Solar propulsion systems might be the key to interstellar travel

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New solar systems, planets, and perhaps even life exist beyond the confines of our solar neighborhood—we just have to get there.
Inside of an unassuming recycled shipping container in Maryland might sit the very future of interstellar travel.

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are performing experiments on whether the extreme heat of our sun can power a spacecraft to the far reaches of our solar system and beyond… interstellar space.

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The seeds for this spacecraft are being planted in a shipping container. A wall of the shipping container is lined with thousands of LEDs, and a metal latticework system runs down the center. A black curtain covers part of the device. A small black and white tile is mounted onto the latticework, and a dark curtain is laced around the experiment. Once the LED lights are switched on, they can shine brighter than 20 times our own sun and become extremely hot.

The scientists then pump liquid helium through a small embedded tube, and the helium absorbs the heat from the LEDs, and winds through the latticework, and expands until it's finally released through a small nozzle. And just like that, what was a theoretical idea that had its origins in 1956, becomes a reality.

Jason Benjoski, a materials scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory, explained the scientific breakthrough: "What this is showing is that solar thermal propulsion is not just fantasy."

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