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Reaching for the Stars: Revolutionary Propulsion System Could Take Us to Interstellar Space in Record Time

An illustration of a laser beam in outer space. Depositphotos.

Imagine reaching the outer realms of our Solar System in under five years with a heavy spacecraft—a revolutionary propulsion system could make this dream a reality. Read on to discover how this cutting-edge technology could change the way we explore the cosmos and bring interstellar travel within a human lifetime.

Pellet-Beam Propulsion: The Next Frontier

A cutting-edge propulsion system, known as “pellet-beam” propulsion, could potentially send a heavy spacecraft beyond our Solar System in less than five years, a journey that took Voyager 1 probe 35 years to complete. Although the concept currently exists only on paper, it has garnered attention and a US$175,000 NASA grant for further development.

Interstellar Travel Within a Human Lifetime

The innovative pellet-beam propulsion has captured the interest of researchers due to its potential to reach interstellar space within a human lifetime. Traditional chemical-fueled rockets are unable to achieve this feat, especially with larger crafts. Artur Davoyan, an aerospace engineer from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the lead researcher behind the proposal, explains that this new propulsion architecture could rapidly transport heavy payloads across the Solar System and into interstellar space.

Inspiration from Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

The pellet-beam concept takes inspiration from the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, which aims to develop a ‘light-sail’ propulsion system. This system would use millions of lasers to propel a tiny probe to neighboring Proxima Centauri within just 20 years.

Moving Beyond Small Probes

The pellet-beam propulsion system moves beyond small probes by considering how to transport larger objects, essential for future exploration or colonization efforts outside our Solar System. The conceptual propulsion system involves two spacecraft: one traveling to interstellar space and the other orbiting Earth.

How Pellet-Beam Propulsion Works

The Earth-orbiting spacecraft would shoot a beam of microscopic particles at the interstellar spacecraft. Lasers heat these particles, causing some of them to melt into plasma that further accelerates the pellets through a process called laser ablation. The pellets could reach speeds of 120 km/second (75 miles/second) and either impact the sail of the interstellar spacecraft or repel a magnet within it, propelling the spacecraft to high speeds and allowing it to exit our heliosphere.

Impressive Travel Times

Davoyan states that with the pellet-beam, outer planets could be reached in less than a year, 100 astronomical units (AU) in about three years, and solar gravity lens at 500 AU in about 15 years. For comparison, the Voyager 1 probe took 35 years to cross into interstellar space in 2012, approximately 122 AU away. A pellet-beamed spacecraft weighing one ton could achieve the same feat in under five years.

Phase I of NASA’s NIAC Grant

The project is one of 14 funded at this early stage by NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts (NIAC) grant. The next step involves demonstrating proof of concept through experiments and detailed modeling of different subsystems in the proposed propulsion architecture.

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