“Beam me up, Scotty” is a phrase associated with the 1966 science fiction television series Star Trek: The Original Series. This catchphrase is associated with Captain Kirk’s command to his chief engineer, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott when the Captain needed to be transported back to Starship Enterprise. However, this exact phrase was never actually said in the series.
Nevertheless, the idea of someone hitting a putting and beaming you from one location to another seemed impossible but oh so fun to watch on Star Trek. But that ole saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” rings more truer by the day.
The more I detach from a closed mind of understanding life in a right or wrong, good or bad way, the more I become open to living in an awareness that our imaginations really do create life. The more things I thought were just science fiction stories meant to entertain, the more I realize now that they were actually imaginative exercises waiting for someone watching to really believe they could be possible. And this person or persons willing to stretch their mind beyond the limits of social-acceptability will in turn allow the obstacle of impossibility to become the path to new ways of living.
NASA along with China plan to send crewed missions to Mars in the next 10 years. Sending crewed missions to Mars will be a significant leap for space exploration. But this leap presents some challenges in terms of logistics and technology. Currently, missions to Mars can only launch every 26 months when Earth and Mars are at their closest points in orbit together. With our current technology, a mission from Earth to Mars would take six to nine months.
Even with our more advanced nuclear-thermal or nuclear-electric propulsion technologies, a one-way transport to Mars could take 100 days.
Recently, however, a team of researchers led by Emmanuel Duplay, a McGill graduate and current MSc Aerospace Engineering student at TU Delft and Associate Professor Andrew Higgins assessed the possibility of a laser-thermal propulsion system to Mars. There research indicated that a spacecraft that relies on a propulsion system that has lasers used to heat hydrogen fuel could reduce transport time from Earth to Mars to just 45 days. These researchers titled their study “Design of a rapid transit to Mars mission using laser-thermal propulsion” and it was released in the journal of Astronomy & Astronomy.
Directed-energy has been the subject of much research and interest as of late. The Starlight program, also known as Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration, the Directed Energy Interstellar Studies developed by Professor Lublin and the UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group are NASA-funded research programs began in 2009 and were aimed to cause a large-scale Directed-energy application to interstellar missions.
These design concepts for directed-energy applications for interstellar travel calls for “gigawatt-power lasers array to accelerate a light sail 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 Duplay’s study isn’t focused on interstellar, his focus is on using laser technology for interplanetary travel.
In an email to “Universe Today,” Duplay explained: “The ultimate application of directed-energy propulsion would be to propel a light sail 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.”
In addition to laser sail propulsion, directed-energy is being considered for other space exploration applications such as power beaming to and from spacecraft and permanently-shadowed habitats, asteroid defense, communications, and the search for possible technosignatures.
NASA is also considering the concept of laser-electric spacecrafts. In this concept, lasers will be used to deliver power to photovoltaic arrays on a spacecraft that is converted to electricity to power a Hall-Effect Thruster (ion engine). This concept application is similar to nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP) system. In an NEP, a laser array replaces a nuclear reactor.
Duplay says their concept is similar to NEP but different. Specifically, Duplay stated, “our approach is complimentary to these concepts, in that it uses the same phased-array laser concept, but would use a much more intense laser flux on the spacecraft to directly heat propellant, similar to a giant steam kettle. This permits the spacecraft to accelerate rapidly while it is still near earth, so the laser does not need to focus as far into space.”
Duplay and his team’s concept includes several technologies from other architectures.
If there is no laser array at Mars, then how would the spacecraft decelerate once at Mars?
Duplay indicated that his design concept includes, “arrays of fiber-optic lasers that act as a single optical element, inflatable space structures that can be used to focus the laser beam when it arrives at the spacecraft into the heating chamber, and the development of high-temperature materials that allow the spacecraft to break against the Martian atomsphere upon arrival.” Duplay says “the inflatable reflector is a key from other directed-energy architectures: designed to be highly reflective, it can sustain a greater laser power per unit area than a photovoltaic panel, making this mission feasible with a modest laser array size compared to laser-electric propulsion.”
With these combined elements, a laser-thermal rocket could allow for extremely fast transport to Mars to as little as 45 days.
The benefits of being able to transport to Mars in 45 days versus 100 days reduces the hazards of deep-space transits, such as prolonged exposure to radiation and microgravity.
Although Duplay’s application is conceptually possible, it still has some hurdles since some of the technologies involved have not yet been tested. Most of the technology in this proposed mission architecture and other similar propulsion proposals are still just theories and in the development phase.
But as we know in science, it’s never just a theory. Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, once said. “It [a theory] doesn’t mean a hunch or a guess. A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.”
And now 55 years later after Captain Kirk instructed Scotty to beam him up on Star Trek, here we are in 2022 with the potential of lasers beaming you from Earth to Mars in 45 days.
We are determined to inhabit Mars. And who knows, 55 years from now we might all be able to laser beam ourselves from our home on Earth to our second home on Mars.
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