NASA hopes Earth-bound lasers will reduce Martian commute by 80%
I sometimes moan about my commute, but I’d still rather spend two hours per day on a crowded tube train than six months in a cramped spacecraft making the Mars trip. The difference – well, one of many differences actually, but let’s not split hairs – is that while the technology to get me across London is unlikely to get a significant upgrade (until we get a full set of Hyperloops), space commuting is still in its infancy.
Making spaceships faster would solve a number of issues, aside from astronaut comfort. For one thing, significantly reducing the time to get from A to B would mean fewer resources needed to keep astronauts alive for the trip, making ships lighter. Much of this centres around fuel efficiency, though – if more fuel is required to make spaceships faster, the gains are eaten into thanks to the additional weight.
Enter photonic propulsion, which neatly sidesteps the fuel issue by using the momentum of photons to move a vehicle forward. NASA scientist Philip Lubin explains the system in the video below, but the long and short of it is that giant lasers here on Earth would “push” the spaceship towards its destination, courtesy of a large reflective sail.
It’s theoretical for now, but Lubin is pretty bullish about its chances of success, saying: “There are recent advances that take this from science fiction to science reality. There is no known reason why we can not do this.”
NASA agrees, and has awarded Lubin and his team a proof-of-concept grant to demonstrate the potential of photonic propulsion for space travel.
While the upshot of this is that human passengers could get from here to Mars in just a month – chopping five months off of our current speed – the gains for robotic craft are even more impressive. By their calculations, a 100kg robotic craft could be on Mars by the weekend, if it set off today. That’s just three days.
That’s important, because over longer distances it’s even faster, when the spacecraft has extra time to speed up. It could mean that robots could eventually be exploring planets outside of our solar system, even if that jaunt remains a pipedream for humans while we stubbornly continue to inefficiently gobble weighty food and drink.
“The human factor of exploring the nearest stars and exoplanets would be a profound voyage for humanity, one whose non-scientific implications would be enormous,” Lubin writes in his paper. “It is time to begin this inevitable journey beyond our home.”