Did this woman just invent the rocket that will take us to Mars? | Science & Tech News
Dr. Fatima Ebrahimi invented a new concept for fusion rocket engines that could take humans to Mars and beyond.
The physicist, who works for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) of the US Department of Energy, designed the rocket, which uses magnetic fields to shoot plasma particles – electrically charged gas – into the vacuum of space.
According to Newton’s second and third laws of motion, conservation of momentum would mean that the rocket is propelled forward – at a speed ten times faster than comparable devices.
While current space-proven plasma propulsion motors use electric fields to propel the particles, the new rocket design would accelerate them through magnetic reconnection.
This process takes place throughout the universe, but is best observed for humanity on the surface of the sun. When magnetic field lines converge there before they separate and then reconnect, they produce an enormous amount of energy.
Similar energy is generated in toroidal machines known as tokamaks, a magnetic confinement device that is also a leading candidate for a practical nuclear fusion reactor.
“I’ve been cooking this concept for a while,” said Dr. Fatima Ebrahimi, Principal Research Physicist at PPPL, whose article on the invention was published in the Journal of Plasma Physics.
“I got the idea in 2017 while sitting on a deck pondering the similarities between a car’s exhaust and the high-speed exhaust particles created by PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX),” she said.
The NSTX is the precursor to the laboratory’s current flagship fusion device, which is being investigated with US Department of Energy funding.
“During its operation, this tokamak creates magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at a speed of about 20 kilometers per second, which felt very much like thrust,” added Dr. Ebrahimi added.
Nuclear fusion is the force that drives the sun and stars. It combines light elements in the form of plasma – the hot, charged state of matter made up of free electrons and atomic nuclei that makes up 99% of the visible universe – to create massive amounts of energy.
If a reactor that works according to the same principles could be replicated on earth, it would offer a “practically inexhaustible power supply for electricity generation” according to PPPl.
The new concept from Dr. Ebrahimi is much more powerful than existing plasma engines in computer simulations – it produces exhaust gases at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second, ten times faster than those of other engines.
That faster speed at the beginning of a spacecraft’s journey could bring the outer planets within reach of astronauts, the physicist said.
“Long-distance travel takes months or years because the specific momentum of chemical rocket engines is very low, so it takes a while for the vehicle to be up to date,” she said.
“But if we make engines based on magnetic reconnection, we could potentially complete long-range missions in less time.”
She emphasized that her engine concept resulted directly from her research into fusion energy. “This work was inspired by previous fusion work and this is the first time plasmoids and reconnections have been proposed for space propulsion,” said Dr. Ebrahimi. “The next step is building a prototype!”
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