Missions to Mars and Nuclear Fusion

“We are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to being able to send men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later. Given the will, we could have humans on Mars within a decade.” -Robert Zubrin

Of all the planets in the Solar System beyond our own, none has captured our imagination quite like Mars has.

From science-fiction fans to scientists and everyone in between, our understanding of the red planet is presently greater than it ever has been in the past. With multiple landers, orbiters and rovers probing the Martian terrain, we're learned so much about the nearest neighboring planet that wouldn't boil our insides in a matter of seconds.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell / Arizona State Univ.

But many of us dream not of learning about the geologic history of Mars nor of sending robotic explorers there, but of sending humans there, with possible long-term goals ranging from creating a permanent human outpost there to terraforming the entire planet to be potentially habitable to human beings.

Image credit: Wikimedia commons user Daein Ballard, under the GFDL. Image credit: Wikimedia commons user Daein Ballard, under the GFDL.

The first step, of course, is landing a human being on Mars. Recently, there's been talk of developing a nuclear fusion engine that could cut the trip-time down to a mere 30 days, from the more usual 250 days. Although it's possible to get to Mars more quickly, we're much more concerned with getting to Mars these days using the least amount of energy, which also requires waiting for the proper launch window, something that occurs every 780 days between Earth and Mars.

Image credit: Georgia Tech's Satellite Communications & Navigation course. Image credit: Georgia Tech's Satellite Communications & Navigation course.

Now, nuclear fusion would, of course, be an incredible boon to both interstellar spaceflight and to Earth's energy needs. Crackpot claims about cold fusion aside, nuclear fusion is the holy grail of energy, is a completely clean source of energy, has the ingredients for it in abundance here on Earth, and is a process that's known to happen throughout the Universe.

Image credit: European Space Agency & NASA; acknowledgments: D. de Martin and E. Olszewski. Image credit: ESA & NASA; Acknowledgments: D. de Martin and E. Olszewski.

Not just in stars, of course, where nuclear fusion is the process that powers the vast majority of them, but here on Earth, where we've achieved controlled nuclear fusion successfully in at least three different general ways.

Image credit: National Ignition Facility. Image credit: National Ignition Facility.

1.) Inertial Confinement Fusion. We take a pellet of hydrogen -- the fuel for this fusion reaction -- and compress it using many lasers that surround the pellet. The compression causes the hydrogen nuclei to fuse into heavier elements like helium, and releases a burst of energy. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the break-even point, as it still takes more energy to operate the lasers than we've been able to get out of any fusion reaction we've created.

Image credit: ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Image credit: ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

2.) Magnetic Confinement Fusion. Instead of using mechanical compression, why not let the electromagnetic force do the confining work? Magnetic fields confine a superheated plasma of fusible material, and nuclear fusion reactions occur inside this Tokamak-style reactor. This concept was first used to fuse elements beginning in the 1950s, and since that time, Magnetic Confinement and Inertial Confinement have gone back-and-forth as each one inches closer to the break-even point, where the fusion energy out will exceed the input energy. That point has not yet been reached.

Image credit: General Fusion, Inc. Image credit: General Fusion, Inc.

3.) Magnetized Target Fusion. In MTF, a superheated plasma is created and confined magnetically, but pistons surrounding it compress the fuel inside, creating a burst of nuclear fusion in the interior. This clever hybrid approach was developed by Michel Laberge, and has successfully fused hydrogen into helium, but has not overtaken either ICF or MCF as the closest candidate to the break-even point.

Of course, the new candidate approach for a Fusion Driven Rocket is different from all of these in detail, but is worth a look.

Image credit: University of Washington's Plasma Dynamics Lab, MSNW. Image credit: University of Washington's Plasma Dynamics Lab, MSNW.

In this approach, a magnetically confined plasma has large metal rings built around it, which are made to implode and compress the plasma, which will not only trigger a fusion reaction, but also will expel the high-energy particles in one direction, creating a fantastic amount of thrust. It is, at this point, an unproven concept, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on to see how it develops.

But this new possibility for nuclear fusion and a current mission to Mars are two separate issues, and should be handled totally separately. For the fusion issue, we should be working tirelessly to develop nuclear fusion; if we can make it work, we will have literally tens of thousands of years worth of clean energy, regardless of the fuel mechanism used. Yet it's presently funded at the rate of about one billion Euros a year in the EU (and a little less than that here in the USA), which is part of the reason that fusion progress happens slowly.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

On the other hand, we can be on Mars in less than a decade, if we want to. This has been true since the 1990s (at least); it just requires a sustained investment in getting there using the technology we already have. I don't even care if it takes a reality show to get us there, the important thing is to invest in going one step at a time, and that means taking that very first step -- putting a human on Mars -- is maybe the most important step of all.

