CORVALLIS - If space travel to Mars ever really happens, it could be due in part to the work of undergraduate students at Oregon State University and Western Oregon University - they have an idea for a way to use nuclear power in a propulsion system that could cut a trip to that planet from eight months to about 80 days.
This may seem a little ambitious for engineering and other students who don't even have a bachelor's degree yet, but NASA officials are impressed enough with their work and proposal that they plan to test it soon in their program for Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities.
And some of the students involved say this is just their first step in work that they hope will produce a career in space research and exploration.
"This is pretty exciting and a little intimidating," said Marci Whittaker-Fiamengo, a senior in nuclear engineering at OSU, who recently finished an internship with the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
"But I want to build the reactor that takes us to Mars."
Whittaker-Fiamengo and Dan Wittmer, an OSU senior in electrical engineering, are leaders in the OSU-WOU Microgravity Flight Team, a group of Oregon students whose research proposals garnered two of the available 50 spots - out of 300 applications - for participation in this NASA program that encourages involvement in space-related research by university students.
One of the many challenges of a trip to Mars is the enormous distances involved and the long time frame needed to get there, especially using conventional rocket propulsion concepts that are essentially a large initial thrust, followed by extended coasting at whatever speed has been achieved.
By contrast, the OSU and WOU students are working on a combination of sustained electric and thermal propulsion, both powered by a nuclear reactor that could operate for extended periods. They eventually will test their prototype in NASA's famed "vomit comet," a large aircraft used for research to simulate weightlessness in long, looping dives.
"Everyone who has seriously considered the issue realizes we need to use nuclear power for some of our space goals, including long distance travel to other planets, or the ability to turn around in mid-mission and have the power to return to Earth," said Whittaker-Fiamengo. "Part of the need here is to convince the public that this is a safe, viable option. Then we need to create systems that could work."
Toward that goal, the Oregon students are trying to help develop a nuclear reactor that could be used to power a "plasma rocket." This propulsion system uses magnets and radio antennas along with gas injection to create hot plasma that can be ejected as a propellant. It incorporates "fluidized bed" technology that OSU researchers have helped pioneer, and one of the things the students will test is how fast a bed of particles needs to be rotated to become fluidized in a zero gravity condition, and thereby optimize heat transfer.
Simple as that.
Work such as this - which has already included collaboration with experts at such prestigious institutions as the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology - may seem a little highbrow for undergraduate students. But it's part of OSU's commitment to encouraging undergrads to participate in an original research experience. So far, the project has been supported by $30,000 from OSU and other sources. And it's gotten considerable interest from NASA, which has a limited budget to consider the use of nuclear propulsion technologies in space.
"The faculty here in the College of Engineering have been very supportive and incredibly helpful," said Wittmer, who graduates in June and hopes to work at NASA. "This is exciting work, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the project is sharing it with even younger students." The OSU and WOU students are making a number of visits to K-12 classes in Eugene, Lebanon, Monmouth, the Portland area and other parts of the state to discuss this project and the careers possible in space research, and "sometimes the kids get so excited when we're talking with them that they just scream out questions," Wittmer said.
And the research experience isn't even confined to university students - one member of the team is Kathryn King, an unusually ambitious and bright high school junior from Keizer, Ore., who's helping prepare technical diagrams for the project.
Needless to say, all of the students involved are strong advocates for continuing the nation's commitment to space exploration.
"It's pretty clear that public support for interplanetary travel and other space research is declining, and that's unfortunate," Whittaker-Fiamengo said. "The U.S. seems to be losing interest while countries such as China are planning a manned mission to the moon."
"There's just so much value to space research that we need to look to the future, think of the long-term rewards more than we do," she said. "And it's a great tool to motivate young students with an interest in science. Some of what we're doing right now with the Mars Rovers is inspiring kids in classrooms all over this country."
Dan Wittmer, Marci Whittaker-Fiamengo
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.