Professor Gregory L. Matloff
» Spring 2008
Dr. Gregory L. Matloff, Department of Physics, began his 2008 Scholar on Campus Lecture, "Solar Sailing for Human Survival," by reminding his audience that "the motivation underlying our efforts to venture into space consists of more than scientific curiosity. In view of the increasing luminosity and eventual demise of our sun and other natural or self-inflicted disasters that could befall us before then, the survival of life as we know it will depend on our finding places other than Earth to call home."
Matloff was only 16 when he enrolled in the undergraduate program in physics at Queens College. Upon graduation, he got a job as a junior optical engineer with an electronics firm located in Queens and Syosett. The company produced star trackers - devices used to orient spacecraft by celestial navigation - and his work resulted in his first published paper in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Optics. He soon enrolled in the master's program in astronautical engineering at New York University and later in NYU's doctoral program in atmospheric physics.
Since then, Matloff has published more than 100 scientific papers and authored or co-authored six popular books on astronomy and astronautics. His latest book, Living Off the Land in Space: Green Roads to the Cosmos, co-authored with NASA manager Les Johnson and Brooklyn artist C Bang, presents a visionary concept for the future of interplanetary travel and describes how humankind will draw on the natural forces of the cosmos in the exploration and eventual settlement of space.
Matloff has worked as a consultant to NASA for more than 25 years on research focusing on the development of solar sail and other in-space propulsion technologies and methods of protecting Earth from asteroid impacts. His lecture derived from his forthcoming book Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, also co-authored with Johnson and with Italian physicist Giovanni Vulpetti, to be published in June 2008. Not only did the book receive a two-page pre-publication review in Nature on the eve of his talk, but NASA announced that America's first solar sail-propelled spacecraft will be launched at about the time of its publication.
Matloff is confident that solar sail technology will play a major role in our further exploration, mining and settlement of the solar system. "The wonderful thing about the technology is that it will enable us to navigate near-by space largely free of the need for on-board fuel. Solar sail spacecraft are propelled by the force of sunlight, and a vehicle's course can be easily altered by shifting the position of the sail in relation to the sun.
"Early applications are likely to include the deflection of threatening near-Earth objects such as Apophis that will by-pass 20,000 miles above the planet's surface in 2029 and return again in 2036 on a potential impact course. While it's only about the size of a football field, a direct hit in just the 'wrong' place could kill millions."
The technology also could play a major role in the search for natural resources that are rapidly depleting on Earth. "As we begin to deflect Earth-threatening objects, we could manipulate them into new orbits in close proximity to or even around the planet," Matloff added. "Many of these objects are rich in mineral and other resources, which could be mined by robotic means and shipped back to Earth."
Longer term, solar sail technology could be a major assist in our successfully completing interstellar voyages when the time comes for humankind to abandon our solar system in advance of the death of our sun. "When the sun expands to 150 times or more its current size," Matloff noted, "the additional thrust that expansion will provide solar sail-launched vehicles will be enormous."
At City Tech, Dr. Matloff is currently working with Department of Physics Chair Dr. Roman Kezerashvili and colleague Dr. Lufeng Leng to research the interaction between solar sails with the near-sun environment as well as solar sail condition monitoring. His forthcoming book on solar sails will be followed in 2009 by one on how space technology will enhance life on Earth. Another work in development - a visionary book of both science and fiction - will look at humankind's future migration to other star systems, what must be accomplished beforehand to prepare those systems to support Earth-normal life, and in what form we might make the journeys as our sun begins to die.