A group of researchers at the University of California, investigates how to harness the power of light to get to Mars after a journey of just 3 days. It sounds like science fiction, but the technology could become reality, NASA scientists says.
Using today’s technology, it will take about five months to reach the red planet, a cumbersome obstacle in traveling that implies many others impediments. But now, NASA may have come up with something. The key is photon propulsion (also called DEEP IN, or Directed Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration). So what is photonic propulsion exactly?
According to scientists, it is a technique that uses powerful laser that could push a spacecraft through space at incredible speeds — closer to the speed of light, or relativistic speed.
NASA scientist Professor Phillip Lubin and his team are working on the DEEP IN program and has presented his findings at the last NIAC Symposium (NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts).
We know how to get to relativistic speeds in the lab, we do it all the time,
There are recent advances that take this from science fiction to science reality. There’s no known reason why we cannot do this.
So, how this technology Works? The theory is simple. Despite not having any mass, photons or light particles have both energy and momentum that can be transformed into a “push”. So, we could use thrust of photons to propel objects like a spacecraft into space. Based on calculations, this technique could propel 100 kilograms robotic craft to Mars in just 3 days, Lubin said.
When they reflect off an object, that momentum is transferred into a little push. With a large, reflective sail, it’s possible to generate enough momentum to gradually accelerate a spacecraft,
With what spacecraft uses at present, burning rocket fuel is the only means to launch a rocket ship. Rocket fuel, however, can weigh down the spacecraft and it is more inefficient compared to electromagnetic acceleration.
On the other hand, the photonic propulsion uses a stream of photons that does not add mass to the spacecraft beyond the laser itself. The system can also be used to deflect hazardous space debris, as the authors wrote in the paper.
These systems can be propelled to speeds currently unimaginable with existing propulsion technologies. To do so requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and in many cases what a spacecraft is,
the paper said.
However, this system would not be used for manned flights. “We are not proposing systems to send humans to interstellar distances.” Humans are extremely fragile and require a lot of support. Robotic missions are much better suited for interstellar exploration in the future.”
Within about 25 light-years of the Earth, there are actually quite a few potential exoplanets and habitable things to visit,
Lubin said at the NIAC symposium.
There are many targets to choose from.
DEEP IN has the potential to bring other stars into reach.
Exploring the nearest stars and exoplanets would be a profound voyage for humanity, one whose nonscientific implications would be enormous,
Lubin wrote on the topic.
It is time to begin this inevitable journey beyond our home.