While the spotlight was on Ukraine, news of an unusual space technology, dreamed up here in Montreal, has gone almost unnoticed.
Sending astronauts to Mars, as NASA and China plan to do in the 2030s, presents significant logistical and technological challenges. Missions to Mars can only be launched every 26 months, when our planet is closest to each other. With current technology, NASA estimates that it will take about 500 days for astronauts to reach the Red Planet. Transit time involves serious risks for the crew exposed to cosmic rays, once outside the Earth’s magnetosphere.
A team of researchers from McGill University has designed a thermal laser propulsion system that will cut transit times to Mars to just 45 days! Until this study, it was believed that a rocket could only travel to Mars with nuclear powered engines.
The study was done By McGill alumnus Emmanuel Dobelli with Associate Professor Andrew Higgins and other researchers from the university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. They propose an energy-guided propulsion system that uses ground-based lasers to transmit energy to the spacecraft’s photoelectric sensor to generate the electricity that propels it. The higher the laser power, the faster the spacecraft. This technology can send satellites weighing 90 kg from Earth to Mars in just three days!
The “laser thermal propulsion system” proposed by Emmanuel Doublay and his team is relatively simple: several types of 100-megawatt lasers, each 10 meters in diameter, are combined into a beam directed at the spacecraft already in orbit and which it captures thanks to the blowing of the reflector.
Doplay explained to universe today The laser flux from Earth directly heats the spacecraft’s thrusterLike a giant steam boiler. The laser energy is focused and directed into the spacecraft’s fuel compartment, where hydrogen creates thrust that allows the spacecraft to reach an incredible speed of 60,000 km/h. This allows it to accelerate quickly, while being relatively close to the ground. When the spacecraft absorbs enough energy, the deflector detaches and returns to Earth’s orbit for reuse.
There is still much research to be done to operate this technology. Very large lasers and hydrogen thrust chambers must first be developed.
In recent years, directed energy propulsion has been an important research topic. NASA is studying the concept of an electric, laser-powered spacecraft in a joint study with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Could Quebec play a major role in developing this technology? We are a major research center in the fields of electricity, lasers and hydrogen: the Hydro-Québec Research Institute (IREQ), the Research Center for Optics, Photonics and Lasers (COPL) and the Hydrogen Research Institute (IRH).
We also have cheap electric power to generate the electricity needed to drive such a system if a ground-based laser can be installed in Quebec. Emmanuel Dobley, who is currently studying aerospace engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, should be invited to continue his research here on laser space propulsion systems.