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Space Transportation

Fusion Rocket Could Take Us To Mars 171

New submitter imikem writes "University of Washington researchers and scientists at a Redmond-based space-propulsion company are building components of a fusion-powered rocket aimed to clear many of the hurdles that block deep space travel, including long times in transit, exorbitant costs and health risks. 'Using existing rocket fuels, it's nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,' said lead researcher John Slough, a UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. 'We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.' 'The research team has developed a type of plasma that is encased in its own magnetic field. Nuclear fusion occurs when this plasma is compressed to high pressure with a magnetic field. The team has successfully tested this technique in the lab. Only a small amount of fusion is needed to power a rocket – a small grain of sand of this material has the same energy content as 1 gallon of rocket fuel.'"
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Fusion Rocket Could Take Us To Mars

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  • Re:nuclear fusion? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Electricity Likes Me ( 1098643 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:01PM (#43369057)

    Worth noting, is that this concept is essentially the Orion engine without the heavy radioactives - the idea is essentially what we do in the hydrogen bomb.

  • The Trisops [wikipedia.org] machine at the University of Miami.

    Trisops was an experimental machine for the study of magnetic confinement of plasmas with the ultimate goal of producing fusion power. The configuration was a variation of a compact toroid, a toroidal (doughnut-shaped) structure of plasma and magnetic fields with no coils penetrating the center. It lost funding in its original form in 1978.
    The configuration was produced by combining two individual toroids produced by two conical pinch guns, located at either end of a length of Pyrex pipe with a constant magnetic guide field. The toroidal currents in the toroids were in opposite directions, so that they repelled each other. After coming to an equilibrium, they were adiabatically compressed by increasing the external field.

    Disclosure: I am one of the authors of the cited paper in the article and the author of the above Wikipedia article

  • by SlippyToad ( 240532 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @12:58PM (#43369659)

    It was the NERVA rocket. it wasn't fusion, but it was a nuclear-powered rocket, and it would have easily made Mars our bitch.

    It was canceled to, fucking get this, no seriously, wait for it. It was canceled TO SAVE THE BUDGET because the politicos at the time were afraid a successful Mars rocket would "drag" the US into this huge "space program" where we'd explore the solar system and stuff. And that would cost a lot of money.

    Instead, we killed the NERVA rocket and saved our budget for Vietnam, which was a roaring success that paid incredible dividends . . . . oh, fuck.

    Anyway, this is nice to hear, but I'm not going to hold my fucking breath. Our national priorities are far too ass-backwards for something forward-looking like a Mars mission. I suspect the first people to land on Mars will likely be an international team, and America will be riding along in the back begging for a look out the front window from time to time.

  • Re:Yuh huh (Score:4, Interesting)

    by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @01:47PM (#43370293) Journal

    Ok, apologies if this is a joke that's wooshing over my head, but nuclear fusion produces very little radiation. A small fraction of the reaction energy is released in neutrons and some x-rays. Most of the energy is released as heat. I'm not a nuclear physicist, but hydrogen fusion is causing hydrogen atoms to smack into each other with enough energy that they fuse producing helium and a very large amount of energy. You're thinking perhaps of fission, which is when radioactive isotopes give off energy as they change into different radioactive isotopes. It's a completely different thing.

  • by catchblue22 ( 1004569 ) on Friday April 05, 2013 @06:51PM (#43373909) Homepage

    Here is a video [youtube.com] of a scientist named Charles Chase who works for Lockheed Martin Skunkworks. The presentation is made at Google's "Solve for X". The video is 14 minutes long so I'll give an executive summary. Chase claims that his team has made a breakthrough in developing a small fusion reactor that will lead to a 100MW reactor the size of a truck trailer and of the complexity of a jet engine. The prototype they have built is a cylinder 1m in diameter by 2m long. In their experiment they put deuterium gas into a magnetically confined space and heat it up with radiofrequency energy. He infers that the confined plasma is reaching the conditions necessary for fusion to occur. The reactor is "high beta", with "beta" referring to the ratio of the magnetic field pressure to the pressure of the plasma pushing out. He says that the magnetic field strength in the reactor increases as you go out from the centre of the plasma, thus creating an extremely effective plasma confinement. He contrasts this with a Tokamak reactor, where the magnetic field is generated by the moving plasma itself, and thus decreases in strength out from the centre of the plasma. He says that this decreasing field strength is the main problem with Tokamak reactors and that it causes the confinement to be unstable. If the confinement becomes unstable, the magnetic field decreases, thus creating a negative feedback loop. This contrasts with his reactor design, that tends to create a far more stable plasma confinement.

    I have a background in physics and what this man says in his video makes sense to me. It is of course short on details, but what would you expect for a short presentation. And you wouldn't expect a Skunkworks scientist to publish information in the same way as a university scientist. I have often puzzled in the past as to why we can't use an elegant method of magnetic confinement to achieve the conditions for fusion on a small scale. Tokamak seems an inelegant dead end. I think that if you can adequately confine the plasma, you have solved the energy balance problem that has plagued fusion reactors in the past.

    Watch the video and see what you think.

In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982