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Wind Rider: A High Performance Magsail

Can you imagine the science we could do if we had the capability of sending a probe to Jupiter with travel time of less than a month? How about Neptune in 18 weeks? Alex Tolley has been running the numbers on a concept called Wind Rider, which derives from the plasma magnet sail he has analyzed in these pages before (see, for example, The Plasma Magnet Drive: A Simple, Cheap Drive for the Solar System and Beyond). The numbers are dramatic, but only testing in space will tell us whether they are achievable, and whether the highly variable solar wind can be stably harnessed to drive the craft. A long-time contributor to Centauri Dreams, Alex is co-author (with Brian McConnell) of A Design for a Reusable Water-Based Spacecraft Known as the Spacecoach (Springer, 2016), focusing on a new technology for Solar System expansion.

by Alex Tolley

In 2017 I outlined a proposed magnetic sail propulsion system called the Plasma Magnet that was presented by Jeff Greason at an interstellar conference [6]. It caught my attention because of its simplicity and potential high performance compared to other propulsion approaches. For example, the Breakthrough Starshot beamed sail required hugely powerful and expensive phased-array lasers to propel a sail into interstellar space. By contrast, the Plasma Magnet [PM] required relatively little energy and yet was capable of propelling a much larger mass at a velocity exceeding any current propulsion system, including advanced solar sails.

The Plasma Magnet was proposed by Slough [5] and involved an arrangement of coils to co-opt the solar wind ions to induce a very large magnetosphere that is propelled by the solar wind. Unlike earlier proposals for magnetic sails that required a large electric coil kilometers in diameter to create the magnetic field, the induction of the solar wind ions to create the field meant that the structure was both low mass and that the size of the resulting magnetic field increased as the surrounding particle density declined. This allowed for a constant acceleration as the PM was propelled away from the sun, very different from solar sails and even magsails with fixed collecting areas.

The PM concept has been developed further with a much sexier name: the Wind Rider, and missions to use this updated magsail vehicle are being defined.