This article was published in 6/2019 of the Czechoslovak Journal for Physics, published by the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. It was written by Jana Žďárská from the FZU, Czech Academy of Sciences v. v. i.
At the end of September 2019 an extraordinary workshop was held in Prague which was focused on the application of high-power lasers to the detection and removal of orbital debris, interstellar flights, diversion of dangerous near-Earth objects, or remote sensing of the Solar System.
Significant Czech and foreign scientists as well as private companies presented basic physical concepts, challenges as well as current rational possibilities of this technology and its expected development in the near future.
Among other things, this important event was devoted to relevant political issues related to the operation of these important facilities. The predominantly discussed issue was how such super-powerful lasers can be built on a global level and then effectively controlled. The conference participants also spoke about the necessity of establishing an international scientific consortium as about a central theme of the Czech Republic's foreign policy. An important point discussed in the workshop was also the question of of global cooperation and related international law.
The main guests of this workshop were the well-known American physicist Philip Lubin (UC Santa Barbara) and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, astrophysicist Pete Worder. Philip Lubin presented the concept of a mission of small one-gram research space ships that would be accelerated by a very strong laser source up to 20% light speed in about eight minutes. This would allow to explore at least the nearest star system – Alpha Centauri: A (Rigil), B (Toliman) and C (Proxima) – in the next few decades. In the first phase, however, this project will focus mainly on Europa and Enceladus moons in the Solar System. Lubin also predicted that the announced mission could be reached within a 20 to 50-year horizon, with the use of huge fiber laser batteries.
One of the important themes of the near future, which Czech scientists are also interested in, is cleaning the Earth's orbit from orbital debris. The amount of such debris is rapidly increasing due to human activity. In the more distant future, large lasers can also be used to divert and dispose of potentially dangerous near-earth objects or to measure their composition remotely.
Scientists at Charles University and the Institute of International Relations have developed a theoretical model of future global collaboration in the development, construction and operation of an extremely powerful laser directly with Breakthrough Initiatives scientists. The aim will be to discuss the possibilities of inclusive global cooperation between governments, private institutions and international organizations. The ideal goal would be to establish an international research consortium such as CERN or ITER with adequate global legitimacy.
Space and laser technologies represent 1/3 of the perspective areas of the Czech Republic's Innovation Strategy 2019–2030. Moreover, Czech politicians could play an absolutely crucial role in a similar initiative, following the humanistic tradition of Czech foreign policy. In addition, the Czech Republic will host the EU Agency for Space Program, which can fundamentally help deepen international confidence in building such secure and sensitive technology.
As RNDr. Martin Ferus, Ph.D., from J. Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry said: “It might seem that widespread application of powerful laser systems is still in the far future. But the opposite is true. At present, our team together with Dr. Krůs from the PALS laser department is working on the related determination of laser parameters for space applications. HiLASE's leading infrastructure has also been involved in the research. On a global scale, the Czech Republic has fundamental and exceptional scientific equipment, including some of the world's most powerful lasers. Our teams use these lasers to investigate extreme states of matter and plasma.
In addition to the development of space technology, Czech power lasers literally make impossible possible for us – by blasting gases, meteorites and liquids we mimic the extreme conditions that exist when asteroids or just small meteoroids enter the atmosphere and when they impact. We study the physical and chemical effects of this event, and we can, for example, assess whether they may have contributed to the processes leading to life on Earth.” We wish the Czech and foreign scientists much success on the road to such important scientific goals, and although the idea of accelerating small 1-gram research space craft sounds a bit like science fiction at the moment, as Dr. Lubin said : "It is currently the only plan for interstellar travel that is relatively technologically easy to implement."
Acknowledgement: We would like to express our thanks to GACR, Project 18-27653S and TAČR, Project TL01000181.