Nuclear fusion propulsion technology has the potential to revolutionize space travel in terms of speed and fuel use. The same kinds of interactions that power the Sun could cut travel time to Mars in half, or make a trip to Saturn and its moons take only two years instead of eight.
It’s incredibly exciting, but not everyone is convinced it will work: The technology needs extremely high temperatures and pressures to work.
To help prove the feasibility of the technology, the world’s largest fusion rocket engine has already been built by Pulsar Fusion in Bletchley, UK.
The chamber, which is about 8 meters (26 ft) long, is scheduled to begin filming in 2027.
As you might expect, replicating the sun inside a rocket isn’t easy. At the heart of propelling nuclear fusion is superheated plasma trapped within an electromagnetic field, and scientists are still trying to figure out how to do this steadily and safely.
“The difficulty is learning how to hold and confine the super-hot plasma within an electromagnetic field,” says James Lambert, CFO of Pulsar Fusion. “The plasma behaves like a weather system in that it is difficult to predict using conventional techniques.”
Machine learning can help make this wild weather box a little easier to map. Pulsar Fusion has partnered with Princeton Satellite Systems in the US to use supercomputer algorithms to better predict how plasma will behave and how it can be controlled with greater precision.
If scientists can get everything to work as planned, temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius will be reached in the room, making it hotter than the sun. The extra energy released can propel missiles to speeds of up to 500,000 miles (804,672 kilometers) per hour.
The specific type of drive we’re talking about here is a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD), where charged particles create an impulse directly, rather than converting it into electricity. It is more efficient than other options, and because it is powered by atomic isotopes, it does not require a large fuel payload.
“You have to ask yourself, can humanity merge?” Pulsar Fusion CEO Richard Dinan told TechCrunch. “If we can’t, it’s all irrelevant.”
“If we can—and we can—fusional propulsion is absolutely inevitable. It is irresistible to human evolution from space.”
In addition to making the round trips to and from planets much shorter, nuclear fusion also promises to provide nearly unlimited clean energy for life here on Earth.
However, scientists believe that it will be shown first in space, where the absence of any atmosphere and very cold temperatures lead to interactions.
Written by David Nield
Posted in ScienceAlert
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