Space idea factory & brainstorming school
A nuclear fuel production facility in space might power a nuclear rocket, seen here in an artist's rendering, to Mars.
December 27th, 2011
09:01 AM ET

Space idea factory & brainstorming school

You might call it an idea factory for space exploration. A unique program at the University of Southern California asks students at the Graduate Space Concepts Studio of the Department of Astronautical Engineering to dream up humanity’s next big space adventure.

Program graduates include George Whitesides, a top exec at commercial space outfit Virgin Galactic. Others have worked at SpaceX, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin joined graduates this month to unveil their amazing ideas. Here are just a few:

  • Make nuclear fuel in space: Nuclear power may be the best viable solution for long-distance space travel. But where should the nuclear fuel be produced? Grad student Jake Dodd proposes a system to create it in space. This would avoid risks posed by creating it on Earth and use rockets to launch radioactive fuel through the atmosphere. Dodd named his idea SNAP: Space-based Nuclear Activision Plant. From a constant position in space, SNAP would “ingest fertile materials shipped from Earth, transmute them into useable nuclear fuels, and aid in the manufacture and distribution of space based nuclear fuel,” Dodd said. He suggests that SNAP might use nuclear power technologies such as molten salt reactors or nuclear-pumped lasers.
  • Build an industrial research park on the moon: The U.S. – especially the private sector – could provide communications, navigation and lunar ground infrastructure for China, India and other nations to send their own vehicles to the moon and back.
  • Use the space station to build space ships: Use the International Space Station as a scaffold to build the next-generation lunar orbiting station. Use the lunar station to develop and build a manned spacecraft called the Cosmic Mariner, which would journey to targets like Mars, the asteroid belt and the outer planets.
  • Build orbiting “filling stations” for rockets: Rockets could fill up at these floating “gas stations” so they could use their powerful engines to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere instead of the traditional method of “falling” through the atmosphere at high speeds.
  • Commercial astronauts build energy satellites: The private sector and NASA should develop a commercial astronaut corps program to start training crew who can go out on weekly missions to build, among other projects, satellites that would create microwave energy from the continually available sunlight and beam it to Earth. Such projects would create high-paying jobs and help bolster the sagging world economy.

This spring, development of the lunar research park idea will be shared with USC’s School of Architecture in a special graduate study topic called “Moon Studio.”

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Filed under: In Space • Mars • News

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