HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — At Redstone Arsenal, the cradle of the nation’s rocket program, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Boeing Co., NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Arsenal are working together to probe a futuristic propulsion system that could send explorers to Mars and beyond at the university’s Charger-1 Pulsed Power Generator.
Boeing, which has a major presence in Huntsville, hired engineer Erin Gish to work full-time on the project as part of a team that includes researchers from UAH and Marshall Space Flight Center, led by UAH associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Dr. Jason Cassibry.
“Erin is researching propellant feed systems and helping to develop some of the pulsed power technologies we will use in future experiments,” Dr. Cassibry said.
The scientists are repurposing machinery originally built for nuclear weapons research into a test facility for a spacecraft propulsion system based on nuclear fusion. The facility will produce an extremely brief pulse of plasma created by an equally brief nuclear fusion reaction. An engine producing these pulses could propel a spacecraft over interplanetary distances at great speeds.
“We are trying to research and develop fusion propulsion for rapid interplanetary space travel to Mars and the outer planets,” Dr. Cassibry said. “We are currently making final repairs to the pulsed power system and setting up the control system. We have power to the machine and can already control some of the subsystems remotely.”
Ahead is installation of a water filtration system and filling the tanks that store oil to cool the large capacitors used when operating the system.
“We are very excited by the opportunities which have been created by transporting Charger-1 to UAH and are working very hard to fulfill our goal of controlled fusion for advanced space propulsion,” Dr. Cassibry said.
He added that the group recently worked with NASA on a Phase II proposal to the space agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts opportunity. Marshall Space Flight Center supported the lab by paying for some hardware and for the support of students and staff, he said.
Having the equipment nearly ready to go has generated other interest.
“We will be starting a Phase I project being led by the Navy Research Laboratory on a different fusion concept which may also be fielded on our machine,” Dr. Cassibry said.
The Marshall Space Flight Center is a crown jewel in Alabama’s robust aerospace industry, which includes more than 300 companies employing about 83,000 people. The first U.S. ballistic missile was developed at Redstone Arsenal, where Marshall is located. Marshall designed and developed the Saturn V, the rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon, and manages scientific experiments taking place on the International Space Station.
A next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, is under development at Marshall with help from Boeing and other aerospace companies. The SLS is being designed to carry humans deeper into space than ever before.