Imagine a science fiction world where the following is an everyday reality: travelling at a fraction of the speed of light and reaching the closest stars; using our own sun as a lens to see exoplanets; harnessing the sun’s gravity as a slingshot for huge solar sails.

Assistant Professor Artur Davoyan is working on the technology to take these ideas from science fiction into science reality. He is the newest member of UCLA’s Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department faculty. His research interests span a variety of topics from sustainable energy to novel principles of spacecraft propulsion.

Davoyan’s vision is to use nanotechnology to build light-powered spaceprobes that can reach Mars in a matter of days and reach distant interstellar places no one has gone before. It took Voyager nearly 40 years to reach the boundaries of our solar system, and it will take it another 50,000 years to arrive to the nearest star! Davoyan hopes to build a spacecraft that can travel at thousands of kilometers per second. With this technology it would be possible to reach Alpha Centauri and its exoplanets in just 20 years. It will also be possible to see if the planets of nearby stars are hostile or have lifeforms. Are we alone? Soon, we’ll find out.

A little closer to home, Davoyan wants to use the sun as a lens to study in great detail planets orbiting nearby stars. By setting up a satellite within interstellar space (about 650 astronomical units from Earth), the sun can be used as a magnifier to see exoplanets. To arrive there, Davoyan wants to expand the use of huge solar sails for space travel. The sun itself can be used as a launching mechanism to help solar sails gain momentum before launching into deep space. By sending the sails around the corona of the sun, the sun can be used as a huge gravitational slingshot to boldly send the sails where no one has gone before!

Davoyan discussed his research and why he works in this area.

Can you tell me a little about your research?

I have long been fascinated by the ideas of innovation – creating a value that wasn’t there before. As a scientist and engineer, I am interested in examining the limitations of current technology and the needs of our world. Being the first to understand what we can do differently about things surrounding us is something very exciting and inspirational. This knowledge helps to define, shape and uncover new frontiers in the areas that matter to us. My particular passion is in energy and space exploration. In my group we use nanotechnology to push the boundaries in these areas. Our general theme is to use light as a source of energy and as a means of propulsion.

I am thrilled to see the revival of space technology and excitement of space exploration. It’s amazing that every day new companies appear and that new discoveries are made. I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity to make a difference. In my group we are approaching this from a scientific standpoint. Our goal is to develop novel materials and propulsion methods to reshape the way space is explored. I envision that someday we will beat the Voyager’s speed and distance records. It’s fascinating to think that we can reach Mars and Jupiter in just a few days and neighboring stars within our lifespans.

Since its conception space travel and exploration relied on breakthrough technological advancements. However, the pace of innovation in space until recently was quite slow due to a number of factors, including cost. On the other hand, we all witness a booming growth of information technologies and mass production: new gadgets and apps emerge every day, changing the way we live, study, do business and even think. I think it would be great to bring this drive and innovation into the area of space engineering. In our group we are motivated by this concept and we seek new principles that would enable scalable and cost efficient space technologies. I believe that the next frontier of space exploration will be driven by advances in nanoscience and nanoengineering.

Why did you decide to work in this area?

Since my younger years I have been interested in two distinctly different areas: space and optics. My passion for optics was sparked when I accidently discovered that broken pieces of glass can magnify and even burn things under sunlight. This simple observation ignited my lifelong interest to understanding better the way light works. My passion for space comes from a completely different side. I was lucky to live in Saratov, a city where Yuri Gagarin – the first man to travel to space – had studied and trained. Moreover, he [Yuri Gagarin] landed just a few miles away from the city. This heritage pervaded the life and culture in my town, with many exciting events and exhibits devoted to space. In general, the early ‘90s were an interesting time for Russian space exploration and I am glad to have experienced that.

Early on I knew that I want to be in academia and do research; however, my dilemma was choosing my focus between space engineering and optics. Eventually, I decided that I’ll dive deeper into optics and study the science of light. My research since my undergraduate years has centered on understanding electromagnetic wave interaction with materials at very small dimensions. My vision was significantly influenced at Caltech where I’ve spent last three years. It’s at Caltech – the birthplace of JPL and one of the leading centers for space exploration – that I realized that both of my passions [optics and space] can be pursued together. I figured out the photonics that I have long worked on is the driver for space exploration and innovation.

What are some of your teaching goals here at UCLA?

My goal is to educate the future global tech leaders. I believe that our students have an amazing potential to create and innovate, and it’s my goal to help them solve the core problems facing the nation and the world. The rapid pace with which technology and the environment evolve opens up novel opportunities, but also poses new challenges. How can one catch up with such rapid change? In four years, from enrollment to graduation, entire fields of engineering may emerge or decline. And hence it’s my goal as an educator to help students to engage with industry and obtain firsthand exposure to the emerging market trends. As I am interested in sustainable energy and space technology, I hope to connect students with the respective communities in government and the private sector.

Article by Alex Duffy

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 UCLA Samueli Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

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