Washington: Fission rockets could be a vital stepping-stone technology towards the next generation of interstellar space exploration, researchers say.
The rockets that sent men to the moon were powered by chemical combustion, which in its most powerful form ignites hydrogen with oxygen. The space shuttle’s main engine, basically the state of the art for rocket propulsion, uses the same chemicals.
Although these rockets do their job well but they have fundamental energy limits, which restrict them to a maximum exhaust velocity that is too low for most piloted missions with destinations beyond moon.
While interstellar missions may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but the technology needed to facilitate them currently forms an active area of research, and novel propulsion systems usually contemplate on extremely energetic reactions as a means to liberate more energy per unit mass of propellant.
Common areas of research comprise fission rockets, fusion rockets and even antimatter rockets.
“The technology roadmap to antimatter, or even fusion rockets could easily be decades in the making, but there is one technology that we have available today that represents the critical first step in the long road to the stars, namely fission,” said Richard Obousy, senior scientist for Icarus, an international group of volunteer scientists and engineers dedicated to working out the challenges of interstellar voyages.
The fission rocket being referred to here is the Nuclear Thermal Rocket, or NTR. An NTR uses nuclear fission as an energy source instead of chemical combustion, and uses just hydrogen as a propellant, allowing it to achieve a very high exhaust velocity and high thrust, Discovery News reported.
Starting this month, Icarus Interstellar Inc., the managing company for Project Icarus, is collaborating with General Propulsion Sciences, a small propulsion research company based in Washington D.C., for a new effort to pursue the development of NTRs and other fission-based space technologies.
The program, dubbed Project Bifrost, which was initiated by Research Lead Tabitha Smith (Strategic Officer of General Propulsion Science) and Brad Appel (Program Manager of Nuclear Propulsion at General Propulsion Science) identifies fission as a crucial stepping-stone technology towards the next generation of space travel, and will take steps to advance the technological maturity of NTRs.
In the coming decades, sending humans to Mars is believed by many to be the Holy Grail for space exploration, a mission that NTRs are ideally suited for.