Zimbabwean scientist leads research on NASA nuclear system to power space rockets

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ZIMBABWEAN scientist, Dr Phylis Makurunje, is leading a team that is working on a nuclear system to power rockets at the Wales-based Bangor University Nuclear Futures Institute.

The university is a major player in the quest to generate another way of producing energy and heat to sustain life on the Moon.

A National University of Science and Technology (NUST) graduate, Dr Makuranje said the new technology could almost halve the time it takes to get to Mars.

“It is very powerful – it gives very high thrust, the push it gives to the rocket. This is very important because it enables rockets to reach the farthest planets,” she told the BBC.

“With nuclear thermal propulsion – you’re looking at about four to six months getting to Mars. The current duration is nine months plus.”

In addition, Dr Makuranje is also part of the Bangor team which has developed an energy source that could allow astronauts to live on the moon for longer periods of time.

NASA, in the United States, is hoping to have an outpost on the Moon by 2030 and the team at Bangor has designed nuclear fuel cells, the size of poppy seeds, to produce the energy needed to sustain life there.

Prof Simon Middleburgh from the Nuclear Futures Institute said the team hoped to fully test the nuclear fuel “over the next few months”.

Dr Phylis Makurunje

On parts of the Moon, temperatures plummet to astonishing lows of -414F (-248C) because it has no atmosphere to warm up the surface.

The university hopes the micro generators could also be used here on Earth, such as in disaster zones when electricity has been cut off.

Dr Makuranje joined the Nuclear Futures Institute in mid-2020, bringing a wealth of ceramic materials manufacture knowledge and experience to the group.

She completed her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa in 2020, working with ceramics for aerospace applications.

Before that she completed a Masters in Materials Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology (NUST).

She describes herself as “this odd girl who made wire cars”.

“A lot of people around me took me so seriously that parents in my neighbourhood would come to my mother to ask for me to make wire cars for their kids,” she said in a previous interview

“One day, I saw an older boy who had made a helicopter which rolled on wheels, and I said to myself, ‘I want to make a helicopter too’. My career path since then did not take a straight line; I startlingly leaped back into my dream when I got the opportunity to study aerospace materials at the University of the Witwatersrand.”

The award-winning scientist also serves as one of the Executive Secretaries of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) in support of United Nations (UN) space programmes, and is also part of the Space Traffic Management Committee of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF).

Makurunje contributes to the Wales Space group and the United Kingdom’s Nuclear for Space Working Group.

She has also served on the President’s Council of Student Advisors of the American Ceramic Society and recently received a Space Generation Leadership award from the SGAC and is driven toward advancing STEM and space education in rural Africa. – NewZim