Portland, Ore. EEs are desperately needed to help design magnetized-beam plasma propulsion systems that could send future spacecraft to Mars and back in 90 days. The systems would use a mag-beam to accelerate a craft out of Earth's orbit and another to decelerate it in Mars' orbit, eliminating or greatly reducing the need for on-board fuel or engines. Such systems would rejigger the cost and time calculations of manned flights to Mars, which would take more than two years with current propulsion technology.
"We want to get the word out to electrical engineers, because this is a field where EEs can make major contributions," said Robert Winglee, an earth- and space-sciences professor at the University of Washington who is leading a multidisciplinary group at the school's Research Institute for Space Exploration. "Mag-beams could make space travel routine, and they are enabled by electrical engineering."
NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (www.niac.usra.edu) has given Winglee's group $75,000 and six months to prove its plasma propulsion system can work. Eleven other teams have received similar funding, and, like Winglee's group, will be eligible for $400,000 of phase two monies.
"Once we have the prototype built and tested, we could be sending it on its first mission in as little as five years," said Winglee. He is calling for new graduates to work as postdoctoral researchers, and for undergraduate EEs already at the university to come over and join the project. He called the mag-beam a "ground-floor" opportunity for EEs wanting to launch their careers by helping design a new technology.
To put a mag-beam system to use, an initial investment in the billions would be required for a conventional rocket that would lift the seminal stations around the solar system. But once in place, they should be able to generate plasma indefinitely, thereby enabling routine shipping routes around the solar system and eliminating the need for spacecraft to carry their own propulsion systems and fuel.
"With a system like this, man could really begin to populate space; that's our ultimate goal," Winglee said. "And we need EEs to achieve it."
Winglee said that all the parts of his group's propulsion system have already been proven and prototyped, so the proposal due to NASA in six months involves detailed integration of the systems with their on-board control and diagnostic electronics.
"We are desperate to get electrical engineers interested in plasma propulsion, because most of our postdoctoral and graduate researchers are from aeronautic and astronomic engineering, so they don't have the skill set that we really need," Winglee said. "They understand mechanical propulsion but they aren't prepared for plasma propulsion, which involves high-voltage RF, magnetic beams, control circuits and electronic diagnostics. We need electrical engineers to help us design these systems so the aeronautic and astronomic engineers can then build and test them."
The group intends for its proposal to include a design for a working prototype of a full system, plus a plan to build it in 2006 and 2007. Reusable vehicles will be cheaper if they don't need to carry their own power source or fuel. They will be faster than rockets, thanks to magnetic focusing of a beam on a stripped-down payload vehicle.
The key to mag-beams is large plasma propulsion thrusters that would be in permanent orbit around the planets and the moon. For instance, Winglee's group suggests first sending a mag-beam to Mars using conventional rocketry. Once it's in orbit there, a matching system in Earth's orbit could begin lobbing payloads toward the Mars orbiter, which would decelerate them. Such a system of orbiting beamed plasma thrusters could enable payloads to other planets at little cost compared with today's spacecraft. (Winglee proposes solar-powered thrusters around planets as close as Jupiter and atomic-powered units farther out.)