NASA are on a mission to get to Mars. They want to put humans on the red planet by 2030, but how they get there is still up for debate. Currently estimates on how long it would take range from six to eight months.
But newly proposed propulsion technology could shorten the journey time quite dramatically. NASA 360 recently released a video called "Going Interstellar" (above) which details a new type of laser-powered propulsion, or photonic propulsion, which would mean spacecraft would no longer have to rely on fuel.
Not only that but it could also accelerate a spaceship to up to 26% the speed of light which, theoretically, could mean a small craft or probe could get to Mars in around 30 minutes. That's less time than it takes most of us to get through our newsfeed updates when we first log on to Facebook in the morning.
However, scaling that up to a larger spacecraft and it's looking more around three days.
"There are recent advances that take this from science fiction to science reality," says physics scientist Philip Lubin in the video. "There is no known reason why we can not do this."
Lubin goes on to say, “We could propel a 100-kilogram (220-pound) robotic craft to Mars in a few days,” and even suggests other destinations we could visit. “Within about 25 light-years of the Earth there’s actually quite a few potential exoplanets and habitable things to visit – that may be habitable, we don’t know of course. So there are many targets to choose from. The closest is Alpha Centauri, which is about four light-years away.”
Lubin and his team were awarded a grant from NASA so they could look into photonic propulsion for interstellar travel, and they published a paper on what they found out.
In that work, Lubin is investigating shooting Earth-orbiting lasers at wafer-thin space vessels to propel them to greater speeds through the vacuum of space. The photons in the laser light would literally push the vessel along, much in the way the solar sail being tested plans to use photons from the sun for propulsion. This is called electromagnetic acceleration and can achieve vastly quicker speeds than chemical propulsion, such as that produced by rocket fuel.
The technology to build such a propulsion system is already available, so the next phase now is to develop and test it, and see if it could actually scale up.
"Warp factor 7 Mr. Sulu!"