Channeling Star Trek: Researchers to Begin Fusion Impulse Engine Experiments
September 28th, 2012 | by Michael Keller
Star Trek fans take note: Have a seat before you read the next sentence or prepare to swoon.
University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH) aerospace engineers working with NASA, Boeing and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are investigating how to build fusion impulse rocket engines for extremely high-speed space travel.
“Star Trek fans love it, especially when we call the concept an impulse drive, which is what it is,” says team member Ross Cortez, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate at UAH’s Aerophysics Research Center.
Stay seated Trekkies, because there’s more.
“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,” Cortez says, referring to the real-world equivalent of the fictional element used to power Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.
While this engine, if produced, wouldn’t generate a fraction of the velocity as the faster-than-light warp drives envisioned in the TV shows, books and movies, it could produce speeds that exceed other not-science-fiction-based systems that rocket scientists are investigating.
Their ultimate goal is to develop a nuclear fusion propulsion system by 2030 that can spirit spacecraft from Earth to Mars in around three months—about twice as fast as researchers think they could go with a nuclear fission engine, another scheme that is being investigated but has not yet been built.
Their current design has a spacecraft with the impulse engines being built in low Earth orbit, so the thrusters and ship wouldn’t need to cope with the atmosphere or achieving escape velocity. That doesn’t mean it would be a lightweight when fully assembled, though. Cortez says the craft could tip the scales at almost 500 tons