NASA thinks there's a way to get to Mars in three days

February 24, 2016 by Evan Gough, Universe Today
NASA thinks there’s a way to get to Mars in three days
Your aim has to be really really good. Credit: UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group

We've achieved amazing things by using chemical rockets to place satellites in orbit, land people on the moon, and place rovers on the surface of Mars. We've even used ion drives to reach destinations further afield in our solar system. But reaching other stars, or reducing our travel time to Mars or other planets, will require another method of travel. One that can approach relativistic speeds.

We can execute missions to Mars, but it takes several months for a vehicle to reach the Red Planet. Even then, those missions have to be launched during the most optimal launch windows, which only occur every 2 years. But the minds at NASA never stop thinking about this problem, and now Dr. Philip Lubin, Physics Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, may have come up with something: photonic propulsion, which he thinks could reduce the from Earth to Mars to just 3 days, for a 100 kg craft.

The system is called DEEP IN, or Directed Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration. The general idea is that we have achieved in the laboratory, but haven't taken that technology—which is electromagnetic in nature, rather than chemical—and used it outside of the laboratory. In short, we can propel individual particles to near light speed inside particle accelerators, but haven't expanded that technology to the macro level.

Directed Energy Propulsion differs from rocket technology in a fundamental way: the propulsion system stays at home, and the craft doesn't carry any fuel or propellant. Instead, the craft would carry a system of reflectors, which would be struck with an aimed stream of photons, propelling the craft forward. And the whole system is modular and scalable.

NASA thinks there’s a way to get to Mars in three days
Photonic propulsion explained.

If that's not tantalizing enough, the system can also be used to deflect hazardous space debris, and to detect other technological civilizations. As talked about in this paper, detecting these types of systems in use by other civilizations may be our best hope for discovering those civilizations.

There's a roadmap for using this system, and it starts small. At first, DEEP IN would be used to launch small cube satellites. The feedback from this phase would then inform the next step, which would be to test a unit for defending the ISS from . From then, the systems would meet goals of increasing complexity, from launching satellites to LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) and GEO (Geostationary Orbit), all the way up to asteroid deflection and planetary defense. After that, relativistic drives capable of interstellar travel is the goal.

There are lots of questions still to be answered of course, like what happens when a vehicle at near light-speed hits a tiny meteorite. But those questions will be asked and answered as the system is developed and its capabilities grow.

Obviously, DEEP IN has the potential to bring other stars into reach. This system could deliver probes to some of the more promising exo-planets, and give humanity its first detailed look at other solar systems. If DEEP IN can be successfully scaled up, as Lubin says, then it will be a transformational technology.

Explore further: Team to investigate possibility of using directed energy propulsion for interstellar travel

More information: Here's a longer video of Dr. Lubin explaining DEEP IN in greater depth and detail: livestream.com/viewnow/niac2015seattle

Related Stories

Alpha Centauri—our first target for interstellar probes?

February 22, 2016

With the completion of New Horizons' Pluto fly-by, its primary mission, should we now set our sights even higher, ambitiously taking aim at other star systems? If so, Alpha Centauri would probably be considered as the best ...

The feasibility of deflecting asteroids

September 1, 2015

It's the ultimate science fiction: The immense power of the sun is harnessed and converted into a massive phased array of laser beams that have the potential to intercept and deflect asteroids before they smash into Earth.

Ion propulsion—the key to deep space exploration

November 4, 2015

When we think of space travel, we tend to picture a massive rocket blasting off from Earth, with huge blast streams of fire and smoke coming out the bottom, as the enormous machine struggles to escape Earth's gravity. Rockets ...

CubeSats in deep space

November 3, 2015

(Phys.org)—Tiny spacecraft have their ambitions of space exploration too. The small-sized satellites called CubeSats, made of box-shaped four-inch units, are successfully operating in the low Earth orbit, conducting a variety ...

Recommended for you

Pulsar discovered in an ultraluminous X-ray source

September 26, 2016

(Phys.org)—A team of European astronomers has discovered a new pulsar in a variable ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX) known as NGC 7793 P13. The newly found object is the third ultraluminous X-ray pulsar detected so far, ...

Rosetta: The end of a space odyssey

September 26, 2016

Europe's trailblazing deep-space comet exploration for clues to the origins of the Solar System ends Friday with the Rosetta orbiter joining robot lab Philae on the iceball's dusty surface for eternity.

Mercury found to be tectonically active

September 26, 2016

Images acquired by NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft show geologic features that indicate Mercury is likely still contracting today, joining Earth as a tectonically ...

New low-mass objects could help refine planetary evolution

September 26, 2016

When a star is young, it is often still surrounded by a primordial rotating disk of gas and dust, from which planets can form. Astronomers like to find such disks because they might be able to catch the star partway through ...

Sounding rocket solves one cosmic mystery, reveals another

September 26, 2016

In the last century, humans realized that space is filled with types of light we can't see – from infrared signals released by hot stars and galaxies, to the cosmic microwave background that comes from every corner of the ...

15 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

DaveB
4.5 / 5 (10) Feb 24, 2016
And how would the vessel slow down?
big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2016
Precisely DaveB. Sounds like NASA have been on the Turps when they came up with this idea.
What kind of scientific data are they hoping to collect when whizzing past a planet at such high Velocity?? Also the further away a craft gets, the more difficult AIMING the photon gun at it becomes. The craft still needs it's own engines as it will need to do correction burns. Sounds like all the problems a Solar Sail craft would have.
Zzzzzzzz
5 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2016
I guess the idea of starting small is the way to go. Sounds a little too easy to pass up.
If you're going to mars, hitting the planet could stop the vessel. Kind of limits the mission however.....
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (8) Feb 24, 2016
And how would the vessel slow down?

