NASA-backed fusion rocket aims for human Mars mission

University of Washington researchers say rocket could power craft that carries astronauts to Mars in 30 days

Scientists at the University of Washington are working on a rocket that they say could enable astronauts to reach Mars in just 30 days.

NASA has estimated that, using current technology, a round-trip human mission to Mars would take more than four years.

In addition, such a trip would require significant amounts of very expensive chemical rocket. The launch costs alone would add up to more than $12 billion, according to the university.

A team of University of Washington researchers and engineers are building components of a nuclear fusion-powered rocket that they say could clear many of the hurdles that block deep space travel, including the long estimated travel times, the exorbitant costs and the health risks associated with spending months in a cramped space capsule.

"Using existing rocket fuels, it's nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth," said John Slough, a University of Washington research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics. "We are hoping to get a much more powerful source of energy that could eventually make interplanetary travel commonplace."

If the research team can build components for a fusion-powered rocket, Slough said it could lead to both 30- and 90-day expeditions to Mars.

While NASA has robotic rovers working on Mars today, the space agency has long looked to build a human outpost there.

In 2004, President George W. Bush called on NASA to send humans back to the moon by 2020. He said that effort would be done to prepare for a manned-mission to Mars.

More recently, President Barack Obama formulated a new plan that calls on NASA to hire commercial companies to build so-called space taxis to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, space agency is charged with building next-generation heavy-lift engines and robotics technology for use in travel to the moon, to asteroids and to Mars.

The University of Washington says its researchers have developed a plasma that is encased in its own magnetic field. Nuclear fusion occurs when the plasma is compressed at high pressure with a magnetic field.

Researchers, they reported, have had successful lab tests and now are focusing on putting all the pieces together for an overall test.

The team has created a system in which a powerful magnetic field causes large metal rings to implode around the plasma, compressing it to a fusion state, to power the rocket. The converging rings merge to form a shell that ignites the fusion, but only for a few microseconds.

The fusion reactions quickly heat and ionize the shell. This super-heated, ionized metal is ejected out of the rocket nozzle at a high velocity, the university explained. This process is repeated every minute or so, propelling the spacecraft at high speeds.

"I think everybody was pleased to see confirmation of the principal mechanism that we're using to compress the plasma," Slough said. "We hope we can interest the world with the fact that fusion isn't always 40 years away and doesn't always cost $2 billion."

The university's rocket project is funded by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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