Scientists believe that lasers have now reached a level of technological advancement enough to let them help launch interstellar space probes, according to Popular Science. With current technology, they predict that a gram-sized laser-propelled space probe could hit over 25 percent the speed of light and reach the nearest star to Earth in approximately 20 years.
Philip Lubin, an experimental cosmologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), believes that with standard propulsion technology, this feat can never be achieved. However, with lasers, small probes can be accelerated to near-light speeds and reach nearby stars in a human lifetime.
"No other current technology offers a realistic path forward to relativistic flight at the moment," he said.
Lubin and his team a currently devising a road map that they hope will lead them to the creation of laser arrays in orbit that are capable of launching probes to nearby star systems as well as spacecraft-sized cargos to planets, according to the Epoch Times.
In comparison to current spacecraft thrusters, which use propellant that has mass, photon drives utilize spacecraft equipped with mirrors, allowing them to utilize distant light sources for propulsion. Although photon drives are nothing new, new breakthroughs in laser technology might be able to help spacecraft reach relativistic speeds.
"There is no known reason why we cannot do this, except for NASA budget reasons," Lubin said.
The only roadblock with photon drives thus far is braking, as scientists have yet to devise a way of slowing down laser-driven spacecraft enough for them to enter the orbits of the planets that they travel to.
If lasers turn out to be the only practical means of achieving interstellar travel, Lubin and his team believe that it is possible that alien civilizations could be using lasers to help explore the cosmos, as reported by UCSB's Cosmology Group.