With today’s technologies, a round-trip flight to Mars would take years. A probe can reach the red planet in roughly 6-8 months, but a shuttle filled with astronauts, food, supplies, and fuel would take double that time or more.
During the extended trip, these astronauts would be subjected to the dangers of space. These dangers include bone and muscle loss, cosmic rays, and space debris that threaten to damage the ship and its crew. Being in space means being subjected to harmful radiation, and astronauts are at higher risk of getting cancer because of their time spent in space.
Needless to day, being in space means being at risk from the moment you lift off the ground to the moment you set foot back on Earth. Reducing this travel time is essential for completing successful manned missions into space.
So the need for faster propulsion technologies has brought about some interesting discoveries in the scientific world. While we might not be reproducing the USS Enterprise from Star Trek complete with warp drive anytime soon, there are some technologies that could make long-range space travel much easier for us in the future.
Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR)
The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket is loosely described as a rocket propelled by a small sun. By superheating a fuel such as hydrogen to a plasma state using radio waves and directing this plasma using magnetic forces, you can create an engine with substantially more thrust than you could with current liquid fuel technologies. In addition, your payload would be significantly lighter and easier to take into space.
One interesting benefit of using a hydrogen fuel is that hydrogen is a natural radiation shield. This creates a barrier between the astronauts and the harmful radiation of space that pierces shuttles, suits, and heat shields used in present-day space exploration.
The plasma created in the heating process reaches a temperature in excess of one million degrees Fahrenheit. That’s really, really hot and it’s because of this that magnetic technologies are being explored to better protect ships from the effects of this dangerously hot engine. In 2015, a VASMIR engine is expected to be launched into orbit and tested aboard the International Space Station.
It’s theorized that a round trip to Mars using this technology could take as little as five months while a modern shuttle would require as much as 2.5 years to do the same.
One setback of this technology is that it doesn’t work in a non-vacuum environment. That means that you would still need to use current liquid fuel technologies to get the ship into orbit before you could use VASIMR.
Wouldn’t it be fun to sail your way to distant planets? One theory, which has been scientifically validated at this point but not yet used in any manned missions, is that of solar sails. The Sun’s rays are actually a source of force in the solar system, and that force could be utilized to propel an object (such as a shuttle) through space.
The effects of solar pressure are real. In fact, objects that are sent to Mars have already been influenced by this pressure. Scientists have to plan for solar pressures when calculating trajectory to avoid missing a target. By creating a sail that harnesses this power and uses it to pull an object through space, we could see much cheaper long-term space flights in the future.
Other similar technologies — including magnetic sails and beam sails — could supplement this natural driving force, directing it and extending its influence past its current point of effectiveness.
While the technology itself sounds slow by its basic definition, tests have been conducted hinting that beam propulsion and magnetic sails could achieve speeds ranging from 150-200 km/s to 750 km/s and beyond.
There are a number of different technologies currently under development in both theoretical and experimental stages. Reaching distances previously considered reserved for science fiction may be within reach inside of our lifetime. Scientific breakthroughs are happening faster today than any time in history. Current estimates placing man on Mars near 2020 are not only logical, but probable.
Space elevators are one of these theoretical transportation mediums. Imagine being able to leave the atmosphere without carrying a million pounds of rocket fuel with you. This would enable supplies and other cargo to reach launch platforms in space as well as space stations without the expense of launching a rocket from the ground. These work by extending a giant cable to a counterweight in space and running a literal elevator up the length of the cable.
This could be a cost-efficient method for transporting people and products to space for exploratory and commercial purposes. Asteroid mining, for example, could be made significantly more cost-effective without the need for expensive rocket fuel to transport equipment to the mining platform.
A lot of this technology is theoretical, and countless experiments are taking place in an attempt to find even better propulsion technologies. When it comes to exploring the far reaches of the Universe, time is our biggest enemy. Both the astronauts and the equipment involved in these endeavors are at risk of failing as time goes on during a mission. To be able to take an astronaut to Mars would be an extraordinary accomplishment, but we have to push for these new technologies to get them there faster and safer than current advances allow.
What about you? Do you know of a propulsion technology that you believe might hold the key to deep space travel? I’ve only listed three of my favorites, but what are yours?