|Lockheed's Skunk works facility has made many breakthroughs of late|
Nuclear fusion rockets could slash travel times through deep space dramatically, potentially opening up vast swathes of the solar system to human exploration, said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.
"It's transformative," Grunsfeld said last month after his presentation at Maker Faire Bay Area in San Mateo, Calif., a two-day celebration of DIY science, technology and engineering. "You could get to Saturn in a couple of months. How fantastic would that be?"
For a little perspective: NASA's robotic Cassini spacecraft blasted off in October 1997 and didn't enter Saturn orbit until July 2004.
Speeding things up
Traditional chemical propulsion systems can get humans to destinations in deep space, but with a lot of travel time. For example, a roundtrip manned mission to the vicinity of Mars, which NASA aims to execute by the mid-2030s, would require about 500 days of spaceflight.
|A schematic of the nuclear thermal rocket shows how liquid hydrogen propellant would heated by the reactor|
So NASA and researchers around the world have been investigating advanced propulsion technologies, including space-bending "warp drives," enormous solar sails and matter-antimatter engines. Nuclear fusion is perhaps the most promising of these possibilities, at least in the relatively near term, proponents say.
|Artist's impression of fusion powered craft|
NASA has funded several early-stage fusion ideas recently via a program called NIAC (NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts). One of these groups, led by scientists at the University of Washington, recently calculated that a fusion rocket could make it possible to get astronauts to Mars in as little as 30 days.
Hurdles to overcome
Fusion rockets likely won't be powering a spacecraft anytime soon, however. Researchers still haven't developed a fusion reactor here on Earth that generates more energy than it takes in, after all, despite billions of dollars devoted to the effort over several decades.
But studying how to make fusion work for spacecraft engines could help chip away at the problem, Grunsfeld said, potentially bringing to reality a technology famous for always being "30 years away."
"That could accelerate the research for fusion reactors here on Earth," he said.