In a move almost calculated to make Star Trek fans and space travel hopefuls extremely optimistic, the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH), NASA, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Boeing have revealed that they are experimenting with a fusion impulse rocket engine that will allow for more rapid space travel.
The concept impulse engine has been named for the Star Trek equivalent according to UAH’s Ross Cortez, who is an engineer at the university’s Aerophysics Research Center, and there is more than a little similarity between the two. Cortez said “The fusion fuel we’re focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen]and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium]in a crystal structure. That’s basically dilithium crystals we’re using.”
The aim of the project is to construct a nuclear fusion propulsion system that is capable of making the trip to Mars in around six weeks, which is about half the time a similar journey would be accomplished with a nuclear fission-powered spacecraft. The team is hoping to realise their goals by 2030.
The engine and spacecraft would need to be assembled in orbit, according to the designs currently on the drawing board, in order to spare the construct from having to cope with the gravitational forces at liftoff. The estimated weight for such a craft might top out at 500 tons.
Getting nuclear fusion to work is the big hurdle but the UAH engineers think that they have a solution to that. Should they overcome that obstacle, they will still need to first a way to turn fusion power into thrust and direct it. There are plans afoot for a “magnetic nozzle” which would use magnetic fields to direct the engine’s output, being developed by another section of the group involved.
Source: CNET Image: University of Alabama-Huntsville