Deep space exploration has some limitations, and slow spacecrafts are among the most serious limitations. But fortunately the U.S. space agency is working on various systems to help space probes reach their targets faster. Currently, one NASA’s laser propulsion tech could get us to Mars in 3 days, the space agency’s engineers recently claimed.
With current technology, a manned spacecraft could reach the Red Planet in a month. But a NASA team led by Philip Lubin is testing a laser-based technology that could get astronauts there in less than a week.
The technology was dubbed ‘photonic propulsion’ because it harnesses the momentum of photons to greatly accelerate spacecrafts. Still, researchers explained that the photons are not those generated by the sun, but by ground-based monster lasers.
NASA even made a short video to explain how exactly the technology works (see below). Researchers said that the system was readily available, so they were currently working on scaling it up.
Lubin admitted that the breakthrough may sound like something from a Sci-Fi flick, but he added that we can do this.
According to NASA researchers, modern spacecraft propulsion systems rely on rocket fuel to gain enough thrust to get spacecrafts into space and keep them going. But the fuel is heavy and vanishes fast. So, scientists believe that electromagnetic acceleration of space vehicles through photons may be one of the best propulsion technologies we have at hand for deep space exploration missions.
Lubin explained that electromagnetic acceleration could be limited by the speed of light alone if done right, while current technologies are limited to the energy output generated by chemical reactions in rocket fuel.
Nevertheless, to date, the electromagnetic acceleration systems seem to work only in laboratory, and testing them in real life would require a complex and costly equipment. For instance, engineers would need a ring of superconducting magnets that can fit a spacecraft to test the system.
An alternative to the ring would be the EM Drive, which was able to generate electromagnetic acceleration, but scientists are not sure about how it really works. So, photonic propulsion seems more reliable than electromagnetic acceleration-based systems.
Researchers explained that the tech relies on photons’ momentum to get spacecrafts going. When photons bounce off an object their momentum gives the object a gentle push. But with powerful lasers, researchers are confident that they will generate enough momentum to get even space-craft-sized objects moving.
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