Pellet-beam propulsion spacecraft could reach Voyager 1 in 5 years

Voyager 1 launched way back in 1977. A new spacecraft concept could, in theory, easily fly beyond the probe into deep space.
Chris Young
A space stock image.
A space stock image.

DKosig / iStock 

University of California, Los Angeles assistant professor Artur Davoyan recently proposed a pellet-beam propulsion concept that could send a large spacecraft into interstellar space.

The concept, which has the potential to allow us to propel a spacecraft to another star system within our lifetime, was recently awarded a $175,000 grant by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

A new space laser propulsion concept

Today's chemical rockets are simply not fast enough to take us far beyond our solar system within any reasonable timeframe. That's why Davoyan proposed a new concept to propel spacecraft using pellet-beam propulsion.

The new concept was partly inspired by Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million initiative announced by Russian-born philanthropist Yuri Milner in 2016. Breakthrough Starshot proposed using millions of lasers trained on a tiny probe with a light sail to send it to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, in as little as 20 years.

For Dayovan's pellet-beam propulsion concept, he and his team proposed using two spacecraft. One would set off towards interstellar space, while the other would go into orbit around Earth. From there, the orbital spacecraft would fire thousands of tiny metallic pellets at the interstellar spacecraft every second. It would also either fire a 10-megawatt laser beam at the interstellar probe or align a laser fired from the ground toward the interstellar craft.

That laser would hit the pellets and heat them to the point that a layer is removed and become plasma. That plasma accelerates the pellet remnants, and the pellet beam provides thrust that propels the spacecraft at enormous speeds.

Dayovan also proposed an alternative method where an onboard magnetic field-generating device could deflect the pellets and propel the craft forward.

Traveling into deep space at 480,000 km/h

The Breakthrough Starshot concept aims to propel its probe at 20 percent the speed of light, though it seeks to use a tiny probe only capable of carrying a basic camera.

Dayovan believes the pellet-beam propulsion system could propel a 1-ton probe at speeds of up to roughly 480,000 kilometers per hour (300,000 miles per hour), meaning it would be 10 times faster than chemical propulsion systems for traditional rockets. It would also be fast enough to overtake Voyager 1 — the farthest human-made spacecraft from Earth — in only five years.

Thanks to NASA's NIAC program, Dayovan, and his team now have $175,000 in funding to demonstrate the concept's feasibility. Much like with Breakthrough Starshot, the new concept relies on significant advances in laser design, meaning it will be some time before we see a pellet-beam propulsion system take to the skies.

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