We have the fundamental rocket and life-support technology and the know-how, and we have thousands upon thousands of people willing to go, even if they know they're going on a one-way trip. We have the will and we have the manpower, all we need is a sustained vision for us to get behind, and -- in less than a decade -- we'll take our species' first steps on another planet.

Image credit: Stefan Morrell. Sources: Christopher McKay, NASA Ames Research Center; James Graham, University of Wisconsin–Madison;  Robert Zubrin, Mars Society; Margarita Marinova, California Institute of Technology. Image credit: Stefan Morrell. Sources: Christopher McKay, NASA Ames Research Center; James Graham, University of Wisconsin–Madison; Robert Zubrin, Mars Society; Margarita Marinova, California Institute of Technology.

Yes, it's fun to dream about the far future on Mars, but the important thing -- if we're at all serious about following our dreams into space -- is to take the first step now, and send humans to the red planet. We should never pin our hopes of going to Mars on the development of fundamentally new technology, or it will never happen on the timescales that we want it to. We're all longing for the stars, but on its own, longing is only going to get us so far.

Image credit: Jason Kinnan. Image credit: Jason Kinnan.

We need to invest in the long-term future like it's our only hope, while simultaneously stepping forward in the present to bring that future to reality. Whether we invest in nuclear fusion or not, we should be sending human beings to Mars. Whether we send human beings to Mars or not, we should be investing in nuclear fusion. And if-and-when we do develop and control nuclear fusion, it won't be a quicker trip to Mars that we set our sights on, but ever farther and more remote targets. There's a whole Universe out there, and shame on us if we choose not to explore it.

That's my vision on a mission to Mars, that's my vision on nuclear fusion, and that's my vision and hope for the future of humanity in this Universe.


More like this

I want to believe. But why didn't "just getting there" work with the moon?

The problem, as I see it, is when we went to the moon THAT was the goal: just getting there. Nobody stopped to consider what we could or should do afterwards, and so we haven't had the political will to return.

Cold War politics was a big part of the space program in the 1950s and 1960s. The Soviet Union had beaten the US to a satellite launch, and again with putting a man into orbit. So JFK made getting a manned spacecraft to the lunar surface and back, before the USSR did so, an explicit goal. A major reason why we haven't had the political will to return is that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR, and we haven't convinced ourselves that the Chinese will establish a lunar colony if we don't. (To my knowledge, the Chinese don't have any such plans, but they have been working on a manned space flight program.) As Bad Wolf @2 points out, there never really was a follow-up plan.

There is another part as well: putting human beings in space and keeping them alive is expensive. During the Cold War, the geopolitical implications of manned space flight were enough to keep it going despite the expense. There are companies now that hope to make a profit from space tourism, but we haven't figured out how to sell a manned exploration program to skeptical politicians absent a Soviet-style boogeyman.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Apr 2013 #permalink

I think we desperately need to send people to Mars.. Aside from the spinoff technology argument (which is valid), we humans like to create and do things that have no real economic value but are fulfilling. Even though machines will most likely be just as good at things like pattern recognition in the next fifty years, it still won't be the same as actually going there and experiencing Mars. Maybe it's not practical. Maybe the money could be spent elsewhere, but if we can do it, what are we waiting for? Even if we don't see immediate gain we will have still tasted another planet for the first time as a species. That's got to mean something.

There was a bit of passion there for getting to Mars. I share that passion. But I don't share the passion for a fusion rocket. Or for fusion either, not when thorium fission could be made to work far more easily.

By John Duffield (not verified) on 17 Apr 2013 #permalink

Eric Lund mentions the phrase "absent a Soviet style bogeyman" indicating that that kind of motivation is a good way to get government and public funding for a space program.

When I was going to college when the bogeyman was really believed in, money was pouring into universities, congress was holding hearings on UFO and aeronautical journals were reporting radar tracking of UFO's ( and Allais published in an aeronautical journal of a diurnal variation in earth's surface gravity and subsequently ignored).

