The Future of Space Flight
From harnessing small atomic blasts to using radiation pressure from the sun, these astounding technologies could send you to space sooner than you might think. 🚀
5 ways spacecrafts could be powered in the not so distant future.
The U.S. just approved the launch of spacecraft using nuclear power after almost 60 years of conventional chemical rocket fuel, with the first flight demonstrations planned by 2024 according to the National Space Council.
Nuclear fission already powers every nuclear power plant in the world. A ship engine with nuclear thermal reactor could harness the heat of small atomic explosions to accelerate propellants like hydrogen to tremendous speeds. A ship with a fission engine could reach Mars in 3 to 4 months — half the time of the fastest possible chemical rocket.
Ion drives were most recently used in the Dawn space probe which was retired in 2018. Ion thrusters use electric fields to accelerate charged positive ions out the back of the rocket. They’re incredibly efficient, requiring much less propellant than chemical rockets based on data from NASA. But compared to other rockets, ion drives have a very small amount of thrust, making it almost impossible to launch a ship from earth with one.
A spaceship with a solar sail uses radiation pressure from renewable sunlight on very large mirrors to propel itself — just like wind pushing a sail. Late astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s nonprofit, The Planetary Society, has launched successful prototypes, like LightSail2 — at 1.4% the price of launching a space shuttle as reported by Business Insider. Sailcraft powered by lasers instead of sunlight could even theoretically hit an incredible 20% the speed of light --Making the journey to Pluto only 27 hours, instead of between 9 to 12 years as stated in Starshot Initiative.
It would take 165,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star, with current technology. With a nuclear pulse rocket, it could take just over 100 years as reported by NASA. Pulse rockets eject continuous nuclear bombs out of the back of the craft and use the energy created by the explosion to push the ship forward ahead of them. While the research has been active since the 1970s, testing of any nuclear detonation in space is currently prohibited by the 1963 Partial Ban Test Treaty, keeping space nuke free.