The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) is providing funding for two intriguing ideas related to space propulsion and speed. The development of ion engines and antimatter propulsion has shown significant promise in improving spacecraft propulsion and speed. Ion drives, for example, have demonstrated impressive results, with new designs boasting an up to five-fold increase in specific impulse (ISP) and power levels. Although antimatter propulsion is still in its developmental phase, it has the potential to be even more powerful than ion drives.
Currently, the fastest spacecraft in existence is Voyager 1, which travels at a velocity of 38,000 mph (61,000 km/h). However, the use of gravitational boosts has enabled spacecraft like Juno, Helios I, and Helios II to achieve speeds of up to 150,000 miles per hour. The newly launched Parker Solar Probe is also expected to reach a speed of 430,000 miles per hour, thanks to the gravitational pull of the Sun.
While gravitational acceleration can increase a spacecraft’s velocity, it requires significant planning and time. Refueling a large rocket like the SpaceX BFR in orbit has the potential to reduce the time required for a trip to Mars. With multiple orbital refuelings, a fully-fueled SpaceX BFR could complete a round-trip journey to Mars in as little as 40 days, using a parabolic orbit instead of a Hohmann transfer, which is the traditional trajectory used for Mars missions.
The use of advanced propulsion techniques, such as lithium-ion drives and multiple-megawatt lasers, has the potential to revolutionize space travel. JPL is set to test a 50,000 ISP lithium-ion thruster in the coming months as part of a NASA NIAC phase 2 project aimed at beaming 10 megawatts of power from lasers to new ion motors. By using lithium-ion drives powered by laser beams, spacecraft can travel up to ten times faster than previous ion drives, potentially reaching Pluto in less than a year.
Phased array lasers present a significant challenge in the development of this technology, but increasing the testing voltage to 6,000 volts can allow for direct drive, eliminating the need for additional circuitry that would hinder performance. The use of a laser wavelength of 300 nanometers instead of 1063 nanometers can also reduce system size, with energy density 100 times greater than solar energy.
Another promising technology is the positron-catalyzed fusion drive, which utilizes Krypton isotopes to generate hot positrons that are channeled into a fusion propulsion mechanism. By slowing the created positrons with a modest moderator device, several layers of silicon carbide film are used to separate individual positrons, which then stimulate fusion processes in dense deuterium blocks, generating thrust. This technology could circumvent the difficulties of generating and storing antimatter and provide a solution to generating propulsion using antimatter.
In conclusion, the development of advanced propulsion technologies, including ion drives, multiple-megawatt lasers, and positron-catalyzed fusion drives, has the potential to significantly increase spacecraft propulsion and speed. Refueling large rockets in orbit can also reduce the time required for space travel. Continued research and development in these areas could lead to new breakthroughs in space exploration, potentially allowing us to explore further and faster than ever before.