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The Limits of Chemistry

In the last post, I talked about how it was basically impossible for humanity to get to another star using modern technology. For this post, I would like to talk about why that is, and why we don’t have space hotels or moon bases yet.

The whole reason comes down to chemistry. The vast majority of rockets that exist and all rockets that take anything into outer space use chemistry to make the rockets go.  A few posts ago, I talked about thrust. Thrust is a pretty simple concept – basically, a rocket moves forward by expelling things quite quickly out the back.  There are two terms in the thrust equation, the mass flow rate (how much stuff the rocket spits out), and the exhaust velocity (how fast it spits it out).  Simple.

The mass flow rate is pretty easy to understand also.  It basically is just how much fuel the rocket uses per second.  In some ways, it is like hitting the gas pedal on your car: the harder you push on the gas pedal, the more gas flows into the engine and the faster you go.  That is a pretty simplified version, but it is about right.  A larger rocket really just has a larger mass flow rate.  The space shuttle had pipes that fed into the main engines that were about a foot in diameter.  That is a LOT of fuel!  The Saturn V used roughly 1000 gallons of fuel per second.  They actually had a very hard time mixing the fuel with oxidizer on the Saturn V, since the flow rate was so high (they didn’t have great fuel injectors in the 60s!), and they would get explosions in the engines.  Instead of giving up, they simply made the combustion chambers more sturdy to handle the explosions.

Anyways, the mass flow rate is how much fuel the rocket uses per second.  This is set by how big the engine is, and there is no real limit, except how big you can build the engines (or how many engines you can stick on a rocket – yes, I am talking to you Space-X with your 27-engine Falcon Heavy rocket).

The other term in the equation is the really tricky one – this is the exhaust velocity, which is how fast you can expel the mass out the back. Simplistically, you would think that this would be easy to turn up, but it is not. There has not really been any big revolutions in the exhaust velocity in a long time (like the 60s). The most common way to make a large exhaust velocity is to make an extremely hot gas, and direct it into a nozzle.  You mix fuel with an oxidizer, and you get an explosion. Then you turn the explosion into directed energy using a nozzle.

We can design pretty good nozzles.  They can be something like 90%+ effective at turning the thermal energy into kinetic energy.  That is great.  There is no factor of 10 improvement or anything that can be gained from nozzles.

The big problem behind this is chemistry. Let’s take the space shuttle’s main engine. This engine used two of the most abundant elements we have on Earth: Hydrogen and Oxygen.  You cool them both down until they are liquids, store them until the rocket is ready to fly, then combine them in the engine.  What is the result?  Water!  The space shuttle’s main engine exhaust is water!  Crazy, eh?  The amount of energy that is released when 2 molecules of Hydrogen are introduced to one molecule of Oxygen is exactly the same every time – about 6 eV, which is a tiny bit of energy.  The fundamental issue here is that we get only a very specific amount of energy out of the reaction.  If we take the 6 eV of energy and we turn that into an exhaust velocity, it ends up being about 3,000 m/s.  This is very fast at first glance, really it is not.

This small amount of energy totally limits us so that rockets have to be huge.  If the chemistry were such that these elements released 10 times more energy, then we could (in theory) make rockets that were much smaller (more than 10 time – by a lot). In fact, we play around with different chemicals to try to make a larger exhaust velocity, but the problem is that the chemicals that produce the most wickedly large exhaust velocities are horrific to work with – like super caustic and really, really bad for humans. So, there has to be a balance between safety (which costs a LOT of money or lives) and exhaust velocity too. This huge Russian rocket explosion that killed over 100 people, was while they were trying out new fuels that would have larger exhaust velocities.

We have not invented a better way to get off the ground than using a chemical rocket engine.  There are a TON of other ideas out there, but it is this fundamental limitation of the exhaust velocity that limits our ability to actually go very many places far away from Earth.

Next time, I will go through a simple formula that was invented in the early 1900s that predicted this whole problem. It was a good 40 years before modern rockets were even invented! And then, I will start posting about all of the absolutely crazy ideas that could possibly get us to the stars. Well, ok, maybe not.  But, they are awesome anyways!

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Traveling To Another Star: The Idea

Given the news of the finding of an Earth-like planet around one of our nearest stars, as described here, it is interesting to see if we could ever actually get to this planet.  I am going to start a small series on the idea of getting to another star. I will cover a few topics such as the problem with getting to another star with our current technologies, what new technologies we could use, and why getting some satellites to another star might not even help.

Right then.  Why can’t we get to another star now?

Let’s say that we want to get to a star that is about 4.5 light years away.  A light year is actually a distance – it is the distance that light travels in an Earth year (as opposed to a Martian year). It is roughly 9.5×10¹² km. That is a long distance. To give some perspective, it takes just over 8 minutes for light to get from the sun to the Earth. To reach Pluto, it takes light 5.3 hours. Given that it took New Horizons 9.5 years to get to Pluto, you can see that it will take us a fair bit of time to go all the way to another star.

But, let’s try.

How would you get a satellite to another star?  Well, you would have to accelerate it up to some speed, then cruise for a long time, and then decelerate it once it gets to the other star. Ideally.

Since we would want to actually see what this thing measures in our lifetime, let’s assume that we can get it up to about 1/3 light speed (a nice round number of 100,000,000 m/s), and let’s assume that we can accelerate at roughly the gravity of Earth, which is about 10 m/s². If we do a tiny bit of math, we can see that it will take us 10,000,000s to reach this speed, which seems like a huge amount of time. But, considering that there are 86,400s in a day, this is only about 116 days or about 4 months.

So, if we wanted to get to another star, we would take about 4 months to accelerate up to about 1/3 the speed of light, cruise for about 12 years, and then decelerate for about 4 months, with a total trip time of about 13 years total. Not that long! Why aren’t we packing our backs now (or building a satellite for the 13 year journey)?

The problem with this is that we don’t have the technology to accelerate something at 10 m/s² for 4 months.  If you watch a rocket launch, you will see that the rocket accelerates for only a few minutes – like 10.  In fact, to reach orbital speeds (7,600 m/s) , if you accelerate at 10 m/s², it will take about 13 minutes. To break away from the Earth, which is much harder, it will take about 20 minutes. Even with math, that is significantly shorter than 4 months.

One of the reasons that I brought up New Horizons before is because it is one of the fastest satellites ever launched. It left our orbit going about 36,000 MPH, which is about 16,260 m/s.

Let’s put this speed in the context of getting to that other star which is 4.5 light years away. 16,260 m/s is about 0.0000542 times the speed of light. So, to get to another star, New Horizons would take about 83,000 years. That, my friends, is a long time, and why no one is packing any bags.

It will be a long time before we can make this journey in any reasonable amount of time.  Next time, let’s talk about why we will never be able to get to another star using our current rocket technology.  I am not even joking here. Using modern rocket technology, it would more mass for fuel that there is matter in the entire universe to accelerate us up to anywhere close to the speed of light. But, let’s talk about that next time.