Missions to the Moon, missions to Mars, robotic explorers to the outer Solar System, a mission to the nearest star, and maybe even a spacecraft to catch up to interstellar objects passing through our system. If you think this sounds like a description of the coming age of space exploration, then you’d be correct! At this moment, there are multiple plans and proposals for missions that will send astronauts and/or probes to all of these destinations to conduct some of the most lucrative scientific research ever performed. Naturally, these mission profiles raise all kinds of challenges, not the least of which is propulsion.
Simply put, humanity is reaching the limits of what conventional (chemical) propulsion can do. To send missions to Mars and other deep space destinations, advanced propulsion technologies are required that offer high acceleration (delta-v), specific impulse (Isp), and fuel efficiency. In a recent paper, Leiden Professor Florian Neukart proposes how future missions could rely on a novel propulsion concept known as the Magnetic Fusion Plasma Drive (MFPD). This device combines aspects of different propulsion methods to create a system that offers high energy density and fuel efficiency significantly greater than conventional methods.
In the coming years, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will send two robotic missions to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. These are none other than NASA’s Europa Clipper and the ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), which will launch in 2024, and 2023 (respectively). Once they arrive by the 2030s, they will study Europa’s surface with a series of flybys to determine if its interior ocean could support life. These will be the first astrobiology missions to an icy moon in the outer Solar System, collectively known as “Ocean Worlds.”
One of the many challenges for these missions is how to mine through the thick icy crusts and obtain samples from the interior ocean for analysis. According to a proposal by Dr. Theresa Benyo (a physicist and the principal investigator of the lattice confinement fusion project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center), a possible solution is to use a special reactor that relies on fission and fusion reactions. This proposal was selected for Phase I development by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which includes a $12,500 grant.
Like all stars, our Sun is powered by the fusion of hydrogen into heavier elements. Nuclear fusion is not only what makes stars shine, it is also a primary source of the chemical elements that make the world around us. Much of our understanding of stellar fusion comes from theoretical models of atomic nuclei, but for our closest star, we also have another source: neutrinos created in the Sun’s core.
Fusion power has long been considered to be the holy grail of alternative energy. Clean, abundant power, created through a self-sustaining process where atomic nuclei are fused at extremely high temperatures. Achieving this has been the goal of atomic researchers and physicists for over half a century, but progress has been slow. While the science behind fusion power is solid, the process has not exactly been practical.
In short, fusion can only be considered a viable form of power if the amount of energy used to initiate the reaction is less than the energy produced. Luckily, in recent years, a number of positive steps have been taken towards this goal. The latest comes from China, where researchers at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) recently report that they have achieved a fusion milestone.