A manned mission to Mars is considered an inevitability in the scientific community. We will send humans to Mars (and return them home safely, probably) at some point. When we’re going to do it is a question that no one can really answer, however.
The key issue slowing down the launch of such a mission is the same issue that has dogged the space program since the end of the space race at the height of the Cold War. It’s the same issue that led to the phasing out of the space shuttle program.
It’s the lack of funding.
We sent men up to the moon in the 1960s. More than 40 years after Neil Armstrong stepped off the lander, his achievement is still just about the pinnacle in space exploration by humans. The U.S. government spends about a trillion dollars a year on military projects, but NASA can’t get the funding it needs to make a mission to Mars a reality.
Okay … end of rant.
There’s another issue making a Mars mission very difficult, too: the fact that Mars is really, really far away. Using current space propulsion technology, like that found in the Curiosity rover, it takes about eight months to travel to Mars. That’s a heck of a lot of time for a small crew of astronauts to be cooped up in a tiny vessel.
There’s a promising new technology that could drastically shorten the travel time, however. A team of scientists working at the University of Washington, with funding from NASA, is attempting to build a fusion engine that could potentially reduce the travel time to Mars to just 30 days.
“Using existing rocket fuels, it’s nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth,” the project’s lead researcher said in a statement. “We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”
And now for some very science-y words: the proposed rocket, called a fusion driven rocket (FDR), would use magnets to compress lithium or aluminum bands around a deuterium-tritium fuel pellet. Doing so would result in a fusion reaction that would create a propellant force of 30 kilometers per second.
NASA is giving the FDR team $600,000 to continue working on their project over the next year-and-a-half. Theoretically, a working spacecraft with FDR propulsion could be ready by the year 2020. However, the difficulty getting funding for the project means that such an ambitious end date will be nearly impossible to meet.
Come on, U.S. government (or some other awesome nation’s government). Step up and give this project the funding it needs! It’s way past time for us to send some folks up to Mars to have a look around.