“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” lead researcher John Slough, a UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and president of company MSNW, said in a news release. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”
Fusing two atomic nuclei to form a different type of atomic nucleus releases energy. It’s what powers stars and nuclear bombs. (Fission, splitting atoms, powered the first atom bombs and is what’s used in nuclear power plants.)
NASA estimates a round-trip human expedition to Mars using conventional chemical rocket fuel and current technology would take more than four years and cost more than $12 billion just to launch.
Slough and his team have published papers calculating the potential for 30- and 90-day expeditions to Mars with a fusion-powered a rocket.
The researchers have devised a system in which a powerful magnetic field causes large metal rings to implode around specially developed plasma, compressing it to a fusion state, according to UW. The rings would then merge to form a shell that ignites the fusion for a few microseconds, heating and ionizing the shell. This super-heated, ionized metal would be ejected out of the rocket nozzle at a high velocity, propelling the spacecraft. This process would be repeated every minute or so.
A small grain of sand of the fusion material has the same energy as one gallon of rocket fuel, according to the UW.
The researchers have demonstrated successful lab tests of all portions of the process, according to the UW. Now, the key will be combining each isolated test into a final experiment that produces fusion using this technology, Slough said. He hopes to be ready for a first test at the end of the summer.
NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program is funding the project. At a NASA symposium last month, Slough and his team presented their mission analysis for a trip to Mars, along with detailed computer modeling and initial experimental results.
“I think everybody was pleased to see confirmation of the principal mechanism that we’re using to compress the plasma,” Slough said in the news release. “We hope we can interest the world with the fact that fusion isn’t always 40 years away and doesn’t always cost $2 billion.”
Oh, and in case you’re worried, the fusion energy for powering a rocket would be reduced by a factor of 1 billion from a hydrogen bomb, too little to create a significant explosion, and would be contained and guided away from the spacecraft by a strong magnetic field, according to UW.