Fusion Engines Hold The Key To Solar System Exploration | Out Of This World Weekly

Nuclear fission engines have been thought about for many years but have never been implemented.  While everything from submarines to aircraft carriers use this technology, launching even small nuclear reactors into space has proven too difficult and dangerous.  Where nuclear fission has failed us in spaceflight, nuclear fusion could hold the key to manned spaceflight.  Researchers at University of Alabama Huntsville in cooperation with Boeing, NASA, and Oak Ridge National Labs are working on this concept to take us into the future on the jets of fusion engines.  The research shows that a fusion engine could reach speeds of about 62,000 mph, which is similar to the speed that the Earth orbits the Sun.  This would allow travel to Mars in only a few weeks, as opposed to the multi-month to multi-year journey that chemical rockets would produce.  These time tables would actually allow for a timely human exploration and possibly even colonization of the solar system.

Before you decide to go out and get one of these fancy fusion engines for your dragster, you have to realize that this technology hasn’t been implemented yet.  It’s still in the design phase, yet the research shows that it could be built.  The engine would fuse deuterium and lithium using a novel electromagnetic compression scheme to force the fusion energy release then contain and nozzle the fusion explosion using the compression derived from the plasma’s own magnetic fields.    The thrust would be similar to that of a mighty Saturn V rocket, except it would allow for very long duration thrusts that would  allow for travel throughout the solar system at incredible velocities.

 

The current research model is known as the “Charger-1 Pulsed Power Generator” and it is being built out of retired components that were used to test the effects of nuclear weapons explosions in a lab setting.  It is referred to as a pulsed power generator because the power would come from pulsed fusion reactions as opposed to a continuous fusion reaction. Even the researchers admit that reaching break-even energies may not be possible with this first generation model but the information gained from testing should allow an even better design to be made in the future.

 

The major problem is that learning to control even a relatively small nuclear fusion explosion and properly channel it into thrust has never been done.  Nuclear fusion reactors being tested for power plant usage have only begun to reach break even energies.  This means that the amount of power produced is barely equal to the amount of power required to contain the explosion.  Did I mention that these reactors are really big?  The Charger-1 weighs in at about 50 tons and that’s just the engine.  The researchers are proposing that any spacecraft using these engines would have to be built in orbit because total spacecraft size could exceed 500 tons.  That’s about the same mass at the International Space Station in orbit right now.  Even using 3D Printing techniques to manufacture most of the spacecraft, that’s a very large amount of 3D Printing polymer to transport into space by conventional means. 

 

There are major hurdles to overcome in making this technology feasible but it does offer advantages that cannot be ignored.  If we want to get humans out into the solar system, we can’t expect to send them on trips that will last years or decades.  Nuclear Fusion offers a very high amount of fuel energy from a very small amount of mass and it is this that makes this technology the “Holy Grail” of space propulsion.  Even now, this technology isn’t planned for space testing until a 2030-2050 window at the earliest.  If we are planning on exploring the vast expanses of space then we are going to need some really big ideas and big technologies to do it.  Fusion engines are one of these big technologies and while it may seem daunting and complicated, that’s never stopped us in the past.

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