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Nuclear Fusion Rocket Could Be Humanity's Ticket To Mars

Apr 05, 2013 04:53 PM EDT
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Batman-style rover could be the future of exploration on Mars

Researchers from the University of Washington are currently working on harnessing the power of nuclear fusion in a way that it could be used to power a rocket.

Doing so, they hope, could enable humanity to reach a goal that has teased it ever since 1969: landing on Mars.

This is because a nuclear fusion-powered rocket addresses many of the barriers that have long stood in scientists' way.

"Using existing rocket fuels, it's nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth," lead researcher and associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics John Slough said in an press release.

For example, current estimates place a roundtrip journey to Mars somewhere in the realm of four years and would require so much chemical rocket fuel that the launch alone would cost more than $12 billion.

Which is why Slough means it when he says that he and his colleagues are "hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace."

And apparently they're not the only ones - NASA awarded the team a second round of funding last fall, picking it and just a handful of others from more than 700 proposals.

In all, Slough and his team believe they could cut expedition times down to as little as 30 to 90 days total.

And as it stands now, the researchers have successfully demonstrated lab tests of all the needed portions processes. Going forward, Slough said, it's only a matter of putting them together.

At the heart of the work is a type of plasma the scientists invented that is encased in its own magnetic field. Nuclear fusion occurs when compressed to high pressure with a magnetic field - a process they have successfully achieved in the lab.

Using this, and by buillding a system in which a magnetic field caused large metal rings to implode around the plasma, a rocket engine would be able to get the same amount of energy from each bit of plasma the size of a grain of sand as one gallon of rocket fuel.

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