Enter: photonic propulsion. Lubin is leading a project called DEEP-IN (Directed Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration) that's studying the possibility of using lasers to propel spacecraft faster than ever before. How fast? Research models say the system could send a 220-pound (100-kg) probe to Mars in three days, and a crewed spacecraft in around a month. That's about five times as fast as what we're currently capable of. Photonic propulsion works in a similar way to a solar sail: both rely on light particles known as photons, which bounce off of a reflective material to transfer kinetic energy and help them accelerate through the frictionless vacuum of space. But while a solar sail is beholden to the handfuls of photons that come from the sun, the lasers used in photonic propulsion pelt the sail with a concentrated, controlled dose of light that can help it reach much greater speeds.
Of course, there's a lot to do before a month-long trip to the Red Planet is possible. We'd need a powerful enough laser, a big enough sail, and—importantly—a way to slow down once we got there. Still wrapping your head around how it all works? Explore the benefits and challenges of this new technology in the videos below.