I-Team: UNLV collaborating in the race to send a person to Mars

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Inventor and businessman Elon Musk is one of several space entrepreneurs who is pushing for a permanent human presence on Mars. But a venture across millions of miles of hostile space is not only expensive but would be incredibly dangerous.

Some of the work being done to make a mission to Mars more likely is underway in Las Vegas, within the UNLV engineering department.

A few weeks ago, international news was made by a grad student whose algorithm made it possible to get the first photograph of a black hole. It turns out PHD candidates at UNLV’s School of Engineering are tackling equally daunting tasks, trying to figure out how to transport people to Mars and how to get them back. It’s a continuation of work that started in Nevada decades ago.

READ: JFK toured Nevada Test Site to check on classified project

A still-glistening facility tucked inside what used to be called the Nevada Test Site is a reminder of what could have been. NERVA, a program to develop a nuclear engine to propel humans to Mars and beyond proved the technology works but a planned 1980s mission to the red planet never happened. Budget cuts killed NERVA. The idea, though, lives on.

“At the Atomic Testing Museum, there was a historian from Los Alamos. He was just, like, ‘who’s ready to go to Mars?’ And I was the only one who was like, yeah,” said Kimberly Gonzalez, UNLV PHD candidate.

She didn’t know at the time that she would get a chance to help make a future Mars mission possible. Gonzalez was chosen by NASA to spend this summer working on a nuclear fusion system that could get humans to Mars in a hurry. She grabbed NASA’s attention because of work she’s been doing with her mentor, UNLV engineering professor Dr. Bill Culbreth, picking up where NERVA left off.

They’re experimenting with different materials that could produce a more efficient, less corrosive fuel element inside a nuclear engine. Greater efficiency would mean a human crew could get to Mars faster, which is a huge consideration.

“If you’re taking only half the time to get to Mars, that’s half the radiation you’re exposed to, and so with radiation, with high levels of exposure, you can develop cancer,” Gonzalez said. “The less time you spend in space, the less effects it will have on your health.”

Kim’s older sister is also a UNLV graduate student. She’s now finishing her degree working at Los Alamos Lab. Culbreth, whose other students have moved on to classified work at sensitive facilities, has hints of cutting-edge research all over the engineering lab. Drones made from special composite materials, which were test flown at the Nevada National Security Site, capacitors capable of igniting fusion reactions, experiments on which molten salts might work best for future solar power plants but few of these get Culbreth as excited as a possible mission to Mars. He thinks humans need to go, not just robots.

“Getting humans onto the surface of Mars, onto the surface of Titan and other celestial bodies is important because they can flexibly adapt to new situations, investigate things beyond what the machines can do,” said Dr. William Culbreth, UNLV engineering professor.

Culbreth laments the cancellation of NERVA decades ago but is excited by private efforts to get humans into space such as Elon Musk’s powerful rockets and Robert Bigelow’s space habitats. If the work being done by Kimberly and others pans out, Culbreth knows the perfect time for a manned mission.

“The next opportunity seems to be 2030,” he said. “The reason, it’s the closest approach between Mars and the Earth. We’re both on the same side of the sun. That means we’re about 50 or 60 million miles apart. It’d a great time for exploring Mars. It’s something humankind needs to do. We need to be out in space. We need to be exploring.”

“I’ve met a lot of the people working in nuclear rockets and if they’ll lead me to Mars, I’ll be happy, but if I ever went to Mars, I’d like to come back,” 

Gonzalez has just returned from delivering a paper at a green energy conference in Paris. She will be leaving for NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in a matter of weeks.

Culbreth’s name was in the news a few months ago because of a paper written about hypersonic objects in space, part of a secret Pentagon research project.

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