Pellet-Beam Propulsion Concept Could Push Spacecraft Faster and Further Than Ever Before

Pellet-beam propulsion concept 6 photos
Photo: NASA/Artur Davoyan
Voyager 1 images of the outer planetsVoyager 1 images of the outer planetsVoyager 1 images of the outer planetsVoyager 1 images of the outer planetsPellet-beam propulsion concept
It would seem we humans take great pride in the accomplishments of our space exploration programs, and possibly even dream of being some sort of cosmic-relevant civilization. But if you think about it, the only “accomplishments” we can pride ourselves on are the fact we sent some people right next door, to the Moon, landed some rovers on a neighboring planet, and effectively littered the solar system’s space with various pieces of hardware.
A cool head will tell you humanity hasn’t even left the solar system yet. Of the multitude of spaceships sent out there on various missions, only two of them, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, reached the outer edges of our solar system, a place called heliopause.

The heliopause is where the effects of our Sun’s wind are in perfect equilibrium with interstellar wind. The place is, if you like, where the rest of the Universe begins. It starts very far away from our Sun, over 120 astronomical units - and keep in mind an astronomical unit (AU) is equal to about 150 million km (93 million miles), so you do the math for the total.

Voyager 1 departed Earth in 1977, and it only reached the edge of the heliopause in 2012, 35 years after it left. That means it traveled at an average speed of 3.6 astronomical units per year, and for the purposes of true cosmic expansion that pretty much also means we’re screwed.

Or not, if an idea from the University of California’s Artur Davoyan ever becomes a reality. Called pellet-beam propulsion, it has the potential to increase a spacecraft’s speed to 25 astronomical units per year. Sure, that won’t put us anywhere close to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (located at 268,770 AU from us), but it’s a start.

Davoyan’s idea is centered on a process called laser ablation. That would be a method where a focused laser beam hits a surface, removing material from it. The scientist calls the resulted ejecta pellets, hyper-fast microscopic particles that can be sent down the laser beam, flying at 432,000 kph (268,400 mph) and hitting the back of the spacecraft to push it forward.

We’re told the method could be used for anything from sending stuff to various orbits to exit trajectories, but more importantly, it could be used to push a heavy spacecraft (even above one ton, which when it comes to space exploration is a lot) into interstellar space.

The method could allow a piece of hardware to reach the outer planets of our solar system in just one year and 500 AUs in about 15 years.

The project is far from becoming a reality, but NASA found it worthy enough to give it an Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase 1 grant earlier in January. Davoyan plans to use the NASA backing to prove such a thing could work, and he’ll do so by modeling the subsystems propulsion architecture and “performing proof-of-concept experimental studies.”

We are not told when we should expect the first results.
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Editor's note: Gallery shows Voyager 1 images of the outer planets.

About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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