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To Mars in 30 days, on nuclear fusion

Posting in Energy

To Mars and beyond. A rendition of the Fusion Driven Rocket.

The common knock against nuclear fusion is that it has remained 40 years away ever since physicists started promoting it in the 1950s.

Judging by the snail's pace at large multi-billion intergovernmental fusion projects like ITER in France and NIF in California, that could well be the case.

But as I've written often, chances are that at least one of the growing number of private projects chasing the elusive fusion goal will probably crack it first.

And it may not be that the first fusion machine goes to work generating electricity. Rather, it could serve as a propulsion device such as the one that John Slough is building to take spacecraft to Mars.

Slough runs Redmond, Wash.-based space propulsion firm MSNW LLC, is a research associate professor at the University of Washington, and has funding from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

He thinks his Fusion Driven Rocket can help travelers reach the Red Planet in as little as 30 days. For comparison, the Curiosity took over eight months before landing on Mars last August. NASA estimates that with current technology, it would take humans four years to complete a round trip, and the launch alone would cost $12 billion in rocket fuel.

“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” Slough said in a UW press release. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”

Like the behemoth contraptions at ITER and NIF, Slough is trying to fuse atoms - presumably hydrogen isotopes - to release energy. But he is engineering an entirely different, and much smaller device in which lithium metal rings collapse around plasma encased in a magnetic field, causing fusion and propelling a craft forward.

Slough hopes to start tests by the end of the summer. He likes fusion so much he's working on two machines at once. His other one, at Redmond-based Helion Energy, will be geared at generating electricity. Why not send one to Mars to support a community there once the Fusion Driven Rockets start arriving?

Image from University of Washington

Other fusion projects, on SmartPlanet:

For a SmartPlanet archive of nuclear alternatives including fusion and fission, click here.

— By on April 11, 2013, 8:51 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure