Rocket powered by nuclear fusion could send humans to Mars

Human travel to Mars has long been the unachievable dangling carrot for space programs. Now, astronauts could be a step closer to our nearest planetary neighbor through a unique manipulation of nuclear fusion, the same energy that powers the sun and stars.

University of Washington researchers and scientists at a Redmond-based space-propulsion company are building components of a fusion-powered rocket aimed to clear many of the hurdles that block deep space travel, including long times in transit, exorbitant costs and health risks.

“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” said lead researcher John Slough, a UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

The project is funded through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. Last month at a symposium, Slough and his team from MSNW, of which he is president, presented their mission analysis for a trip to Mars, along with detailed computer modeling and initial experimental results. Theirs was one of a handful of projects awarded a second round of funding last fall after already receiving phase-one money in a field of 15 projects chosen from more than 700 proposals.

NASA estimates a round-trip human expedition to Mars would take more than four years using current technology. The sheer amount of chemical rocket fuel needed in space would be extremely expensive – the launch costs alone would be more than $12 billion.

Slough and his team have published papers calculating the potential for 30- and 90-day expeditions to Mars using a rocket powered by fusion, which would make the trip more practical and less costly. Via Rocket powered by nuclear fusion could send humans to Mars.

This entry was posted in Cosmology, Invention. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Rocket powered by nuclear fusion could send humans to Mars

  1. alfy says:

    You could send humans to Mars and back even quicker using Fairy Dust. All you need to do is find a Fairy Dust source. Similarly, when someone has actually achieved nuclear fusion, that will be the time to plan a Mars trip. They have been trying for nuclear fusion since the end of WW2, about seventy years ago so don’t hold your breath.

    • Deskarati says:

      I seem to remember that the USA proved nuclear fusion quite explosively at the end of WWII.

  2. Phil Krause says:

    I think the two bombs used in WWII were both fission bombs rather than fusion. Fission is where large atoms like uranium and plutonium are split apart leaving some mass which is converted into pure energy. Fusion is where small atoms like hydrogen are fused together to make helium and some mass is converted into pure energy. I love the idea of a Fairy Dust drive. Maybe it would be driven by prayers.

    • Deskarati says:

      Can’t quite get to the bottom of fusion/fission weapons – Wiki tells me that –

      A thermonuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon design that uses the heat generated by a fission bomb to compress a nuclear fusion stage. This indirectly results in a greatly increased energy yield—explosive “power”. It is colloquially referred to as a hydrogen bomb or H-bomb because it employs hydrogen fusion, though in most applications the majority of its destructive energy comes from uranium fission, not hydrogen fusion alone. The fusion stage in such weapons is required to efficiently cause the large quantities of fission characteristic of most thermonuclear weapons.

  3. alfy says:

    I apologise for omitting a key adjective from my original comment, namely “controlled”. They have been trying for controlled, ie usable nuclear fusion for seventy years. Clearly, a hydrogen bomb is an uncontrolled nuclear fusion. I did not think the word, “controlled ” was necessary, because only a bloody fool would imagine the original authors were going to ride an H bomb explosion towards Mars.

    • Deskarati says:

      Getting back to the article.

      Evidently the research team has developed a type of plasma that is encased in its own magnetic field. Nuclear fusion occurs when this plasma is compressed to high pressure with a magnetic field. The team has successfully tested this technique in the lab. Only a small amount of fusion is needed to power a rocket – a small grain of sand of this material has the same energy content as 1 gallon of rocket fuel. To power a rocket, the team has devised a system in which a powerful magnetic field causes large metal rings to implode around this plasma, compressing it to a fusion state. The converging rings merge to form a shell that ignites the fusion, but only for a few microseconds. Even though the compression time is very short, enough energy is released from the fusion reactions to quickly heat and ionize the shell. This super-heated, ionized metal is ejected out of the rocket nozzle at a high velocity. This process is repeated every minute or so, propelling the spacecraft.

      Interesting stuff.

Comments are closed.