Sci-Fi fans, hold onto your seats, because fusion impulse rocket engines may be coming to a spacecraft near you.
Researchers from the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) are working with NASA, Boeing and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a fusion reactor for high-speed space travel.
The spacecraft, along with its fuel system, is set for construction in low Earth orbit, and will never touch down on our home planet, nor any other planet for that matter. (After all, space is the final frontier.) This is because, as Stargate SG-1 has taught us, even the most advanced spacecraft, such as Thor's Chariot, can be destroyed during atmospheric reentry if separate deceleration engines are not available.
Despite the design's ambition, the reactor in question is still a sub-light engine, so warp nine is a long way away. But according to Ross Cortez, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate at UAH's Aerophysics Research Center, there are still plenty of reasons for Trekkies to be excited.
"The fusion fuel we're focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure. That's basically dilithium crystals we're using," says Cortez. For those scrambling to Wikipedia right now, dilithium crystals are the fictional antimatter container that powers the Starship Enterprise.
By 2030, researchers hope to have built a nuclear fusion engine that will enable travel from Earth to Mars in under three months, which is twice as fast as the estimates for the yet-to-be-developed nuclear fission engine.
That 18-year goal exists for a reason: researchers have been grappling with nuclear fusion technology for decades. But last week, investigators at Sandia National Laboratory announced that they are getting closer to "break-even," the turning point in fusion research at which the reaction emits the same amount, if not more, energy than was put in.
Once that point is met, the craft will have to travel at nearly 24,000 mph – roughly three times the speed of the Mars Rover, Curiosity, shortly before it reached Mars' atmosphere – in order to reach Mars within its three-month window. But Cortez remains optimistic, postulating that the craft could be capable of 62,600 mph, which is nearly the speed at which the Earth orbits the Sun.
Regardless of the engine's promise, there is still a great deal of work ahead for the UAH team: from designing the reactor itself to engineering a propulsion system that won't vaporize the engine. So for the Trekkie in all of us, the wait isn't over yet.
Full story at Txchnologist