However, this Soviet scare did not last very long. And we have become on the idea of rockets and nuclear energy are the only way for interplanetary travel. Why have not figured out the mechanisms behind UFO propulsion.

The mass-based theories that we are so endeared to give us no clues to understand how UFO's work. If your right hand insults you, you are supposed to cut it off. So forget this idea that mass is the cause of gravity. We once dropped the ludicrous idea that the Earth had some mysterious powers to make the whole universe revolve around it in a 24 hour period. So why cannot we drop the idea that mass has some mysterious power to either warp space of attract other mass? We should come up with a better theory of gravity that will at last give us a clue behind UFO propulsion and a practical means for interplanetary travel. Well its been done. My theory champions Kepler' s reasonable idea that it is the sun's radiation rather than its mass that is the cause for the orbital motion of the planets. This theory has been confirmed by inexpensive table top experiment which provide a compelling possible way to comprehend the mechanism behind UFO propulsion.

By Peter Fred (not verified) on 17 Apr 2013 #permalink

Our paltry funding of fusion efforts is disgusting and self defeating. We need substantial funding.

By Andrew Eppink (not verified) on 18 Apr 2013 #permalink

nuclear fusion is the holy grail of energy

I support it and agree its underfunded, but I have my doubts it will bring anything more than an incremental improvement to our energy infrastructure. The shift between gas power (and other chemical reactions) to fission power was a million-fold increase in the energy produced per reaction. Due to engineering issues however, power output per square footage of power plant obviously did not increase a million-fold - it increased far far less. In contrast to this milion-fold increase, fusion will provide a four-fold increase in power over fission reactors...and will likely have even more engineering issues.

So, I don't think it will make power any cheaper. Or give us a sudden massive abundance of usable energy. To think that, you have to ignore the historical reality that the oil-to-fission jump was a 250,000 times bigger improvement than the fission-to-fusion one will be, but that previous jump did not give us any massive super-abundance of free usable energy.

Yes we should figure out how to do it. But no, its not going to be a panacea for our energy needs. I am skeptical it would even lower your electricity bill.

I am more and more pessimistic about terraforming (Mars or anywhere else), even in the distant future, when you think how extraordinarily difficult it appears to be going to be to change the proportion of CO2 in our atmosphere from 0.00039 to 0.00031, even with all the resources of a fully colonised planet to bring to bear on the problem, and a high degree of urgency involved.

By uncleMonty (not verified) on 18 Apr 2013 #permalink

I just wanted to throw in the 4th type of controlled fusion: Z-pinch, which is actually somewhat like the proposed fusion engine in that it involves imploding cylinders with fusion fuel inside, via enormous electrical currents.

Most I wanted to mention it so I could post a link to this image of Sandia Lab's Z-Machine firing:

Considering the massive size and cost of current fusion facilities that don't even 'work' as a power source, it will be a long, long time before it can be miniaturized and cost reduced enough to put into space.

However, in space radiation pollution isn't a problem - space already has a hazardous radiation environment, so the number 1 and number 2 problems with Fission are eliminated - accidents won't cause environmental damage and wastes can be disposed of in space where they will be safe for millenia. Fuel can be launched in a relatively benign, cold form and kept that way until a safe distance such as the earth-moon L2 point (which is an ideal departure point), at which point it could be used with no chance of environmental damage on earth.


However, in space radiation pollution isn’t a problem – space already has a hazardous radiation environment, so the number 1 and number 2 problems with Fission are eliminated

This is not my area, but I believe waste heat is a very big problem for manned spacecraft. That is a waste form both fission and fusion will have in abundance.

Having said that, I think solar and fusion both have a clear edge in terms of space exploration because they're the only two technologies where we can be fairly certain to find fuel at our destinations. The other fuels, you are taking a significant risk if you don't take everything you need with you.

BTW, I also felt I should point out that all proposed fusion reactors are not "completely" clean. They will generate copious amounts of neutrons, which will cause their containment to become radioactive. It's not anywhere close to as big a problem as waste from fission reactors (even breeders), mostly an engineering concern as the containment will become brittle. But it's not completely clean. Just really, really clean compared to just about anything we have today.

" I don’t even care if it takes a reality show to get us there, the important thing is to invest in... putting a human on Mars... We have the fundamental rocket and life-support technology and the know-how, and we have thousands upon thousands of people willing to go, even if they know they’re going on a one-way trip."

Yes, it might take a reality show. I mean, I think the budget of a blockbuster movie of a meteor on target to the hit Earth is probably much bigger than the NASA budget to detect and stop meteors from hitting Earth.

So yes, Ethan, no need to disclose your private contract to be on that soon to be announced reality show To Mars and Beyond. Just go for it Ethan.

But please continue to update us while you are on your trip.

Yes, the cold war was a needed excuse to spend the money to put a man on the moon.

But what is our excuse now, for not putting a man on Mars. Because one of the biggest lessons of the race to put a man on the moon; was that the economic and technological spin-off was enormous, probably incalculable.

The expense of putting a man on the moon paid for itself many times over. And the race to put a man on Mars will too. Just start a list of technology things that society can use to make a better more sustainable society:
-- safe nuclear fusion
-- safe rechargable batteries with 1000 times the power of current batteries and 1000 times faster recharge
-- solar energy
-- biosphere I. II and knowing how to create a sustainable mini-environment on Mars might give important insights into how to sustain Earth's precious environment
-- robotics
-- self replicating machines
-- self replicating humans
-- sorry my imagination is a bit daft today; so please expand on my thought

I have no doubts that the technologies invented to colonizing a planet (Mars) or Moon (Earth's moon or one of Jupiter's) will grow economies exponentially.

And well some bankers might worry about failure. And they are correct, sort of.

Remember Guttenberg, his press spawnned a revolution in printing and the media. Ra, ra, ra; yes technology innovation drives economic growth. Yes, " It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses." wiki

But Guttenberg's printing the Bible idea was an economic failure and Guttenberg died bankrupt. The economic wealth went to others. "The court decided in favor of Fust, giving him control over the Bible printing workshop and half of all printed Bibles. Thus Gutenberg was effectively bankrupt... Although Gutenberg was financially unsuccessful in his lifetime, the printing technologies spread quickly, and news and books began to travel across Europe much faster than before. It fed the growing Renaissance, and since it greatly facilitated scientific publishing, it was a major catalyst for the later scientific revolution." wiki

And yadda yadda yadda...
So the benefits of going to Mars will be enormous for mankind; but not necessarily to whoever foots the bill.

So the entire banking system and money system has to be reformed to favor the innovator. More than 500 years after Guttenberg and more than 50 years after the Moon landing and only 17 years after the formation of Google; and we are still timid in investing in technology dreams.

The meek and timid shall inherit the Earth, and they shall be called bankers!!

"Because one of the biggest lessons of the race to put a man on the moon; was that the economic and technological spin-off was enormous, probably incalculable."

Those benefits will not come for the next quarterly report, maybe long after I've moved jobs and won't get a bonus for it. And any benefit may go to someone else's corporation, not mine, so I will not support it.

Basically, corporatism and short-termism renders your point irrelevant to those in "power".

Or, as your wikiquote shows:

But Guttenberg’s printing the Bible idea was an economic failure and Guttenberg died bankrupt. The economic wealth went to others.

Terraforming Mars will be a steadier step for a long-term survival of the human species and civilization. I believe nuclear fusion will revolutionize roundtrip in our solar system and supply energy to terraforming Mars. http://youtu.be/VUrt186pWoA

We have the technology to go to Mars for shorter-term visits/exploration, however, we are simply not ready for long-term, permanent settlements, yet. The ISS is not self-sufficient at all--they only recycle about 70% of their water and produce none of their needed food. A long-term settlement on Mars would need to be close to 100% sustainable for everything--extra supplies will be few and far between. To prepare for the day we can become ready for such Martian settlements, I hope we build a ISS 2.0, perhaps at a lunar Lagrangian point, with the intent of creating the most sustainable long-term habitat possible. It would be close enough to home if the inhabitants got into trouble, yet challenge us to perfect the necessary technologies and techniques that will be needed for all deep space travel: CO2 and O2 recycling, H2O recycyling, waste recycling, adequate radiation shielding, artificial gravity (via the centrifugal force in a rotating space station) and in-space food production. While I do think Mars will eventually be a second home for us (if we wish to ensure the survival of our species), we are not quite ready yet.

By RampantLion (not verified) on 18 Apr 2013 #permalink

A moon base would be much more effective. *Some* gravity would help in the engineering, and a large mass to work off will make it massively easier. You can protect against solar radiation by using the bulk of the moon, making your engineering problem much easier.

And when space travel is normal, the moon will be being mined. Requiring us to be there anyway.