Fly High, Silver Bird

“TANSTAAFL!” Vinnie’s still unhappy with spacecraft that aren’t rocket-powered. “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!”

“Ah, good, you’ve read Heinlein. So what’s your problem with Lightsail 2?”

“It can’t work, Sy. Mostly it can’t work. Sails operate fine where there’s air and wind, but there’s none of that in space, just solar wind which if I remember right is just barely not a vacuum.”

Astronomer-in-training Jim speaks up. “You’re right about that, Vinnie. The solar wind’s fast, on the order of a million miles per hour, but it’s only about 10-14 atmospheres. That thin, it’s probably not a significant power source for your sailcraft, Al.”

“I keep telling you folks, it’s not wind-powered, it’s light-powered. There’s oodles of sunlight photons out there!”

“Sure, Al, but photons got zero mass. No mass, no momentum, right?”

Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave in motion
Plane-polarized electromagnetic wave
Electric (E) field is red
Magnetic (B) field is blue
(Image by Loo Kang Wee and Fu-Kwun Hwang from Wikimedia Commons)

My cue to enter. “Not right, Vinnie. Experimental demonstrations going back more than a century show light exerting pressure. That implies non-zero momentum. On the theory side … you remember when we talked about light waves and the right-hand rule?”

“That was a long time ago, Sy. Remind me.”

“… Ah, I still have the diagram on Old Reliable. See here? The light wave is coming out of the screen and its electric field moves electrons vertically. Meanwhile, the magnetic field perpendicular to the electric field twists moving charges to scoot them along a helical path. So there’s your momentum, in the interaction between the two fields. The wave’s combined action delivers force to whatever it hits, giving it momentum in the wave’s direction of travel. No photons in this picture.”

Astrophysicist-in-training Newt Barnes dives in. “When you think photons and electrons, Vinnie, think Einstein. His Nobel prize was for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Think about some really high-speed particle flying through space. I’m watching it from Earth and you’re watching it from a spaceship moving along with it so we’ve each got our own frame of reference.”

“Frames, awright! Sy and me, we’ve talked about them a lot. When you say ‘high-speed’ you’re talking near light-speed, right?”

“Of course, because that’s when relativity gets significant. If we each measure the particle’s speed, do we get the same answer?”

“Nope, because you on Earth would see me and the particle moving through compressed space and dilated time so the speed I’d measure would be more than the speed you’d measure.”

“Mm-hm. And using ENewton=mv² you’d assign it a larger energy than I would. We need a relativistic version of Newton’s formula. Einstein said that rest mass is what it is, independent of the observer’s frame, and we should calculate energy from EEinstein²=(pc)²+(mc²)², where p is the momentum. If the momentum is zero because the velocity is zero, we get the familiar EEinstein=mc² equation.”

“I see where you’re going, Newt. If you got no mass OR energy then you got nothing at all. But if something’s got zero mass but non-zero energy like a photon does, then it’s got to have momentum from p=EEinstein/c.”

“You got it, Vinnie. So either way you look at it, wave or particle, light carries momentum and can power Lightsail 2.”

Adapted from image by Josh Spradling / The Planetary Society

“Question is, can sunlight give it enough momentum to get anywhere?”

“Now you’re getting quantitative. Sy, start up Old Reliable again.”

“OK, Newt, now what?”

“How much power can Lightsail 2 harvest from the Sun? That’ll be the solar constant in joules per second per square meter, times the sail’s area, 32 square meters, times a 90% efficiency factor.”

“Got it — 39.2 kilojoules per second.”

“That’s the supply, now for the demand. Lightsail 2 masses 5 kilograms and starts at 720 kilometers up. Ask Old Reliable to use the standard circular orbit equations to see how long it would take to harvest enough energy to raise the craft to another orbit 200 kilometers higher.”

“Combining potential and kinetic energies, I get 3.85 megajoules between orbits. That’s only 98 seconds-worth. I’m ignoring atmospheric drag and such, but net-net, Lightsail 2‘s got joules to burn.”

