A team of engineers has proposed a laser-based propulsion system that could reduce transit times to Mars to just 45 days. Traveling to Mars is not the same as taking a car and driving to the nearest Starbucks. Earth and Mars continue to revolve around the Sun in their orbits, which means that the two planets are never at the same distance from each other. The best way forward for a Mars mission is to target a time frame when the two worlds are at closest approach, leading to a ‘minimum cost’ trajectory. That particular route is called Homan Transfer Orbit, but the launch window opens after only 26 months, and it will still take about nine months to reach Mars.
Once a team lands on Mars, it will have to spend another three to four months on the planet to align Mars and Earth for closeness and then begin the return journey, which will take another nine months. Bringing supplies like food, water, scientific equipment and medical aid along with huge amounts of fuel would be a problem. Such a mission would require a crew of six to carry an estimated three million pounds of cargo. Based on the peak load-carrying capability of existing technology, it would take ten of SpaceX’s powerful Starship Super Heavy rockets to carry that cargo into orbit. Taking it to Mars will result in a massive upgrade in both capability and numbers.
However, if the engine can be supercharged then specialists can solve radiation exposure and cargo problems to a great extent. And that’s where a laser propulsion system can come to the rescue, reducing the duration of the trip to Mars to 45 days. A team from McGill University has proposed a novel propulsion system that relies on lasers to heat hydrogen fuel and propel a spacecraft to Mars. Until now, nuclear-powered rocket engines were thought to be the only viable way to achieve such a short Mars travel window. The entire setup consists of a ground-based laser array of 10-meter size that can deliver 100MW of power via a focused beam. The spacecraft itself is attached to an inflatable chamber that focuses the incoming laser beam on the hydrogen propellant fuel, heating it to generate thrust.
Many problems, one solution
The team calls it the Laser-Thermal Propulsion System (LTPS) and claims that the Earth-based laser array can focus on a target 50,000 km away. LTPS, hydrogen propellant and payload can be launched either individually or together on an animal like the Falcon 9 rocket. Once the cargo is released into high-energy transfer orbit on Mars, LTPS returns to the original elliptical orbit. For actual combustion, the earth-based laser falls on an inflated parabolic reflector, which concentrates and directs it into hydrogen plasma, heating it to a temperature that can reach up to 40,000 Kelvin. The core is then used to heat the flow around the gaseous hydrogen, which is then expelled through the nozzle to form thrust.
Now, the ability to reach Mars is not just about reducing travel time. The longer astronauts stay in space, the greater the risk of exposure to galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). NASA research has found strong evidence that radiation exposure increases lifelong risk for cancer and degenerative diseases. And radiation exposure outside Earth’s orbit is not a small number. 1 milli-severt (mSv) radiation is equivalent to three chest X-rays. In space, the range of ionizing radiation ranges from 50 to 2,000 mSv, which effectively means up to 6,000 X-ray tests. Also, there is a risk of space anemia, which has recently been documented in NASA-assisted studies. In addition, there is the potential threat of coronal mass ejection (CMEs) that could jeopardize the entire mission.
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