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Nuclear rockets anyone? April 19, 2012

Posted by Mark Flavin in Technology.
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Solid core nuclear reactor.

Image Credit: IAA

I have been doing a lot of research on propulsion for spacecraft lately and I came across a paper titled Nuclear Space Power and Propulsion  by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). At 224 pages, which contain a lot of math that will make your skull shrink, it is comprehensive.  It is not a casual look at the technology, rather it is a serious attempt to quantify the design challenges, risks and development necessary if this technology is to be used in space. You come away wondering if there isn’t a better way, but the paper makes some excellent observations about the trade offs of going nuclear.

It is hard to imagine in the aftermath of the Fukushima mess that the general public would stand for anything nuclear and large launching into space. Still the distances between planets is such that conventional chemical rockets are cumbersome for extended trips, not to mention the huge side affects of long periods of zero g, which nuclear propulsion promises to reduce. It seems if there was a way around terrestrial sourcing of the fuel were possible a lot of the concerns would be diminished. Asteroid mining anyone?

Small electric thruster April 10, 2012

Posted by Mark Flavin in Technology.
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thruster schematic 2

Image courtesy of MicroThrust

A European consortium is working on a really smart idea for flying a small sattellite on almost no fuel. The program is called MicroThrust and it is amazing and ingenious. It uses MEMS Micro Electro Mechanical Systems to create an ion thruster in a very small package with one version weighing in at 200 grams. The intended use is to allow micro-sattellites (1-100 kg) the ability to freely change orbital parameters including reaching lunar orbit on 1/10 of a liter of fuel!

Slow and steady thrust is the key. The MicroThrusters run continuously producing low thrust but constant thrust which equals constant acceleration. Electric propulsion is a very interesting and exciting branch of propulsion engineering that has incredible potential for a variety of reasons.

One Rockin’ Rocket Engine April 6, 2012

Posted by Mark Flavin in Technology.
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Every day I visit a couple of great websites dedicated to space. I hope that I will be greeted by the banner announcement that someone has invented a workable “warp drive”. I know, “hopeless dreamer” you think. Maybe, but if I can’t have warp drive I will settle for a tiny step in the right direction.

The most elegant solution to moving space travelers around our own planetary system at reasonable speeds is under development at Ad Astra Rocket Company in Webster, Texas. http://www.adastrarocket.com/aarc/

These people understand that it is no fun floating for months in a spam can for months trying to catch up with Mars. They are working on a concept they call the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket or VASIMR®. Now I don’t know about you but that is a very cool sounding acronym. Not only is the name cool but it promises to reduce the six month float in space to get to Mars to around four months!

It works on the principal of superheated plasma: Xenon, or other gas to produce thrust an very low fuel flows. They do this by using a magnetic containment system since no material is capable of the sustained temperatures of the plasma. The concept is solid & the science is based on decades of research by Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz, research scientist & former NASA astronaut.

Thy have the attention of Dr. Chang-Diaz’s former employer, NASA. Their VF-200-1 engine will be flown on the International Space Station (ISS) to validate the concept. This may not be warp drive but reducing the trip time to Mars by a third is significant. Look for an article on this new piece of revolutionary rocket technology soon.