A new rocket propulsion system, 'Charger-1 Pulsed Power Generator', is being developed by researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, US, from nuclear weapon testing device Decade Module Two (DM2).
With assembly taking place at the university's Aerophysics Research Center on Redstone Arsenal, the new system will weigh 50t and is claimed to be one of the largest, most powerful pulse power systems in the world.
The DM2 reached the end of its use as a means to measure nuclear explosions and is currently being refurbished by replacing nearly 100 large resistors.
UAHuntsville engineering professor and project head Dr Jason Cassibry said that the researchers were interested in deep space exploration.
"Right now, humans are stuck in low-earth orbit, but we want to explore the solar system," Cassibry said.
"We're trying to come up with a system that will demonstrate 'break even' for thermonuclear propulsion."
A key element in advancing the development of nuclear fusion technology to drive spacecraft, the new propulsion system would reduce the amount of fuel needed to a few tonnes, as well as reduce a trip to Mars to six weeks from the current six months.
According to Alpharetta based aerospace engineering PhD candidate Ross Cortez, the launch would be similar to the assembling of the international space station (ISS), where multiple launch vehicles would place the components into orbit, followed by assembling the spacecraft.
The spacecraft would then be launched by the pulsed fusion engine from the higher Earth orbit and the engines would turn off after attaining mission velocity, following which the spacecraft will be launched to its destination.
"This has been the Holy Grail of energy propulsion technology," Cortez said. "The massive payoff is that energy gain, where we get more energy out of the reaction than we put in.
"This is what everyone has pursued since the time we first started thinking about this."
"Charger 1 won't come close to break even, but will give us ability to conduct experiments that optimise fusion energy output.
"Our ultimate goal is to build a break-even fusion system that will propel humans throughout the solar system."
The team working to develop new rocket propulsion system includes scientists and researchers from UAHuntsville's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Boeing and Marshall Space Flight Center's Propulsion Engineering Lab.
Image: Charger-1 is an important tool to assist the researchers in achieving the goal of practical thermonuclear propulsion. Photo: courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville.