At 54.6 million km away at its closest, the fastest travel to Mars from Earth using current technology (and no small bit of math) takes around 214 days — that’s about 30 weeks, or 7 months. A robotic explorer like Curiosity may not have any issues with that, but it’d be a tough journey for a human crew. Developing a quicker, more efficient method of propulsion for interplanetary voyages is essential for future human exploration missions… and right now a research team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville is doing just that.
This summer, UAHuntsville researchers, partnered with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Boeing, are laying the groundwork for a propulsion system that uses powerful pulses of nuclear fusion created within hollow 2-inch-wide “pucks” of lithium deuteride. And like hockey pucks, the plan is to “slapshot” them with plasma energy, fusing the lithium and hydrogen atoms inside and releasing enough force to ultimately propel a spacecraft — an effect known as “Z-pinch”.
“If this works,” said Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of engineering at UAH, “we could reach Mars in six to eight weeks instead of six to eight months.”
The key component to the UAH research is the Decade Module 2 — a massive device used by the Department of Defense for weapons testing in the 90s. Delivered last month to UAH (some assembly required) the DM2 will allow the team to test Z-pinch creation and confinement methods, and then utilize the data to hopefully get to the next step: fusion of lithium-deuterium pellets to create propulsion controlled via an electromagnetic field “nozzle”.
Although a rocket powered by Z-pinch fusion wouldn’t be used to actually leave Earth’s surface — it would run out of fuel within minutes — once in space it could be fired up to efficiently spiral out of orbit, coast at high speed and then slow down at the desired location, just like conventional rockets except… better.
“It’s equivalent to 20 percent of the world’s power output in a tiny bolt of lightning no bigger than your finger. It’s a tremendous amount of energy in a tiny period of time, just a hundred billionths of a second.”
– Dr. Jason Cassibry on the Z-pinch effect
In fact, according to a UAHuntsville news release, a pulsed fusion engine is pretty much the same thing as a regular rocket engine: a “flying tea kettle.” Cold material goes in, gets energized and hot gas pushes out. The difference is how much and what kind of cold material is used, and how forceful the push out is.
Everything else is just rocket science.
Read more on the University of Huntsville news site here and on al.com. Also, Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams has a nice write-up about the research as well as a little history of Z-pinch fusion technology… check it out. Top image: Mars imaged with Hubble’s Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2 in March 1995.