NASA scientist Philip Lubin is working on a photonic propulsion system that could reduce Mars voyages from six months to three days.
The biggest hurdle to visiting Mars isn't technology, a lack of interest, or that its flowing water probably isn't drinkable - it's time. Flying a rocket to Mars is a six-month journey under ideal conditions, and returning to Earth poses its own problems. But what it we could reduce the trip from six months to three days? NASA's Philip Lubin believes it's possible, and is developing a laser-based photonic propulsion system to make it a reality.
"There are recent advances that take this from science fiction to science reality," Lubin says. "There is no known reason why we can not do this."
So let's figure out how this works. Right now, current rocket propulsion-systems are fuel-based, which requires huge volumes of fuel to move objects of greater mass. (Important fact: Spaceships are heavy.) So NASA's goal is to develop an electromagnetically-accelerated propulsion system powered by the momentum of light and radiation. This bypasses the drawbacks of current propulsion systems, and can theoretically be scaled up to spaceships of any size.
What's really incredible is this process already works - the Large Hadron Collider's superconducting magnets use a similar setup - we just haven't scaled it for starships. Lubin's system would attach giant sails to a spacecraft, which capture the photons from giant Earth-based lasers to move the vessel. Current calculations suggest a 100-kg robotic craft could pick up enough momentum to reach Mars in three days. A full-sized human spacecraft with photonic propulsion would take about a month, which is still remarkable.
There's just one problem: While photon propulsion is mass-efficient, humans are too heavy to send to distant star systems in a reasonable time. But we could still potentially explore planets in our own solar system, or send robotic craft to stars like Alpha Centurai. We should be seeing more details from Lubin's research soon, and I, for one, will be excited to see the results.