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Modern Astronomy

Modern Astronomy

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Published by: inertiamass on Jan 22, 2012
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Some scientists believe that the research of Lyman Spitzer and
others on plasmas and controlled atomic fusion will someday lead to
an abundant, nonpolluting source of energy. Unlike today’s nuclear
power plants, which gain their energy from atomic fission, fusion
plants would produce no radioactive waste. Engineers theorize that
the plants could be built in such a way that the laws of physics would
shut them down in case of a failure, so the plants would be com-
pletely safe. Fusion plants would not release carbon dioxide or other
greenhouse gases, so fusion power would not contribute to global
warming. Hydrogen, the fuel that such plants would use, exists in
essentially infinite supply.
Unfortunately, the goal of producing useful energy from atomic
fusion seems almost as far off today as it did when Spitzer pursued it
in the 1950s. Achieving the extremely high temperature and density
of protons needed for a fusion reaction and containing the plasma in
which the reaction would take place have proved almost impossible.
So far, a magnetic field seems the best “bottle” for the plasma.
The most common type of experimental fusion reactor that uses
magnetic fields is the tokamak, first developed in Russia in 1969. Even
the best tokamaks have not quite achieved the break-even point,
where they produce more energy than is required to start them up.
They are even further from the ignition stage, in which the reaction
produces enough energy to sustain itself in spite of the losses that
unavoidably occur, including the removal of energy for human use.
Researchers also continue to explore plasma container designs other
than tokamaks, including descendants of Spitzer’s Stellarator. Spitzer
wrote in 1997 that he thought a Stellarator might be less expensive
than a tokamak. In late 2004, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory,
with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy, was working on a
project called the National Compact Stellarator Experiment.

included finding out the structure of star clusters and galaxies, the
nature of other planets, and the size of the universe. But, he wrote,
“the chief contribution of such a radically new and . . . powerful
instrument . . . would be . . . to uncover new phenomena not yet
imagined, and perhaps modify profoundly our basic concepts of
space and time.”

RAND did nothing about Spitzer’s suggestions, but the idea of a
telescope in space took a strong hold on Spitzer himself. “Working
for such a project became for me a major long-term objective,”
he wrote in Dreams, Stars, and Electrons. He would continue to
pursue that objective for more than 40 years and would live to see
many of the activities he had proposed in his report carried out by
the Hubble Space Telescope. “I regard as my major contribution to
HST [the Hubble Space Telescope] that decade after decade, before
the official start, I continued actively to push this long-range pro-
gram,” Spitzer concluded.

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