Fission rocket concept could reach Solar Gravitation Lens in 15 years

The concept could one day capture incredibly detailed images of distant alien worlds.
Chris Young
Image of aerogel for aerogel core fission fragment rocket engine.
Image of aerogel for aerogel core fission fragment rocket engine.

NASA, Ryan Weed 

NASA is betting on nuclear propulsion technologies.

The space agency's Institute of Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awarded a grant to a company called Positron Dynamics for the development of a novel type of nuclear fission fragment rocket engine (FFRE).

The lightweight nuclear fission engine concept could outperform traditional chemical rocket engines while also allowing for long-lasting, deep space missions.

NASA says it could travel to the Solar Gravitational Lens in 15 years, allowing for incredibly detailed images of distant alien worlds.

The new fission rocket concept uses aerogel and superconducting magnets

FFREs have been proposed before, but Positron Dynamics' new concept was designed to try to overcome some of the key hurdles that have prevented them from becoming a viable propulsion technology.

Though the engines provide high specific impulses and power density, they also require a complex form of plasma levitation to work.

As a Universe Today report points out, Positron Dynamics will leverage two breakthrough technologies to try to overcome this problem. The company will aim to put fissile material in an ultralight aerogel and also utilize a superconducting magnet to contain the fission particles.

FFREs utilize nuclear fission, which is the same process used to power traditional nuclear plants on Earth. Instead of generating electricity, however, they generate massive amounts of thrust.

Rather than sending a bar of uranium fuel to orbit, Positron Dynamics' solution would transport the fissile material in an incredibly lightweight aerogel core. The material could help solve the problem of transporting fuel to space, which would be impractical in the form of a bar of uranium. However, aside from the aerogel, the novel method also requires an incredibly powerful superconducting magnet to hold the material in place.

NASA bets on nuclear propulsion

Ultimately, Positron Dynamics aims to leverage new research in aerogels and superconducting magnets for nuclear fusion to send incredibly powerful and long-lasting nuclear rockets to space. Their method is very much in the theoretical concept stage, but NASA's new grant will allow the company to experiment with and develop its concept.

In a press statement, NASA hints as to why it's funding such a theoretical concept. The space agency explains that the technology could one day allow for "fast transit to the Solar Gravitational Lens for direct imaging and high-resolution spectroscopy of a habitable exoplanet at a distance of up to 100 light years."

What's more, the Solar Gravitational Lens, or SGL, would allow "an image of [an] exoplanet with enough resolution to see its surface features and signs of habitability."

Gravitational lensing allows astronomers to peer much further into the distant galaxy thanks to a quirk of gravity that distorts the light passing through the gravitational field of a massive object, such as a galaxy cluster. In the case of the SGL, it would provide great magnification. The object that is distorted by gravity is referred to as "lensed," and it appears much larger.

NASA also recently selected a Nuclear Thermal and Nuclear Electric Propulsion for Phase I development as part of its NIAC program for 2023. The space agency also announced a partnership with DARPA last month with a view to testing a nuclear rocket in space by 2027.

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