News From Space: The NASA-Funded Fusion Rocket

fusion-rocket-university-of-washington-640x353NASA scientists have been saying for some time that they plan to send a manned mission to Mars by 2030. At the same time, space adventurist Dennis Tito and his company Inspiration Mars want to send a couple on a flyby of the Red Planet in 2018. With such ambitions fueling investment and technological innovation, its little wonder why people feel we are embarking on the new era of space exploration.

However, there is one sizable problem when it comes to make the Mars transit, which is the wait time. In terms of Tito’s proposed flyby, a trip to Mars when it is in alignment with Earth would take a total 501 days. As for NASA’s round-trip excursions for the future, using current technology it would take just over four years. That’s quite the long haul, and as you can imagine, that longer transit time has an exponential effect on the budgets involved!

Mars_landerBut what if it were possible to cut that one-way trip down to just 30 days. That’s the question behind the new fusion rocket design being developed at the University of Washington and being funded by NASA. Led by John Slough, this team have spent the last few years developing and testing each of the various stages of the concept and is now bringing the isolated tests together to produce an actual fusion rocket.

The challenge here is to create a fusion process that generates more power than it requires to get the fusion reaction started, a problem which, despite billions of dollars of research, has eluded some of the world’s finest scientists for more than 60 years. However, researchers continue to bang their head on this proverbial wall since fusion alone – with its immense energy density – appears to be the way of overcoming the biggest barrier to space travel, which is fuel weight and expense.

spacecraft_marsUltimately, the UW fusion rocket design relies on some rather simple but ingenious features to accomplish its ends. In essence, it involves a combustion chamber containing rings made of lithium and a pellet of deuterium-tritium – a hydrogen isotope that is usually used as the fuel in fusion reactions. When the pellet is in the right place, flowing through the combustion chamber towards the exhaust, a huge magnetic field is triggered, causing the metal rings to slam closed around the pellet of fuel.

These rings then implode with such pressure that the fuel compresses into fusion, causing a massive explosion that ejects the metal rings out of the rocket and at 108,000 km/h (67,000 mph) and generating thrust. This reaction would be repeated every 10 seconds, eventually accelerating the rocket to somewhere around 320,000 km/h (200,000 mph) — about 10 times the speed of Curiosity as it hurtled through space from Earth to Mars.

NASA_fusionchamberHowever, things still remain very much in the R&D phase for the fusion rocket. While the team has tested out the imploding metal rings, they have yet to insert the deuterium-tritium fuel and propel a super-heated ionized lump of metal out the back at over 100,000 kilometers and hour. That is the next – and obviously a very, very – big step.

But in the end, success will be measured when it comes to two basic criteria: It must work reliably and, most importantly, it must be capable of generating more thermal energy than the electrical energy required to start the fusion reaction. And as already mentioned, this is the biggest challenge facing the team as it is something that’s never been done before.

However, most scientific minds agree that within 20 years at least, fusion power will be possible, and the frontiers it will open will be vast and wonderful. Not only will we be able to fully and completely lick the problem of clean energy and emissions, we will have rockets capable of taking us to Mars and beyond in record time. Deep space flight will finally become a possibility, and we may even begin considering sending ships to Alpha Centauri, Bernard’s Star and (fingers crossed!) Gliese 581!


Space Junk: The of Bane of the Space Age

janitorOneSpace, or at least the portion which sits in low orbit around our planet, is quite literally a junkyard. Currently, it is estimated that there over 500,000 bits of debris floating above our world, which takes the form of satellite and rocket components, as well as broken down satellites that ceased functioning long ago. Naturally, these objects pose hazards for space flight, and collisions between objects have been known to occur.

In fact, just three years ago, a U.S. and Russian satellite collided over Siberia, generating an estimated 1,000 pieces of new debris at least 4 inches across. In addition, the International Space Station has to periodically adjust its orbit just to get out of the way of traffic. And since exploration and commercial travel to and from the Moon is expected within the near future, something needs to be done to take the garbage out.

cubesatAnd that’s where CleanSpace One comes into play, a janitor satellite that the Swiss Space Center in the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) began developing last year. Specifically designed to target derelict satellites that threaten our communications and information networks. The satellite has a price tag of 11 million dollars, and is expected to be deployed in three to five years.

Naturally, the task before it is a tricky one. In order to do a “launch and seize” operation, the satellite would have to get onto the same orbital plane as its target, latch onto it at high speed, and then de-orbit it. To do this, EPFL is working on an “ultra-compact motor” to get the janitor onto the right track, as well as a grasping mechanism to grab hold of the space junk once its aligned and within distance of it.

And then there’s the efficiency factor. As it stands, a vessel like the CleanSpace One is a one-shot deal design. Once it’s latched onto space junk, it essentially re-enters the atmosphere with it and drops it below, meaning it is unable to gather up multiple pieces of debris and dispose of them discreetly. As such, it would take even a large fleet of janitor satellites quite a long time before they made a dent in all the space junk.

Luckily, there’s another option that has been on the table even longer than the janitor satellite. The reasoning behind this concept is, if you don’t the means to de-orbit all that space junk, just hit it with some photons! When you consider all the debris in orbit and the havoc it plays with the space lanes, not to mention how its only getting worse, a “targeted” approach may just be what the doctor ordered.

space_laserBack in 2011, James Mason, a NASA contractor at the Universities Space Research Association in Moffett Field, Calif., and his colleagues presented a paper claiming that an anti-collision laser system which would target space debris was feasible. Although they acknowledged that more study was required before it could be implemented, they also claimed that lab simulations suggested that the idea would work in practice.

The idea would center around the deployment of a medium-powered laser of 5 to 10 kilowatts to essentially nudge debris off a potential collision course. Rather than eradicate the junk that clutters up the space lanes, this system would be responsible for anticipated crashes and preventing them by ensuring space junk didn’t cross paths with the ISS, satellites, or orbiting shuttles.

space_debrisAnd even that doesn’t represent the entirety of proposed solutions. In addition to janitor satellites and laser, the Russian Space Agency has also been batting around an idea for an orbital pod that would sweep away satellite debris. Details remain sketchy and little information has been released to the public, but the RSA has claimed that they hope to have such a craft ready to go no later than 2023.

Yes, it seems we as a species are entering into phase two of the Space Age. And in this segment of things, orbital pods, offworld habitations, and exploration into the outer Solar System may very well be the shape of things to come. As such, we’re going to need clearer skies above our heads if anything hopes to make it off of Earth without a series fender bender!


Sources: news.cnet,