Ready To Ride The Lightning, Er, Photon?

If you were to hitch a ride on the Voyager I spacecraft, you would find yourself hurtling through space at 35,000 miles per hour (mph). That means it would take you about 40 years to exit our Solar System. In July, the fastest spacecraft ever built by NASA, Juno, made history as it neared Jupiter. It travels about 165,000 mph.  That means you could get to the edge of the Solar System about 5 times faster, in less than 10 years. With Mars being about 250 million miles from Earth, it would take 1,500 hours to reach Mars strapped to the back of the Juno spacecraft.  That’s about a 2 month trip. Of course,  Juno is not designed to carry a crew. It’s a robotic probe that collects environmental and scientific data.

Even if space agencies succeed in building a manned spacecraft that can deliver a crew safely to the Red Planet, a two month space flight is very problematic physically. They simply won’t be able to perform the necessary tasks. They may not even be able to survive. The gringa asks, “Is there any way to get them there faster?” Yep. If they ride lightning fast photonic capable space speedsters instead of shuttle slow, rocket propelled space cruisers.

What the heck is photonic propulsion? It may sound complicated and fancy but when you break it down it’s not so hard to understand. A photon is a particle of quantum light or some other form of electromagnetic radiation. Propulsion means to drive something forward. So, we’re talking about using light to move a spacecraft. And a physics professor named Philip Lubin believes it’s possible. Lubin is developing a photonic laser thruster system for NASA.  The project is called DEEP IN which stands for Directed Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration. If the technology works a probe could make the trip to Mars in only 3 days. A manned vessel with a full payload could make the trip in less than a month.

If you can envision a sailboat on the high seas, you can then follow the gringa as I explain how it works. A spacecraft has a solar sail. The photon thruster shoots lasers at the sail. It’s as simple as that! Well, not really, but you at least have something to work with. Tiny amounts of kinetic energy push the sail as each photon impacts the sail and then bounces off.  We would still need conventional rocket technology to launch spacecraft but, once in the vacuum of space, the sail opens and photon propulsion takes over. This means space crafts are capable of carrying a larger payload since they don’t have to carry fuel. They also have the potential of limitless distance, theoretically, of course.  Lubin expects we could reach goals like Alpha Centauri which is more than 4 light years from Earth. Take a look at what to expect next from NASA and other space agencies around the world as they all focus on how the heck we are going to get a crew to Mars:


Popular Mechanics

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A barrio gringa with a dream of cosmic proportions: writing to satiate my insatiable curiosity, worldwide literacy beginning with our youth, and to be the first barrio gringa to explore outer space!

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