Photon rocket

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This article is about using photons for spacecraft propulsion. For the null dust solution to the Einstein field equations, see William Morris Kinnersley.

A photon rocket is a hypothetical rocket that uses thrust from emitted photons for its propulsion.[1] The standard textbook case of such a rocket is the ideal case where all of the fuel is converted to photons which are radiated in the same direction. In more realistic treatments, one takes into account that the beam of photons is not perfectly collimated, that not all of the fuel is converted to photons etc., see e.g. Nuclear photonic rocket.


The speed an ideal photon rocket will reach in the absence of external forces, depends on the ratio of its initial and final mass:

v = c \frac{\left(\frac{m_{i}}{m_{f}}\right)^{2}-1}{\left(\frac{m_{i}}{m_{f}}\right)^{2}+1}

where m_{i} is the initial mass and m_{f} is the final mass.

The gamma factor corresponding to this speed has the simple expression:

\gamma = \frac{1}{2}\left(\frac{m_{i}}{m_{f}} + \frac{m_{f}}{m_{i}}\right)


We denote the four-momentum of the rocket at rest as P_{i}, the rocket after it has burned its fuel as P_{f}, and the four-momentum of the emitted photons as P_{\text{ph}}. Conservation of four-momentum implies:

P_{\text{ph}} = P_{i} - P_{f}

squaring both sides (i.e. taking the Lorentz inner product of both sides with themselves) gives:

P_{\text{ph}}^{2} = P_{i}^{2} + P_{f}^{2} - 2P_{i}\cdot P_{f}

According to the energy-momentum relation, the square of the four-momentum equals the square of the mass, and P_{\text{ph}}^{2}=0 because all the photons are moving in the same direction. Therefore the above equation can be written as:

0 = m_{i}^{2} + m_{f}^{2} - 2 m_{i}m_{f}\gamma

Solving for the gamma factor gives:

\gamma = \frac{1}{2}\left(\frac{m_{i}}{m_{f}} + \frac{m_{f}}{m_{i}}\right)


  1. ^ McCormack, John W. "5. PROPULSION SYSTEMS". SPACE HANDBOOK: ASTRONAUTICS AND ITS APPLICATIONS. Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration. Retrieved 29 October 2012.