Laser Propulsion Could Get a Probe to Mars in 3 Days, Scientists Say

February 22, 2016 Updated: October 5, 2018

Photonic propulsion could get a 100 kg object to Mars in 3 days—a spaceship in a month—and we already have the technology to build it, scientists say.

Scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, are proposing a road map to building laser arrays in orbit capable of launching probes to nearest star systems and spacecraft-sized loads to our nearest planets.

There is no known reason why we cannot do this, except for NASA budget reasons.
— Philip Lubin, University of California and DEEP IN

They found out that the power exerted by rocket-propelled spacecrafts to escape Earth is about the same needed to accelerate them to “relativistic speeds” using photonic propulsion. That would be speeds exceeding 600 miles per second, about 70 times higher than what current propulsion methods achieve, according to “A Roadmap to Interstellar Flight” white paper by Philip Lubin of Univ. of California Santa Barbara and Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration project (DEEP IN).

“There is no known reason why we cannot do this, except for NASA budget reasons,” Lubin said at the 2015 NASA Innovative Advanced Concept Fall Symposium in October, 2015.

Photonic propulsion works by shooting a laser at a mirror, thus pushing the mirror away. The idea is to place a powerful laser in orbit around Earth, place a mirror on a spacecraft, and push the spacecraft away at an incredible speed. The individual pieces of technology that would be needed already exist, Lubin said, though it would be a massive project to build such a device in orbit.

“The mass in orbit [would be] about a hundred times the ISS [International Space Station] mass,” he said. “So it’s significant, but it’s not, you know, completely crazy.”

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab