Monday, November 4, 2013

Launching Superfast Trips to Mars

A concept image of a spacecraft powered by a fusion-driven rocket. 

In this image, the crew would be in the forward-most chamber. 

Solar panels on the sides would collect energy to initiate the process that creates fusion.

Credit: University of Washington, MSNW

New propulsion technologies may blast astronauts through space at breakneck speeds in the coming decades, making manned Mars missions much faster and safer.

Souped-up electric propulsion systems and rockets driven by nuclear fusion or fission could end up shortening travel times to the Red Planet dramatically, proponents say, potentially opening up a new era in manned space exploration.

John Slough
"Using existing rocket fuels, it's nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth," John Slough of the University of Washington, leader of a team developing a fusion-driven rocket, said in a statement earlier this year.

"We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace."

People living in deep space for 500 days and more could accumulate relatively high radiation doses, officials say, and they'd have to exercise a great deal to stave off bone loss, muscle atrophy and other hazards of long-term microgravity exposure.

One possible solution is the nuclear fusion rocket being developed by Slough and his team, with funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, (NIAC).

Harnessing the power of nuclear fusion— the same process that fuels the sun and gives hydrogen bombs their enormous destructive potential — would make such speedy trips possible, team members say.

In their engine, bubbles of plasma — made from deuterium and tritium, "heavy" isotopes of hydrogen — would be injected into a chamber, where a magnetic field would collapse metal rings around them.

This would briefly compress the bubbles into a fusion state, releasing energy that would vaporize and ionize the metal. The metal would then be accelerated out the back of the spacecraft through a nozzle, creating thrust.

A lot of work will be required to bring this concept to reality, but there's no reason to think that it won't work, the researchers say.

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