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Lasers May Propel Craft to Mars in Three Days

There is no known reason why we could not do this.

That kind of bold statement usually comes from a politician running for office but in this case, the speaker is a NASA scientist gunning for Mars. Philip Lubin, a professor in the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Experimental Cosmology Group, says a laser-powered system called photonic propulsion can “push” a spacecraft to Mars using a giant laser and reach the Red Planet in just a few days. Not only that, he claims the technology is currently available. What’s the hold up?

IKAROS - the first solar sail

IKAROS – the first solar sail

Photonic propulsion uses electromagnetic acceleration similar to the way a solar sail works except, instead of using energy from the Sun, it would use energy from lasers in Earth orbit. In a paper presented in 2015, Lubin described how photons would hit the sail of a wafer-thin space vessel and push it forward at speeds of up to a quarter of the speed of light.

Of course, not even supermodels fit in wafer-thin spaceships. In a new video released this week on the NASA 360 channel called Going Interstellar, Lubin explains that as mass (and humans) are added to the spacecraft, the speed would be lessened but still extremely fast by today’s standards. He estimated that an unmanned 100-kilogram (220 pounds) spacecraft could reach Mars in three days and a manned spacecraft in a month.

The energy required for the trip would be substantially reduced as well since the fuel is a laser beam and the generator is in Earth orbit, not on the ship. We can do this, says Lubin.

This technology is NOT science fiction. Things have changed.

So what’s the hold up? Let’s talk size. A wafer-thin craft with a one-meter sail can’t hold much instrumentation, let alone humans or even robots. With no fuel or reverse propulsion on board, there’s no way for the craft to stop when it gets to Mars. For that same reason, there’s no way for it to turn around and come back either.

A small craft could still send back big data

A small craft could still send back big data

On the other hand, even a small probe can send back lots of data, as the Pioneer missions and the Horizon to Pluto have proven. What’s more, photonic propulsion would send the craft to its destination in months rather than decades, allowing for rapid improvements for the next trip.

What we need now is a political leader with the ability to fund the project to say:

There is no known reason why we could not do this.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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