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.