Nanophotonic Heterostructures for Efficient Propulsion and Radiative Cooling of Relativistic Light Sails

Ognjen Ilic, Cora M. Went, Harry A. Atwater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Light sails propelled by radiation pressure from high-power lasers have the potential to achieve relativistic spaceflight. In order to propel a spacecraft to relativistic speeds, an ultrathin, gram-sized light sail will need to be stably accelerated by lasers with ∼MW/cm2 intensities operating in the near-infrared spectral range. Such a laser-driven sail requires multiband electromagnetic functionality: it must simultaneously exhibit very low absorptivity in the (Doppler-broadened) laser beam spectrum in the near-infrared and high emissivity in the mid-infrared for efficient radiative cooling. These engineering challenges present an opportunity for nanophotonic design. Here, we show that designed thin-film heterostructures could become multifunctional building-block elements of the light sail, due to their ability to achieve substantial reflectivity while maintaining low absorption in the near-infrared, significant emissivity in the mid-infrared, and a very low mass. For a light sail carrying a payload, we propose a relevant figure of merit - the reflectivity adjusted area density - that can capture the trade-off between sail mass and reflectivity, independent of other quantities such as the incident beam power, phased array size, or the payload mass. Furthermore, we present designs for effective thermal management via radiative cooling and compare propulsion efficiencies for several candidate materials, using a general approach that could apply to a broad range of high-power laser propulsion problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5583-5589
Number of pages7
JournalNano letters
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 12 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Caltech Space Solar Power project (C.M.W.) and by the DOE “Light-Material Interactions in Energy Conversion” Energy Frontier Research Center under Grant DE-SC0001293 (O.I.). C.M.W. acknowledges fellowship support from the Resnick Sustainability Institute and from an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (Grant No. 1745301). We acknowledge helpful discussions with Zac Manchester, Mike Kelzenberg, Michelle Sherrott, Artur Davoyan, Deep Jariwala, William Whitney, Joeson Wong, and Kevin Parkin.


  • Breakthrough Starshot
  • Laser propulsion
  • light sail
  • optical heterostructures
  • radiative cooling

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