How long does it take to travel to Mars?
Recent research available on the arXiv preprint server and submitted to Acta Astronautica is creating a buzz in the space exploration community. It suggests that using aerographite solar sails could cut both the time and fuel needed to reach Mars and even venture into interstellar space.
This groundbreaking study joins the ranks of existing research on solar sails, which has seen contributions from numerous organizations. It follows the Planetary Society’s successful LightSail2 mission and aims to create swifter and more energy-efficient propulsion systems for extended space missions.
The Speed Advantage: Why Solar Sails Hold Promise
Dr. René Heller, a co-author of the study and an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, notes that while solar sail technology could only carry relatively small payloads, the real benefit is speed. “Compared to traditional chemical propulsion, the speed advantage of solar sails is a game-changer,” Heller tells Universe Today.
Unlike traditional rockets that burn fuel for thrust, solar sails capitalize on sunlight. Enormous sails trap solar photons, functioning similarly to how sails catch wind in water travel. The more solar photons these sails capture over time, the faster the spacecraft can go.
Simulation Scenarios: Weighing Different Trajectories
For this study, researchers ran simulations to find out how quickly a one-kilogram aerographite solar sail could reach Mars or venture into the heliopause, the boundary of interstellar space. Two methods were examined: direct outward transfer from Earth and inward transfer methods.
The study found that launching when Mars is directly opposite Earth from the Sun, a position known as opposition, could yield optimal speed and travel time. Using this direct outward transfer method, the journey to Mars would take just 26 days.
The Material Advantage: Why Aerographite Works
Julius Karlapp, the study’s lead author and a Research Assistant at the Dresden University of Technology, explains that aerographite’s low density makes it an excellent material for solar sails. “Its unique mechanical properties and low density give aerographite sails a much higher thrust force compared to conventional materials,” Karlapp tells Universe Today.
According to the study’s simulations, the direct outward transfer and inward transfer methods would enable the solar sail to reach Mars in 26 days and 126 days, respectively. The journey to the heliopause would take between 4.2 and 5.3 years, depending on the method used.
Present-Day Comparisons: The Voyagers and Current Mars Missions
As a point of reference, current voyages to Mars take between 7 to 9 months and have specific launch windows every two years. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes took around 35 and 41 years, respectively, to reach the heliopause.
The researchers acknowledge that slowing down upon reaching Mars remains a challenge. One suggested method is aerocapture, which uses the planet’s atmosphere for braking. However, Dr. Martin Tajmar, a co-author of the study, admits that more research is needed in this area.
Although the concept of solar sails has been around since the 1970s, NASA’s Solar Cruiser, set to launch in February 2025, offers a more contemporary example of the technology’s promise.
PLEASE READ: Have something to add? Visit Curiosmos on Facebook. Join the discussion in our mobile Telegram group. Also, follow us on Google News. Interesting in history, mysteries, and more? Visit Ancient Library’s Telegram group and become part of an exclusive group.