Powering A Mission To Mars

Nov 14, 13 Powering A Mission To Mars

In the 1960s, the country was united in a vision: We would land astronauts on the surface of the Moon by the end of the decade. Based on what we knew about space travel at that moment, President Kennedy’s words seemed to set an impossible goal. Then, in 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history.

Many in the space exploration community are hoping for a return to such dreams, and that the seemingly impossible might again become reality. Because NASA has not experienced the kind of revitalization that they had perhaps hoped, at least as far as public opinion is concerned.

The Hubble Space Telescope has expanded our knowledge of the Universe, and will likely be viewed as one of mankind’s great achievements, but it was plagued with problems in its early years. The Space Shuttle’s, while great, never lived up to their potential. And most of NASA’s current achievements revolve around astrophysical observatories, which are changing our understanding of the Universe, but do so without much media attention.

What many are hoping for is a NASA that will return to being the explorers of the heavens, and send the first humans to the surface of Mars. This is a monumental task, rife with technological difficulties that we have only begun to address. Radiation shielding problems, thrust to weight ratios, landing challenges, and supply processes are just a few of the challenges that need to be addressed before such a mission could become a reality.

Yet, progress is being made. And in one area in particular, NASA scientists are closer than ever to reaching their goal: power. In order to operate the necessary systems to support a mission to Mars, and of course provide the energy needed to keep the astronauts alive, a power plant capable of running for years at high efficiency without breaking or needing to refueled is required.

The obvious answer is a nuclear-based reactor, something that can generate steady electron flow for years, without many moving parts that could break, and without need for maintenance or replenishment. But such systems need careful testing and analysis before deployment.

So redOrbit ventured to NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, to get a first hand look at the advancements that are being made today that will power future planetary missions. Follow along on the second episode of our new web series, Tomorrow’s Discoveries.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John P. Millis, Ph.D., is professor of physics and astronomy at Anderson University, in Anderson Indiana. He teaches a wide variety of courses while maintaining an active research program in high energy astrophysics.

His research focus is on pulsars, pulsar wind nebulae, and supernova remnants. Using the VERITAS gamma-ray observatory in southern Arizona, he studies the very high energy radiation from these dynamic sources to extract information about their formation and emission mechanisms. Dr. John received his B.S. in physics at Purdue University and remained there for the completion of his Ph.D., where he focused on High Energy Astrophysics. When not teaching or writing about physics and space, Dr. John enjoys spending time with his family, tickling the keys on his piano and playing a wide variety of sports.

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