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!

The research was led by Emmanuel Duplay, a McGill graduate and current MSc Aerospace Engineering student at TU Delft. He was joined by Associate Professor Andrew Higgins and multiple researchers with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McGill University. Their study, titled “Design of a rapid transit to Mars mission using laser-thermal propulsion,” was recently submitted to the journal Astronomy & Astronomy.


Artist’s impression of a directed-energy propulsion laser sail in action. Credit: Q. Zhang/deepspace.ucsb.edu

In recent years, directed-energy (DE) propulsion has been the subject of considerable research and interest. Examples include the Starlight program – also known as the Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (DEEP-IN) and Directed Energy Interstellar Studies (DEIS) programs – developed by Prof. Phillip Lubin and the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group (ECG). As part of NASA-funded research that began in 2009, these programs aim to adapt large-scale DE applications for interstellar missions.

There’s also Breakthrough Starshot and Project Dragonfly, both of which emerged from a design study hosted by the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) in 2013. These concepts call for a gigawatt-power laser array to accelerate a lightsail and a small spacecraft to a fraction of the speed of light (aka. relativistic speeds) to reach nearby star systems in decades, rather than centuries or millennia.

But whereas these concepts are interstellar in focus, Duplay and his colleagues explored the possibility of an interplanetary concept. As Duplay explained to Universe Today via email:

“The ultimate application of directed-energy propulsion would be to propel a lightsail to the stars for true interstellar travel, a possibility that motivated our team that did this study. We were interested in how the same laser technology could be used for rapid transit in the solar system, which will hopefully be a nearer-term steppingstone that can demonstrate the technology.”


Breakthrough Starshot’s concept for a laser-driven light sail. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Aside from laser sail propulsion, DE is being explored for several other space exploration applications. This includes power beaming to and from spacecraft and permanently-shadowed habitats (e.g., the Artemis Program), communications, asteroid defense, and the search for possible technosignatures. There’s also a concept for a laser-electric spacecraft being investigated by NASA and as part of a collaborative study between the UCSB ECG and MIT.

For this application, lasers are used to deliver power to photovoltaic arrays on a spacecraft, which is converted to electricity to power a Hall-Effect Thruster (ion engine). This idea is similar to a nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP) system, where a laser array
Did you miss our previous article…
https://www.mansbrand.com/the-first-image-from-nasas-new-x-ray-observatory/

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