“We have to radically rethink our strategy or give up our dreams of reaching the stars.”
Humans dream of exploration. We want to know what is out there, whether there are any habitable planets or any signs of life. NASA is working hard to send astronauts to Mars before too long, but one of the biggest roadblocks is time.
With current technology, it will take about 5 months for a manned spacecraft to reach the red planet. Not only will this require massive amounts of fuel, the lengthy trip will mean that astronauts will be trapped in a capsule the size of a small car for all that time — eating food and using supplies that they will have to carry, and hopefully getting along with each other.
But what if there were a better way? NASA scientist Philip Lubin thinks there is. In a paper on his proposed technology, Lubin explains that we already have the necessary technology in a lab setting; we just need to scale it up.
What he is suggesting is using electromagnetic acceleration — from the momentum of photons — as opposed to rocket fuel. He says that if we could do this, we could send a spacecraft to Mars in just three days.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a manned spacecraft. That is something else that he emphasises the need to reconsider. “To do so [sending probes to the nearest stars] requires a fundamental change in our thinking of both propulsion and in many cases what a spacecraft is.” He envisions wafer-thin spacecrafts — “wafersats” — that could travel at over 25 percent the speed of light.
As such, Mars wouldn’t have to be our only or furthest destination. The Voyager 1 spacecraft has been traveling at a measly pace of 0.006% the speed of light, but this new technology could revolutionize potential speed and, thus, destinations.
“Within 20 light-years of the Sun, there are over 150 stars including white and brown dwarfs and there are known to be a number of planets around at least 12 of these stars and at least 17 stars in 14 star systems appear to be capable of supporting planets in stable orbits within the ‘habitable zone’,” Lubin writes in his paper.
How could protons succeed in moving something as large as a space probe despite their lack of mass? ScienceAlert explains that “particles of light have both energy and momentum, and when they reflect off an object, that momentum is transferred into a little push. With a large, reflective sail, it's possible to generate enough momentum to gradually accelerate a spacecraft.”
In this NASA 360 video, Lubin explains that the technology isn’t as farfetched as it might sound. He warns that “we have to radically rethink our strategy or give up our dreams of reaching the stars” and adds that “as a part of our effort we propose a roadmap to allow for staged development that will allow us not only to dream but to do.” That sure sounds like a plan to me!