Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

The Sciences

New Light Sail Design Could Help Keep Interstellar Spacecraft on Track

Researchers tested new light sail tech in the lab and say their design could better steer the tiny, laser-powered interstellar spacecraft.

By Yuen YiuJanuary 2, 2020 10:00 PM
laser light sail interstellar
A light sail travels toward another star system in this artist's illustration. (Credit: M. Martin/Rochester Inst. of Tech.)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

(Inside Science) -- In long distance space travel, traditional rockets would eventually run out of fuel. There is an alternative: Since as early as the 19th century, scientists have dreamed of building spacecraft with light sails that can accelerate slowly, but for a much longer time, by catching the light from Earth’s sun or, in more modern designs, powerful ground-based lasers.

Researchers have now introduced a lab-tested design for a laser-driven light sail that can self-stabilize and could potentially ride a laser beam all the way out of our solar system.

With a powerful enough laser, one can push a light sail away from Earth like a geyser of water would push a manhole cover. But the slightest misalignment between the sail and the laser beam could send the spacecraft spiraling out of control.

The new light sail reduces the chance of misalignment by changing the material used to convert the incoming laser into propulsion. Most light sail designs simply reflect the light to get a push, but the new design uses a different process known as diffraction that bends the incoming light to also generate a sideways force. If the sail is drifting away from the center of the beam, this force naturally nudges it back.

The researchers have successfully built and tested a centimeter-wide prototype in their lab, according to a paper published in Physical Review Letters in December. 

[This story originally appeared on]

2 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In