Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing in Space Exploration

Mar 21, 2016

Earth is a big place. It can seem hard to remember that when we can talk instantly with anyone. Or, when we can jump on a plane in the morning and be on the other side before the sun sets. Air planes allow us to travel in a matter of hour to places that took us weeks or months to travel too and required the support of governments to finance.

Now, new technologies are doing the same for space travel.

Since the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2013, Nasa has been dependant on Russian rockets for resupply missions to the International Space Station.

But now, Nasa has successfully tested their new RS-25 rocket that will be the workhorse of the new Space Launch System. Nasa releases video footage of the rocket engine burning away for eight and half minutes at a test stand in St. Louis, Mississippi.

The Space Launch System will give the US space agency back the control over its launches and missions. Not only will they return to space in their own vehicles, but the SLS will be the cornerstone of Nasa’s future planned missions to Mars, bringing the red planet back into view as a destination for humankind by 2030.

The first launches of Nasa’s new rocket are planned to take place in 2018 and promises to have “more payload mass, volume capability and energy to speed missions through space than any current launch vehicle, SLS is designed to be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, including robotic scientific missions to places like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.”

Stennis space centre director Rick Gilbrech commented on the launch saying, “We have exciting days ahead with a return to deep space and a journey to Mars, and this test is a very big step in that direction.”

But, some have questioned the sense in building a new Rocket for deep space exploration.

A manned mission to Mars currently takes about 18 months to navigate and is mostly a straight point and shoot system. While travelling, the crew are in constant danger of being hit by space debris, solar storms or mechanical failure.

Shortening the trip, would make the missions safer and be a much more effective use of resources. A new Russian propulsion system hopes to make the rocket engine that Nasa is planning to use, obsolete.

The new system would rely on nuclear power to propel the spacecraft to Mars in just over a month! While all the deals of the launch are not yet public, the head of the Rosatom nuclear corporation revealed that Russia hopes to test their nuclear engine as early as 2018 as well.

Not only would this system shorten the flight, it would allow the astronauts to manoeuvre throughout the flight.

“A nuclear power unit makes it possible to reach Mars in a matter of one to one and a half months, providing capability for manoeuvring and acceleration,” the head of Rosatom Sergey Kirienko said. “Today’s engines can only reach Mars in a year and a half, without the possibility of return,” Kirienko said.

The project is young, just being launched in 2010. But, by 2012 the engineering design had already been created.

The project built on the work done my soviet scientists between 1960 and 1980 when they tested a nuclear powered engine at the Semipalatinsk nuclear military range. They were able to launch 32 nuclear spacecraft in total before the project was cancelled in 1988.

With traditional rocket engines reaching the limit of their potential, nuclear solutions are again being looked at to make the rest of our solar system more accessible.

A nuclear drive would be useful for close-range space exploration to the Moon as well as deep-space autonomous robotic missions to the very outskirts of the Solar system.