Will Coogan is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. And here’s the interview he did with us.
Question: You’re an expert in plasma rockets. What’s plasma?
WC: Plasma is what stars are made of. It’s a phase of matter that exists when electrons are separated from their atoms, usually at high temperatures. We use lithium plasma in our rocket.
Question: How much rocket fuel would a spaceship need to carry to be able to fly to another solar system?
WC: It depends how big your ship is and how fast you want to get there. Using a chemical rocket, we could send a school bus to Alpha Centauri with 18,000,000 lbs. of fuel. But it would take more than a million years and you wouldn’t be able to stop when you got there! With plasma rockets you could get there considerably faster, in about 10,000 years. But you still wouldn’t be able to stop.
Question: Why couldn’t we stop? Don’t spaceships have brakes like cars do?
WC: I guess technically if you hit a planet you would stop but you would also be a pancake then. There’s nothing to brake against in space, so if you want to stop you need to bring more fuel and fire a rocket in the opposite direction you are traveling to slow down. But that extra fuel makes this school bus even heavier, so you need even MORE fuel to get it off the ground in the first place.
So it is possible to get there and stop, but it takes significantly more fuel or more time.
Question: Could rockets be used for something that no one has thought of yet?
WC: Pretty much anything that moves is made better by attaching a rocket: Rocket-car, rocket-dog, rocket-train, rocket-bike. I’m sure there are lots of things that nobody has tried attaching a rocket to yet.
All other pictures by Josh Busch