A new type of nuclear reactor could make it possible for us to travel to Mars in as little as two weeks.
Yigal Ronen, professor of nuclear engineering at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, believes that a little-known isotope called americium-242m (Am-242m) could power future robotic or human spacecraft more efficiently than chemical or nuclear propulsion sources.
Am-242m can sustain nuclear fission even when it is formed into thin sheets less than a micron (millionth of a meter) thick. The fission it produces makes it possible to heat materials such as hydrogen, which can be used as a propellant. The thinness of the sheets would make it easy to take along plenty of fuel for a round trip.
"The gas will be magnetically confined so temperatures of about 250,000 degrees can be reached," explains Ronen. "With such temperatures, a velocity of 80 kilometers per second can be obtained."
The concept hasn't yet reaching the testing stage. "We have not yet done an elaborate design," Ronen says. "Actual reactor design, refueling, heat removal, and safety provisions for manned vehicles have not yet been examined."
One potential problem is strong opposition by anti-nuclear and environmental groups to the use of radioactive isotopes in space, but Ronen doesn't believe this will hinder his research. "The controversy about using radioisotopes in space is not related to a real problem, it is mainly a political issue," he says.
This is not the only proposal that would shorten the travel time to Mars. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) would use magnetic fields and electromagnetic waves to heat hydrogen, turning it into a high-velocity propellant. The VASIMR has been designed by NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, who believes such an engine could send a person from Earth to Mars in 90 days.
Time is the main problem with space travel. It uses up fuel, which is expensive and heavy, and astronauts lose bone mass and experience other physical problems during long periods in space. If we can solve this problem, we may soon be able to travel to Mars on vacation-and see that Face on Mars for ourselves!
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