By Mark Hoffman
University of Washington researchers and scientists at a Redmond-based space-propulsion company are currently building components of a fusion-powered rocket, which could enable astronauts to travel to Earth’s neighboring planet Mars within weeks instead of months, at speeds considerably faster than feasible until now. The current travel speeds using fuel rockets make Mars travel a journey of about four years but the new fusion technology being tested by researchers at the University of Washington promises that in 30 to 90 days.
The lab tests have proven to be successful on each part of the process and the scientists are now planning to combine the sections into a one final and overall test.
“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 team has developed a technology using a special type of plasma that will be encased in a magnetic field. When the plasma is compressed with high pressure by the magnetic field, nuclear fusion takes place.
The process has successfully been tested by researchers and they plan on having the first full test to be done by the end of this summer.
In practice the powerful magnetic field causes large metal rings surrounding the plasma to implode which will compress it to the point of fusion. The process takes only a few microseconds but that will be enough to release heat and ionize the rings that form a shell around the plasma. The super-heated ionized metal, in turn, ejects out from the rocket at a high velocity pushing the rocket forward. Repeating the process in intervals of about 30 seconds or more can propel a spaceship.
The research was funded by NASA in hopes that the technology would ultimately replace rocket fuel and yield to much faster spacecrafts that ever built before. Scientist say that just a grain size of the material from the plasma used can equal to a gallon of rocket fuel. That by itself will reduce the size of the spacecraft and the payload considerably making deep space travel much more cost effective.