One of the more disappointing gulfs between real-world science and science fiction is that we still don’t have the technology that could allow for travel beyond our own solar system in any meaningful or practical way. While there’s still plenty to see and do here in our own neighborhood, every science fiction fan worth their salt has dreamed of the day when our species might find a way to really and truly go “where no man has gone before.” Whether any of us will see that within our lifetime remains to be seen, but now scientists are working on something nearly as cool: Star Trek-style, fusion-powered “impulse engines.”
In the world of Trek, the impulse engines are used for short jaunts or travel within a star system. It’s sort of like driving around your home town, as opposed to hoping on an airplane to visit a different city. Now the cool part: Engineers at University of Alabama-Huntsville are working with NASA, Boeing, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop fusion impulse rocket engines that would, theoretically, allow for “extremely high-speed space travel.”
How high a speed are we talking? Well, we’re not going to be cruising around the galaxy with them anytime soon, but they would permit faster travel within our own system. If the fusion propulsion system works as planned, it could allow us to travel from Earth to Mars in about three months, halving the time we could manage with current tech. Aerospace engineer Ross Cortez from UAH’s Aerophysics Research Center speculates that a fusion impulse-powered craft might be able to achieve speeds of 62,600 mph, which is almost as fast as the Earth orbits the sun.
The plan is to build the fusion-powered spacecraft in low-Earth orbit, which means you wouldn’t have to worry about achieving escape velocity once the craft is finished. The team’s goal is to have this propulsion system finished by 2030.
There are still some big hurdles for the project, not least that whole “fusion” thing. So far scientists are still struggling to get a fusion reaction that generates more energy than is required to get it going in the first place. However, researchers at Sandia National Laboratory believe they are close to that long-awaited breakthrough. And another little tidbit that should put a grin on the face of any die-hard Trekker: Cortez explains that “the fusion fuel we’re focusing on is deuterium [a stable isotope of hydrogen] and Li6 [a stable isotope of the metal lithium] in a crystal structure. That’s basically dilithium crystals.”
Dilithium crystals? Impulse engines? Throw in that story about NASA working on warp drive and it’s enough to have this long-time SF dreamer crossing all 10 fingers and several toes. Here’s hoping our not-too-distant future proves to be a lot more fantastical than we’d expected was possible.