Ground-Based Lasers Could Accelerate Spacecraft to Other Stars

An artist's illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. The leakage from such beams as they sweep across the sky would appear as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), similar to the new population of sources that was discovered recently at cosmological distances. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

The future of space exploration includes some rather ambitious plans to send missions farther from Earth than ever before. Beyond the current proposals for building infrastructure in cis-lunar space and sending regular crewed missions to the Moon and Mars, there are also plans to send robotic missions to the outer Solar System, to the focal length of our Sun’s gravitational lens, and even to the nearest stars to explore exoplanets. Accomplishing these goals requires next-generation propulsion that can enable high thrust and consistent acceleration.

Focused arrays of lasers – or directed energy (DE) – and lightsails are a means that is being investigated extensively – such as Breakthrough Starshot and Swarming Proxima Centauri. Beyond these proposals, a team from McGill University in Montreal has proposed a new type of directed energy propulsion system for exploring the Solar System. In a recent paper, the team shared the early results of their Laser-Thermal Propulsion (LTP) thruster facility, which suggests that the technology has the potential to provide both high thrust and specific impulse for interstellar missions.

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Lasers Could Send Missions to Mars in Only 45 Days

Swarm of laser-sail spacecraft leaving the solar system. Credit: Adrian Mann

NASA and China plan to mount crewed missions to Mars in the next decade. While this represents a tremendous leap in terms of space exploration, it also presents significant logistical and technological challenges. For starters, missions can only launch for Mars every 26 months when our two planets are at the closest points in their orbit to each other (during an “Opposition“). Using current technology, it would take six to nine months to transit from Earth to Mars.

Even with nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion (NTP/NEP), a one-way transit could take 100 days to reach Mars. However, a team of researchers from Montreal’s McGill University assessed the potential of a laser-thermal propulsion system. According to their study, a spacecraft that relies on a novel propulsion system – where lasers are used to heat hydrogen fuel – could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days!

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