With a similar setup at the destination.

If there is no such system at the destination then it would carry propellant - but only need half as much as usual craft because it get the acceleration "for free" from home. This would still be a very substantial advantage for stuff like missions to Mars

There are lots of questions still to be answered of course, like what happens when a vehicle at near light-speed hits a tiny meteorite.

You could have a portion of the stream directed not at the craft but just to the side to clear the cone of vulnerability.
Andrew Palfreyman
5 / 5 (5) Feb 25, 2016
This is the only viable technology for rapid transport around our solar system and eventually out towards the stars. To that end, the vision must encompass a web of beamers around our system for directed acceleration and braking for a multiplicity of routes. We will weave a transportation web over our solar system made of light. What a wonderful vision that is.

But we are absolutely going to need cheap launches to make it work such that we are lofting tons of equipment into space for deployment of this beamer web. Reusable rockets take us partway towards that goal, but the real cost savers are fully reusable technologies like StarTram and Skylon. We should be building StarTrams right now if we are serious about launching our dreams. With cheap launches we can get heavy equipment onto the Moon and Mars and take serious first steps at establishing permanent presences there.

At least, that's the roadmap as I see it.
Whydening Gyre
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2016
This is the only viable technology for rapid transport around our solar system and eventually out towards the stars. To that end, the vision must encompass a web of beamers around our system for directed acceleration and braking for a multiplicity of routes. We will weave a transportation web over our solar system made of light. What a wonderful vision that is.

But we are absolutely going to need cheap launches to make it work such that we are lofting tons of equipment into space for deployment of this beamer web. Reusable rockets take us partway towards that goal, but the real cost savers are fully reusable technologies like StarTram and Skylon. We should be building StarTrams right now if we are serious about launching our dreams. With cheap launches we can get heavy equipment onto the Moon and Mars and take serious first steps at establishing permanent presences there.

A nice vision.
Will take lot of international cooperation. That won't be as pretty and streamlined...
EyeNStein
5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2016
Assuming for one second that the mirrors could confine the photons and produce that much thrust without burning up:
1)The resource "vehicle" would have to be based on the moon to absorb the recoil.
2) The trapped photons would be red shifted more at each bounce due to the relative velocity; eventually passing out of the useful band of the gain medium and probably frying the system as it descends beyond infra red.

I hope this was nothing more than the dream of one of NASA's interns. I'd hate to think they invested more than pocket change on this.
Andrew Palfreyman
5 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2016
Assuming for one second that the mirrors could confine the photons and produce that much thrust without burning up:
1)The resource "vehicle" would have to be based on the moon to absorb the recoil.
2) The trapped photons would be red shifted more at each bounce due to the relative velocity; eventually passing out of the useful band of the gain medium and probably frying the system as it descends beyond infra red.

You're misunderstanding the technology. Best you read the accompanying paper. Although Bae's idea for amplifying thrust via cavity Q is not infeasible in this context, Lubin specifically states that he has not assumed it for the purposes of calculating performance.
Andrew Palfreyman
3 / 5 (4) Feb 25, 2016
Assuming for one second that the mirrors could confine the photons and produce that much thrust without burning up:
1)The resource "vehicle" would have to be based on the moon to absorb the recoil.
2) The trapped photons would be red shifted more at each bounce due to the relative velocity; eventually passing out of the useful band of the gain medium and probably frying the system as it descends beyond infra red.

You're misunderstanding the technology. Best you read the accompanying paper. Although Bae's idea for amplifying thrust via cavity Q is not infeasible in this context, Lubin specifically states that he has not assumed it for the purposes of calculating performance.
Furthermore, Lubin has been careful when analysing the power capabilities of the reflective surfaces. Indeed, the report allocates several pages to this topic.

The beamer web I described consists of solely a source - not a back-reflecting mirror. Riding that beam is all that's needed.
etherair
not rated yet Feb 25, 2016
And with all these laser beams criss crossing interplanetary space not a one ever gets misdirected and fries an inadvertent target? Nobody with a standard drive crosses path's?

An onboard energy source is still a must. It will come, many sources are theoretically possible and need developed.
Until then a light sail would allow slowing down again when approaching a new sun.
A laser boost could get it out of our solar system much more quickly, although the time saved would be small compared to the trip length and cost effectiveness would be nil.
gculpex
not rated yet Feb 25, 2016
I have yet to have my laser pen launch into space off a mirror.....
EyeNStein
5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2016
If they portrayed this system as a moon-based-laser boosted solar sail, they might have an idea worth exploring.
But their "confined laser beam" without any precision adaptive divergence-compensation for their fibre based laser amplifiers, and a PR video dangling "multiple bounces" as a bonus suggests they haven't a clue.
Andrew Palfreyman
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2016
Conservation of momentum demands back-reaction. Therefore a laser pointer in space, when turned on, will slowly accelerate backwards, in a direction opposite to its beam. With the high power beamer system discussed here, the back-reaction is fierce, and for that reason beamers will be mounted to very sizeable chunks of rock: the Moon, asteroids, etc . To obviate collimation issues, it's a bad idea to try to have one in atmosphere.
gculpex
not rated yet Feb 26, 2016
This article (original site) is more than 4 months old.
The idea to use photons to propel a spaceship has been around for decades (OST series).
The problem I see is just how big is the power plant?
Reminds me of the time when they made a MHD drive boat using sea water, theory said they would go faster than any craft ever built. True speed was less than 15 mph. I see the same here...
Andrew Palfreyman
5 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2016
The problem I see is just how big is the power plant?

The power plant is the Sun, via PV.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.