Mini-Mag Orion Will Reach for the Stars

Andrews Space & Technology (AS&T) introduced an innovative propulsion system that could significantly shorten round trips from Earth to Mars (from two years to only six months!) and enable our spaceships to reach Jupiter after one year of space traveling. The system, which may dramatically affect interplanetary space travel is called the Miniature Magnetic Orion (Mini-Mag Orion for short), and is an optimization of the 1958 Orion interplanetary propulsion concept.

 The Mini-Mag Orion interstellar concept, a hybrid starship accelerated by beamed pellet propellants, and decelerated with a magnetic sail. Credit: Roger Lenard/Dana Andrews; Andrews Space.
The Mini-Mag Orion interstellar concept, a hybrid
starship accelerated by beamed pellet propellants,
and decelerated with a magnetic sail
(Credit: Roger Lenard/Dana Andrews; Andrews Space)

The original Orion project was headed by Ted Taylor from General Atomics, who together with the famous physicist Freeman Dyson suggested ejecting nuclear explosives behind a spacecraft in order to propel it forward. The Mini-Mag system uses a magnetic field in order to trigger an explosion of compressed material in the form of small pellets weighing several grams. This explosion, although being significantly weaker than a nuclear explosion, creates plasma that is directed through a magnetic nozzle to generate vehicle thrust. The proposed technology enables the production of thrust at high efficiency, hopefully allowing drastic reduction of interplanetary travel time. According to calculations performed by AS&T, this type of propulsion system can produce the same thrust as the Space Shuttle Main Engine, with 50 times more efficiency.

Due to the magnetic compression thrust technology, spacecraft could be smaller and lighter. The spacecraft itself will only have to carry a relatively small amount of fissionable material as fuel and will be able to reach speeds of approximately 10% of the speed of light. Dr. Dana Andrews, AS&T Chief Technology Officer and Mini-Mag Orion inventor, and Roger Lenard from the Sandia National Laboratories, have published a paper describing their research into the Mini-Mag Orion concept in the  Acta Astronautica – Journal of the International Academy of Astronautics.

In the framework of their research into the subject, the scientists conducted an experiment that tested the process of compressing a simulated fissile material in a magnetic field. “The experiment validated the physical process behind the MMO concept, substantiating MMO’s potential of enabling shorter interplanetary trip time for near-term space travel” – said AS&T Principal Investigator Ralph Ewig. “We are still far from constructing an actual vehicle, but the present research will chart the course for human missions to other planets in the near future. The Mini-Mag Orion system shows significant promise, and the successful completion of our experiment demonstrated the physics and validated our approach for a near-term, in-space, advanced propulsion system,” said Dr. Andrews.

The MMO study has been funded by the NASA Phase II Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and was conducted in cooperation with Sandia National Laboratories and the University of Washington’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

 Mini–Mag Orion Design
Mini–Mag Orion Design (Credit: Andrews Space)

In 2006, TFOT covered a different revolutionary space propulsion technology developed by the Santa Fe Positronics Research Company. The company also worked with NASA on a concept for an anti matter engine, which uses positrons (anti-electrons) as a fuel that will enable a spaceship to reach Mars faster than any known conventional propulsion technology. 

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