A radiation detection company called U.S. Nuclear Corp has urged NASA to sign a contract to develop a nuclear fusion-powered spacecraft propulsion system capable of transporting humans from the Earth to Mars, according to a press release.
Fusion thruster company wants NASA to go to Mars with nuclear propulsion
Working with Magneto-Inertial Fusion Technologies, Inc. (MIFTI) — which spun out of UC Irvine with an emphasis on developing a thermonuclear fusion-based generator — U.S. Nuclear Corp wants to help NASA ferry the first crewed flight to the Red Planet as soon as the early 2030s.
"Sooner than you think, human engineers and adventurers may be building the first town on Mars," read the enthusiastic press release from U.S. Nuclear Corp.
NASA announced a call for companies — issuing a challenge to the energy industry to conceptualize and design an electric nuclear systems (where thermal energy generates electricity for thruster propulsion), in addition to thermal nuclear systems, which involves heat from nuclear reactors directly propel a spacecraft.
The company claims it's years away from the world's first functional nuclear fusion reactor
The winning designs will go on to become part of NASA's next-gen spacecraft thrusters. Nuclear power will enable them to execute two-way trips to Mars in roughly two years — with substantially less fuel, according to NASA's challenge.
U.S. Nuclear said the fusion power generator that MIFTI is developing might offer 10 million times the energy per payload of typical chemical rocket fuel. The generator could also reduce a one-way trip to the Red Planet to only three months — providing power for thrust "anywhere there is water or ice, and unlike fission, is not dependent on the ready supply of enriched Uranium," read the press release.
Crucially, fusion power would remove the need for space travelers to shield themselves from radiation — which is necessary with a fission reaction (think cold war-era nuclear submarine disasters).
"U.S. Nuclear and MIFTI are just a few years away from building the world's first fusion power generator which could later be used to power space travel," continued the press release from the company.
Nuclear fusion reactor propulsion could be the next step for space exploration
These ambitious declarations of intent are impressive, but a little too lofty to take without a moderate degree of skepticism — since the fusion rocket technologies aren't yet beyond initial stages, and require physical demonstrations.
In other words, no one has yet built a working fusion power facility on our planet — let alone one that can propel a spacecraft.
Naturally, the company isn't the only one working to develop a functional nuclear fusion propulsion system for space travel. Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center shared a couple of academic studies in 2020 — which describe a new method to enable space-based nuclear fusion.
"Scientists are interested in fusion, because it could generate enormous amounts of energy without creating long-lasting radioactive byproducts," said Theresa Benyo of NASA's Glenn Research Center in a blog post on NASA's website.
"However, conventional fusion reactions are difficult to achieve and sustain because they rely on temperatures so extreme to overcome the strong electrostatic repulsion between positively charged nuclei that the process has been impractical," added Benyo, in the blog post.
We're likely years away from a physical nuclear fusion reactor capable of functioning on a spacecraft — and most probably decades away from launching a vessel propelled by one. But, excessively optimistic or not, a more advanced, efficient, and powerful means of moving astronauts to Mars is the next necessary step to human exploration of our solar system.