“Case closed, Vinnie.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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On Gravity, Charge And Geese

A beautiful April day, far too nice to be inside working.  I’m on a brisk walk toward the lake when I hear puffing behind me.  “Hey, Moire, I got questions!”

“Of course you do, Mr Feder.  Ask away while we hike over to watch the geese.”

“Sure, but slow down , will ya?  I been reading this guy’s blog and he says some things I wanna check on.”

I know better but I ask anyhow.  “Like what?”

“Like maybe the planets have different electrical charges  so if we sent an astronaut they’d get killed by a ginormous lightning flash.”

“That’s unlikely for so many reasons, Mr Feder.  First, it’d be almost impossible for the Solar System to get built that way.  Next, it couldn’t stay that way if it had been.  Third, we know it’s not that way now.”

“One at a time.”

“OK.  We’re pretty sure that the Solar System started as a kink in a whirling cloud of galactic dust.  Gravity spanning the kink pulled that cloud into a swirling disk, then the swirls condensed to form planets.  Suppose dust particles in one of those swirls, for whatever reason, all had the same unbalanced electrical charge.”

“Right, and they came together because of gravity like you say.”

I pull Old Reliable from its holster.  “Think about just two particles, attracted to each other by gravity but repelled by their static charge.  Let’s see which force would win.  Typical interstellar dust particles run about 100 nanometers across.  We’re thinking planets so our particles are silicate.  Old Reliable says they’d weigh about 2×1018 kg each, so the force of gravity pulling them together would be …  oh, wait, that’d depend on how far apart they are.  But so would the electrostatic force, so let’s keep going.  How much charge do you want to put on each particle?”

“The minimum, one electron’s worth.”

“Loading the dice for gravity, aren’t you?  Only one extra electron per, umm, 22 million silicon atoms.    OK, one electron it is …  Take a look at Old Reliable’s calculation.gravity vs electrostatic calculation Those two electrons push their dust grains apart almost a quintillion times more strongly than gravity pulls them together.  And the distance makes no difference — close together or far apart, push wins.  You can’t use gravity to build a planet from charged particles.”

“Wait, Moire, couldn’t something else push those guys together — magnetic fields, say, or a shock wave?”

“Sure, which is why I said almost impossible.  Now for the second reason the astronaut won’t get lightning-shocked — the solar wind.  It’s been with us since the Sun lit up and it’s loaded with both positive- and negative-charged particles.  Suppose Venus, for instance, had been dealt more than its share of electrons back in the day.  Its net-negative charge would attract the wind’s protons and alpha particles to neutralize the charge imbalance.  By the same physics, a net-positive planet would attract electrons.  After a billion years of that, no problem.”

“All right, what’s the third reason?”

“Simple.  We’ve already sent out orbiters to all the planets.  Descent vehicles have made physical contact with many of them.  No lightning flashes, no fried electronics.  Blows my mind that our Cassini mission to Saturn did seven years of science there after a six-year flight, and everything worked perfectly with no side-trips to the shop.  Our astronauts can skip worrying about high-voltage landings.”

“Hey, I just noticed something.  Those F formulas look the same.”  He picks up a stick and starts scribbling on the dirt in front of us.  “You could add them up like F=(Gm1m2+k0q1q2)/r2.  See how the two pieces can trade off if you take away some mass but add back some charge?  How do we know we’ve got the mass-mass pull right and not mixed in with some charge-charge push?”

Geese and ducks“Good question.  If protons were more positive than electrons, electrostatic repulsion would always be proportional to mass.  We couldn’t separate that force from gravity.  Physicists have separately measured electron and proton charge.  They’re equal (except for sign) to 10 decimal places.  Unfortunately, we’d need another 25 digits of accuracy before we could test your hypothesis.”

“Aw, look, the geese got babies.”

“The small ones are ducks, Mr Feder.”

~~ Rich Olcott