Traveling To Mars With Immortal Plasma Rockets

Mars mission with plasma rockets concept. NASA
Danielle Andrew 01 Aug 2016, 14:40

The ConversationNearly 50 years after landing on the moon, mankind has now set its sights on sending the first humans to Mars. The moon trip took three days; a Mars trip will likely take most of a year. The difference is in more than just time.

We’ll need many more supplies for the trip itself, and when we get to the Red Planet, we’re going to need to set up camp and stay for a while. Carrying all this material will require a revolutionary rocket technology.

Saturn V rocket drawn to scale with Statue of Liberty. Apollo spacecraft and the moon are not to scale. CC BY-ND

The Saturn V was the largest rocket ever built. It consumed an enormous amount of fuel in explosive chemical reactions that propelled the Apollo spacecraft into orbit. After reaching orbit, Apollo ejected the empty fuel tanks and turned on its own chemical rockets that used even more fuel to get to the moon. It took nearly a million gallons of various fuels just to send a few people on a day trip to our nearest extraterrestrial body.

So how could we send a settlement to Mars, which is more than 100 times farther away than the moon? The Saturn-Apollo combination could deliver only the mass equivalent of one railroad boxcar to the moon; it would take dozens of those rockets just to build a small house on Mars. Sadly, there are no alternatives for the “chemical” launch rocket; only powerful chemical explosions can provide enough force to overcome Earth’s gravity. But once in space, a new fuel-efficient rocket technology can take over: plasma rockets.

Gary Li’s University of California Grad Slam 2016 talk about his research.

The ‘Electric Vehicles’ Of Space

Plasma rockets are a modern technology that transforms fuel into a hot soup of electrically charged particles, known as plasma, and ejects it to push a spacecraft. Using plasma rockets instead of the traditional chemical rockets can reduce total in-space fuel usage by 90 percent. That means we could deliver 10 times the amount of cargo using the same fuel mass. NASA mission planners are already looking into using plasma rocket transport vehicles for ferrying cargo between Earth and Mars.

6 kW Hall Thruster. NASA JPL

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