Nuclear fusion rocket could get astronauts to Mars in 30 days

University of Washington, MSNW
A concept image of a spacecraft powered by a fusion-driven rocket.

One of the biggest logistical challenges of getting human boots on our neighboring red planet is that it’s so freaking far away. By NASA’s best estimates, a trip to Mars via conventional chemical rockets will take at least a four-year round trip.

Now, a research team from the University of Washington says it is developing components for a new kind of nuclear fusion rocket that could dramatically reduce space travel time. The Washington-based scientists say their design could get astronauts to the Martian home world in just 30 days.

The proposed fusion rocket would use strong magnetic fields to compress a pellet of deuterium-tritium. A set of metal rings made of lithium would implode onto the fuel in a plasma state to form a shell that ignites a fusion reaction.

This fusion reaction would result in a massive explosion, pushing the matter from the metal rings out of the rocket at 67,000 miles per hour (108,000 kilometers per hour) to generate thrust. The engine would repeat this process every 10 seconds, eventually accelerating the spacecraft to around 200,000 mph (320,000 kph).

University of Washington, MSNW
The fusion-driven rocket test chamber at the UW Plasma Dynamics Lab in Redmond.

That’s how it will work in theory, anyway. NASA believes strongly enough in UW’s fusion rocket to fund it with its Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.

For the last four years, the University of Washington team led by John Slough have been developing and testing each of the various stages of a fusion rocket. So far, the team has successfully heated up the deuterium plasma up to fusion temperatures, as well as the collapsing magnetic field. The next step will be to put these isolated tests together into a final experiment sometime this summer that will hopefully produce a fusion reaction.

[University of Washington via Popular Science]

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