U. and this physicist thinks the world at large will allow a potential weapon to be pointed inwards to earth and lay hostage to a country or so? sci-fiction novels should be made required reading before awarded a Ph.D. to these blokes
Given that this is a space based platform, I wonder how effective this LASER would be against the band of space junk orbiting Earth?
Ahhhh, we earthlings think we can control the universe. The church says that god is on our side and will deliver us out of our missery (note: not protect us!). The universe is capable of unspeakable mayhem and it will not miss us.
Vaporizing even a small asteroid with this is highly unlikely due to the sheer amount of energy required.
What you can do is vaporize a small amount of material on it's surface which would create thrust and push it off course.
The original concept of a solar power asteroid deflector was just that a mirror that focused sunlight on the offending space rock.
Unlike this concept the mirror is very sound engineering and could be done in the near future.
BTW you don't want to try and destroy the asteroid if you don't have to as you may break it up into several fragments which could be just as bad as the original object.
a smallish object may explode from 70gw of energy input a large one capable of a global extinction event would laugh it off and just keep coming.
The mirror theory is a lot more difficult in practice. While it would be possible to rig a mirror array using thousands of smaller mirrors, you would still need high-level control to aim not only the spacecraft to collect the sunlight, but also to reflect the light accurately at the asteroid. The more directly opposite the sun that asteroid lies, the less effective a mirror would be. Highest efficiency would only occur if the asteroid were at a 90° angle or less from the sun as seen by the satellite.
Conversely, a series of collectors could be aimed at the sun and a separate panel of lasers could be aimed at any angle whatsoever, including 180° away from the sun with NO loss of power, making it equally efficient no matter the angular distance from the sun.
I do agree that something 6 miles on a side would be a prohibitive concept--using far more material than absolutely necessary simply for structural integrity--but by making a series of smaller ones, say, a few hundred feet per side and perhaps linking them as a web with more massive control units along the edges to keep the web taut, then the system might not only be more efficient to build but also more efficient to control as you wouldn't have huge panels potentially blocking each other from sun or target.
As for the political aspects; I can pretty much agree that as long as we have countries warring with each other on this planet, a project like this would never get off the ground. Too many would either see it as a threat to themselves or a weapon against their enemies.
A fox preys on sheep. Don't be a sheep.