With today's state of spacecraft technology, it will take around six months for humans to travel from Earth to Mars. However, NASA is working on a system called photonic propulsion that could propel a spacecraft to the Red Planet in at least three short days.
NASA's team of researchers, led by scientist Philip Lubin, has been working on this technology that uses the momentum of particles of light (scientifically called 'photons') to move forward. This has almost the same concept as what Bill Nye developed for his small spacecraft, LightSail, that uses the Sun's rays for it to move. The difference is that Lubin's design relies on giant Earth-based lasers.
In a teaser video for NASA 360 (shown below), Lubin explained that photonic propulsion is not a new idea, as it has always been associated with light "in both the classical and quantum mechanical way."
There are recent advances that take this from science fiction to science reality. There is no known reason why we can not do this," he further narrated.
Currently, spacecrafts are launched with the aid of burning rocket fuel or other available chemical to get the thrust they need. The fuel itself is what weighs down a spacecraft, rendering it slow even at launch. Moreover, it is far less efficient when compared to electromagnetic acceleration that uses light or other electromagnetic radiation.
"Electromagnetic acceleration is only limited by the speed of light while chemical systems are limited to the energy of chemical processes," wrote Lubin on a white paper that discusses the technology.
While Lubin and his team are yet to try out photonic propulsion, they have calculated that it could get a 100-kilogram robotic craft to the Red Planet in just about three days. Moreover, the leader scientist explained that the system could make a craft move at 30 percent the speed of light without increasing the amount of chemical energy to be used, which could still be at 50 to 100 gigawatts.
The world is yet to see real-life results, though.