HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Huntsville scientists will be firing atoms into atoms on Redstone Arsenal this summer as they try to develop a small, lightweight pulsed nuclear fusion power system. "If this works," says Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, "we could reach Mars in six to eight weeks instead of six to eight months."
Cassibry is talking about the project's ultimate goal. Building a fusion engine will take much longer than a summer. But cutting the travel time to the Red Planet would solve many of the journey's problems. It would reduce the strain of weightlessness on astronaut's bodies - they're only allowed to spend about six months on the International Space Station now - and it would reduce the food and water they need to take on the trip, just to name a few.
And if Cassibry and his team are right, the fuel needed for a Mars journey could be measured in pounds, not tons. The team working on the fusion power system includes UAH, Boeing and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. They are set up at the Astrophysics Laboratory on Redstone Arsenal.
This month, big flatbed trucks were unloading combine-sized pieces of equipment at the lab deep on Redstone. When assembled, they will make a Decade Module Two (DM2) pulsed power generator. It was originally designed for the Department of Defense for weapons testing in the 1990s and is coming to Huntsville from Tullahoma, Tenn.
The DM2 consists of banks of capacitors that store an electrical charge for release on command. The analogy is a photographer's flash. That electrical charge will slam lithium and hydrogen atoms into each other and turn their mass into a tiny burst of pure energy.
Cassibry likens the ultimate, hoped-for effect to a hockey slapshot. In a slapshot, the player digs the head of his stick into the ice and bends it like an archer's bow, storing energy for a more powerful slap at the puck than a straight shot could deliver.
The UAH team will try to "drive a hollowed-out puck" made of lithium deuteride in on itself using the DM2. It's a called a Z-pinch effect, and Cassibry says 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."
This is a very small thermonuclear burn inside a chamber inside another shielding chamber. There is "absolutely no chance" of anything going "boom," Cassibry said.
The reactions of the lithium deuteride to the energy pulse will tell Cassibry and the team if their theory is correct and their fusion propulsion model is valid. If it is, they will begin crunching the numbers to see how to "scale up" a tiny project into something that might power a rocket.
How would it work? Imagine a power system that fuses lithium-deuterium pellets together and uses an electromagnetic field as a sort of "nozzle" for the reaction's exhaust, while also capturing part of the energy to rercharge the system. The exhaust would push the rocket forward.
Cassibry adds the appropriate disclaimers. Even though such propulsion would produce high speed, this is not a "warp drive" engine. Nor will astronauts be "flying pinned to the back of the cabin," Cassibry said.
"At its heart," explained a university press release, "the pulsed fusion engine - like any other rocket engine - is a flying tea kettle. Cold material goes in, gets energized and hot gas pushes out."
The pulse engine would not lift a rocket out of the gravity well of Earth, but would run continuously for weeks after liftoff to move the rocket out of orbit and toward another planet.
After high-speed "coasting" for weeks, the engine would fire for another few weeks to slow the rocket into orbit around its target planet.
Interestingly, Cassibry believes a pulsed fusion engine could be attached to other space objects, as well. Imagine an asteroid being gently pushed off a collision course with Earth by an pulsed fusion engine.
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