Netflix’s 3 Body Problem Reveals a Surprisingly Brilliant Mode of Space Travel

In 1946, solely a 12 months after the explosive and devastating debut of the nuclear age, Polish-American mathematician and physicist Stanislaw Ulam had an concept for a rocket that was so loopy it simply would possibly work.

In the course of the conflict, Ulam labored side-by-side with Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller on the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and now that peace was achieved, the way forward for the nuclear age was solely simply starting. It was throughout this second of risk whereas nonetheless conducting analysis on the well-known New Mexico facility, that Ulam’s ideas turned towards the celebs: May the explosive energy of the atomic bomb be used for exploration as a substitute of destruction?

In different phrases, may nuclear bombs in some way change into deep-space rocket engines?

“It’s a very bold however environment friendly option to undertake house explorations with a automobile in a position to journey at excessive speeds with excessive payloads and an especially good ratio of payload to complete preliminary weight,” Ulam wrote in his 1976 memoir Adventures of a Mathematician. “The spaceship may transport tons of or 1000’s of individuals.”

Earthlings wish to ship a probe gentle years away to spy on the San-Ti, however want an concept to get there, quick.

Quick-forward to 2024 and Ulam’s nuclear daydreaming is having fun with a renaissance of kinds because the Netflix collection The Three-Physique Downside, primarily based on a novel by Chinese language sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, cribs the thought as a fast-and-not-so-easy option to propel a payload to unimaginable speeds. To attain this, the characters devise a “radiation sail” to be propelled by a thousand consecutive nuclear explosions in house till the spacecraft reaches a velocity only a notch above 1 % of lightspeed.

However whereas the Three-Physique Downside makes use of Ulam’s nuclear rocket for decidedly sci-fi ends, the 80-year-long story of this creating expertise, identified as we speak as nuclear pulse propulsion (NPP), may be very actual — and it could nonetheless be the way forward for house exploration.

An Explosive Historical past

Each rocket humanity has ever despatched skyward has been powered by chemical gasoline, a mixture of kerosene, oxygen, and hydrogen, or each, with sufficient “oomph” to flee Earth’s orbit and attain its otherworldly vacation spot. That’s how the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, how the House Shuttle crews constructed the Worldwide House Station, and the way future house explorers will put bootprints on Mars.

However much like how fission (and particularly fusion) signify environment friendly power sources of the longer term, the identical may also be stated for rocketry. And whereas the thought of driving the concussive explosions of a nuclear bomb could appear unusual, the thought isn’t fairly as unusual as you would possibly suppose.

“Your automotive is a pulsed system as a result of the piston is compressing gasoline and air collectively, after which it explodes and pushes the piston aside,” Jason Cassibry, a professor on the Division of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering on the College of Alabama in Huntsville, tells Inverse. Cassibry is affiliated with the college’s Propulsion Analysis Middle the place he lately labored on a pulsed propulsion system much like magneto-inertial fusion expertise. “So each time you explode [a bomb] in line with Newton’s second regulation, it could give it a rise in momentum and speed up it, similar to you’d driving your automotive and stepping on the gasoline.”

NASA’s Undertaking Orion entails a heavy-lift automobile that used atomic bombs to detonate behind a pusher plate fitted with shock absorbers.

Ulam acknowledged the gorgeous simplicity of a pulsed system, and after mulling over the thought for years, he lastly put his ideas to paper in a categorized 1955 report, stating that “the scheme proposed within the current report entails using a collection of expendable reactors (fission bombs) ejected and detonated at a substantial distance from the automobile.” Ulam ultimately introduced the thought to President Eisenhower’s scientific advisor George Kistiakowsky whose “reception of it was not enthusiastic,” Ulam wrote in his memoir.

Regardless of preliminary skepticism, the thought ultimately gathered steam below the notorious Undertaking Orion, a heavy-lift automobile idea that used atomic bombs, starting from a couple of to a number of kilotons, to detonate behind a pusher plate fitted with shock absorbers to restrict the impression of that preliminary, explosive acceleration. Whereas most of the early design challenges of the spacecraft have been overcome, the undertaking shut down in 1965 as a result of nuclear treaties that prohibited nuclear explosions in house. Chemical rockets had additionally change into extra highly effective and have been clearly NASA’s most well-liked chariot to the celebs throughout the House Race.

However the concept did not die and a number of other initiatives carried the NPP flame with names like Undertaking Daedelus, Undertaking Longshot, and Vista. One of the crucial intriguing concepts was a spacecraft idea referred to as Medusa that altered the pulsed propulsion design utilizing a light-weight sail (technically a spinnaker) to harness the strain pulses of subsequent nuclear explosions, an idea that’s extraordinarily much like the one explored within the Three-Physique Downside. Sadly, none of those ideas — together with Cassibry’s personal Pulsed Fission-Fusion (PuFF) system — ever made it to the launch pad, largely as a result of technological limitations and lingering considerations over detonating nuclear explosions in house.

“There was a resurrection of Undertaking Orion within the 90s when Clinton was in workplace, and once they received to the extent to speak to a few of his staffers…they stated ‘no approach are we placing nuclear weapons in house,’” Cassibry says. “Now, they’re much more delicate to it — regardless that the Chilly Struggle is over, there are nonetheless considerations.”

House Journey Goes Nuclear

Nonetheless, not all nuclear propulsion programs are the identical.

Whereas Cassibry labored on pulsed programs, ostensibly the great-grandchild of Ulam’s unique imaginative and prescient, different programs embrace nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and nuclear electrical propulsion (NEP). Whereas all three are primarily based on nuclear expertise, NTP and NEP use extra conventional fission programs (i.e. heating up propellant, which turns to gasoline, and ends in propulsion). So in contrast to NPP, which makes use of microexplosions for propulsion (a lot to the chagrin of worldwide nuclear treaties), NTP and NEP programs can’t be weaponized.

Whereas all three applied sciences use totally different strategies and have numerous use instances, nuclear propulsion — whether or not by means of fission heating or nuclear explosion — has some fairly stark benefits over its chemical competitor.

“There are specific missions to the ice giants — Uranus and Neptune — that would not be executed, given all of the constraints that you just placed on a mission that far out, with something apart from nuclear thermal,” Cassibry says. “[NTP] is extra simple than a number of the issues we may do…it’s form of low-hanging fruit when it comes to superior propulsion ideas.”

NASA has taken discover and hopes to check its Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) NTP rocket in 2026. Being 3 times extra environment friendly than chemical rockets, which means Draco may journey from the Earth to Mars in simply 45 days or carry elevated cargo hundreds in a extra standard timeframe. Nonetheless, Cassibry nonetheless believes that nuclear pulse propulsion, utilizing fission, fusion, or a mixture of the 2, will finally outperform even these nuclear-powered spacecraft many years down the highway.

“There’s a joke that crushes my soul each time I hear it that fusion is the expertise of the longer term and it all the time will probably be,” Cassibry says. “However we began with actually, actually, actually horrible reactors and we’ve been making regular progress…we’ll see fusion propulsion being doable inside about 20 to 30 years.”

Whether or not on a well-liked Netflix present or within the minds of the main minds on house journey, it could appear Ulam’s dream is alive and properly.

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