Beamed propulsion concepts are usually conceived in terms of laser or microwave beams pushing a lightsail. But as we’ve seen over the years, there are other ways of thinking about these things. Clifford Singer went to work back in the 1970s on the concept of pellet streams fired by an accelerator, each pellet a few grams in size. The idea here is to vaporize the pellets when they reach the spacecraft, their energy being redirected as a plasma exhaust.
There are enough interesting variations on the idea that I’ll probably return to it soon. But over the weekend, an email from Jeff Greason reminded me of Jordin Kare’s unusual ‘fusion runway’ idea, to which he attached the moniker the ‘Bussard Buzz Bomb.’ Kare is an astrophysicist and space systems consultant with a background in laser technologies. He’s been involved in studies of laser launch methods, in which beamed energy is focused on an onboard heat exchanger that converts liquid propellant into a gas to produce thrust. Currently he serves as chief scientist for LaserMotive, a laser power transmission firm in Kent, WA.
Image: Astrophysicist and space systems consultant Jordin Kare.
In the interstellar community, Kare is best known for SailBeam, where pellet propulsion is supplanted by tiny micro-sails that are pushed at huge velocities to the spacecraft, to be vaporized there much in the manner of Singer’s pellets. His sails turn out to require a smaller optical system than would be needed to push a large sail, and they can be driven to high accelerations while still close to the beam, reducing pointing and collimation challenges.
But I haven’t said much in these pages about Kare’s fusion runway, which he presented at a Workshop on Advanced Space Propulsion at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in the late 1990s. In 2003, when I interviewed him for my Centauri Dreams book, Kare gave me a breakdown of the concept. The idea harkens back to pellets, in this case fusion fuel pellets made up of deuterium and tritium that are slammed together to achieve ignition.
The pellets are laid down in an outbound track for the spacecraft that will eventually use them, deployed in advance by small spacecraft seeding the runway along the route of flight. Kare thinks in terms of a runway about half a light-day in length. The accelerating spacecraft would gobble up the fusion pellets one at a time, taking about ten days to exit the Solar System, moving along a runway track that stretched from near Earth to beyond the orbit of Pluto.
What kind of a craft would this be? Think in terms of a vehicle in the shape of a doughnut, or perhaps in more elongated form as a cylinder. The spacecraft would have its own supply of fusion fuel pellets. As the craft accelerates, it drops a pellet into the central ‘hole’ when one of the pellets of the fusion runway is about to be encountered. Nearing the end of the fusion runway, the spacecraft is being driven by fusion explosions at the rate of thirty per second.
The fusion runway relies on impact fusion, with the departing spacecraft first needing to reach speeds high enough (about 200 kilometers per second, by Kare’s reckoning) to ignite the reaction. Once ignition is achieved, the craft continues to accelerate along the runway track. The runway length would have to be adjusted depending on the mission, with robotic probes obviously capable of coping with far higher accelerations than humans. Add a human crew at 1 g of acceleration and a fusion runway might need to stretch out to a tenth of a light year.
String enough fuel pellets along the runway and the spacecraft gets up to ten percent of c. Although Kare built his workshop presentation around a one-ton interstellar probe, he sees the concept as scalable, telling me in that interview: “The fusion runway doesn’t care if you’re working with a ten or a hundred ton probe. You just need more pellets. You don’t need to build larger lasers. So it probably scales up better than most other schemes.”
Several other advantages emerge in the fusion runway concept. So-called ‘impact fusion’ doesn’t require the exquisitely symmetrical fuel pellets demanded by inertial confinement methods, nor does it demand that each pellet be fed energy simultaneously from every direction. Remember that Kare is assuming a spacecraft that is already moving — through some other energy source — at 200 kilometers per second to achieve ignition. From that point on, velocity depends upon the number of fuel pellets available in the runway ahead.
When I think about possible show-stoppers here, I wonder about accuracy. After all, each runway pellet has to hit the ship-borne pellet precisely, though Kare believes that this could be managed by laser pulses guiding the pellets internally. Perhaps the ship can be designed so as to channel runway pellets to the exact point of collision. Also challenging is the magnetic nozzle that will be necessary to contain the fusion explosions and direct their energy.
As far as getting up to speed, Geoff Landis told me some years back that a close pass by the surface of the Sun could be used to reach somewhere in the range of 500-600 kilometers per second. That could give you the velocity needed for ignition. Line the fuel pellets up so as to begin hitting them outbound and the method could work. In our recent email exchange, Landis does question Kare’s 200 kilometers per second as the sufficient velocity to ignite impact fusion — some figures in the literature point to 3500 km/s for a deuterium/tritium mixture.
Image: Not exactly an interstellar prototype, but the German V1 gives its name to an advanced propulsion concept because of how it would sound (if you could hear it). Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1975-117-26 / Lysiak / CC-BY-SA 3.0.
The ‘buzz bomb’ reference? That one is easy. The German V-1 was a pulse-jet rocket that gave off a characteristic staccato buzzing sound much like what a fusion runway spacecraft would sound like if you could hear it at all. The nod to Robert Bussard stems from the latter’s work on interstellar ramjet concepts, craft that pull in interstellar hydrogen to serve as fuel. Thus we have, as so often in interstellar studies, a hybrid design putting two distinct propulsion concepts together in ways that attempt to enhance the performance of each.