Ms. Thomas is vice president of Princeton Satellite Systems. She is the Principal Investigator for the NASA NIAC grant supporting Direct Fusion Drive. Ms. Thomas has been with PSS since her first internship as an MIT undergraduate in 1996!
We are pleased to announce that our Phase II STTR proposal, “Superconducting Coils for Small Nuclear Fusion Rocket Engines,” was one of 20 selected for award by NASA in this year’s round! The full list of winners is posted on NASA’s website.
Our briefing chart prepared as part of the proposal is shown below:
We will be building a testbed with a split-pair superconducting coil (two windings with a gap between them) and performing experiments to assess the impact of operating the magnets in the vicinity of the FRC plasma. Applications of the technology go beyond fusion reactors, for example science payloads and high-performance motors for hybrid electric aircraft.
Our interns always ask us, “What’s the dress code?” Our dress code at the office is business casual – which according to Wikipedia is not that well defined! We are probably on the more casual side of business casual. Here are some guidelines:
Shorts and sandals are OK in the summer – we prefer to turn the thermostat up and save money on A/C!
What NOT to wear:
Ripped or faded jeans
Very short skirts or shorts
Leggings – leggings are not pants! Leggings should be treated as footless tights and always paired with dresses or tunics.
Camisoles/spaghetti straps – camisoles are not blouses!
Flip-flops or sad beat-up sneakers
Anyone working on hardware should wear closed-toe shoes and tie back long hair, as in any lab space.
A side comment: my husband is a tech executive in New York, and he wears what I call the “tech uniform” to work every day: dark jeans from Banana Republic, button-down shirt, brown dress shoes, and a navy blazer. Now, guys in tech get away with this, but probably not lawyers! As PSS is solidly in the tech regime, we definitely take a more casual approach to “business casual”!
Our colleague Eugene Evans of PPPL has had his paper, “Particle-in-cell studies of fast-ion slowing-down rates in cool tenuous magnetized plasma,” accepted for publication in Physics of Plasmas. The article is tentatively scheduled for the April 2018 issue. A quote from the reviewer:
The paper … is an interesting, well-written paper that uses PIC to build upon earlier direct numerical simulation methods based on molecular dynamics. The authors present a clearly written discussion of the scaling properties of slowing down theory to support their numerical studies. The authors do a very good job describing the simulation approach they take… Of particular note in the paper is the good agreement between their numerical data and the sub-thermal model even when the effective computational log(lambda) was on the order of 1… the authors did not stop with their results but instead applied their conclusions to the FRC reactor, predicting that the neutron production rate is 100 times lower than a conventional DT Tokamak.
This paper is key to the low radiation levels claimed for our PFRC design, and hence the Direct Fusion Drive. The fast ion slowing-down is what causes the tritium and other fusion ash to exit the machine. You can view a preprint on arXiv.
We will post again once the paper is published and available from Physics of Plasmas.
Back in early September, PSS and PPPL were visited by a film crew from Australia. The project? Living Universe: An Interstellar Voyage, which will include a feature documentary, a 4 episode TV miniseries, and a podcast. The documentary touches all aspects of an interstellar mission, from exoplanets to astrobiology, including transportation – which is where our fusion engine work comes in. The film is in production now and the producers expect to launch in late 2018.
The PFRC experiment at PPPL is the only hardware the documentary team could find with a path to fusion propulsion! Dr. Cohen was able to run the machine for the film crew, and both Mike and Stephanie were interviewed extensively. We discussed the rocket equation and the fundamental speed of fusion products, and how DFD moderates that speed with additional propellant to produce higher thrust. For an interstellar voyage, DFD would have to be much, much lighter than we know how to make it today – but who knows what innovations in magnets are possible in the future!
How will you be able to watch the film and TV series? The film should do the rounds of museums and IMAX theaters. The TV series will be available for streaming from Curiosity Stream, a service which specializes in science, history, tech & nature documentaries. We will post an update when we have a firm release date!
We are pleased to report that an additional patent has been awarded for DFD! US Patent 9,822,769, “Method and Apparatus to Produce High Specific Impulse and Moderate Thrust from a Fusion-Powered Rocket Engine”, was published on Nov. 21, 2017. It’s now available from the US patent office website!
Here is a link to the patent from the Department of Energy’s Energy Innovation Portal! The inventor on the patent are Dr. Cohen, of PPPL, and three PSS engineers: Gary Pajer, Michael Paluszek, and Yosef Razin.
Fusion Rocket Engine
The first patent, “Method to Reduce Neutron Production in Small Clean Fusion Reactors,” was issued on September 9, 2017. The patent is available on Patentscope.
Sadly, the AIAA Space Forum in Orlando, FL was canceled due to hurricane Irma. So, we didn’t get to present our paper on our DFD mission to Pluto. AIAA has, however, published all the forum papers and is providing free access for a few months in lieu of the actual conference. This means anyone can download it!
WHYY reporter Alan Yu has done a radio show featuring our work for The Pulse, which presents stories of health, science, and innovation. You can read the article and listen to a podcast of the show segment, which features Stephanie, Mike, Sam, and members of the NASA NIAC program including director Jason Derleth, external council member Ariel Waldman, and NIAC fellow Phil Lubin.
The headline for the show is, aptly, “Inside the NASA program that makes science fiction technology real.” Reporter Alan Yu visited the lab to see the PFRC in action during development of the show. The show played on the radio today, July 21, at 9 am and will repeat on Sunday at noon. Enjoy!
Dr. Sam Cohen and I had a good time at the Foundations of Interstellar Studies Workshop this week in NY! While we were only able to stay for the first day on “Energetic Reaction Engines”, there were many thoughtful discussions on applying fusion technology to interstellar travel. Here I am in the group photo from the welcome event Monday night, held at the Harvard Club with an interesting and wide-ranging display of interstellar art! (I’m in the first row on the far right).
Group photo from Foundations of Interstellar Studies workshop
The workshop was almost a mini-NIAC reunion, as NIAC fellows Phil Lubin and Ray Sedwick were there, and Heidi Fern was due to present her Mach Effect thruster on Thursday. Also NIAC External Council member Lou Friedman of the Planetary Society was in attendance (very back of the photo).
Our presentation for this conference focused on how the PFRC addresses the key parameters needed for a “net positive” fusion reactor: energy confinement, current drive, plasma heating, and plasma stability. We are often asked “why fusion will work this time”, and this paper does a good job of explaining why the PFRC is different enough from other approaches to work! The workshop is going to submit all of the papers to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, which is the oldest astronautical journal in the world (1934).
We also discussed the parameters the propulsion system will need to achieve to reach Alpha Centauri in various time scales, as well as a more near-term mission deliver a gravitational lens telescope to 550 AU. Reaching Alpha Centauri in anything close to a human lifetime remains a significant challenge, but PFRC could be part of an architecture to reach the star in 300 to 500 years, and slow down enough to go into orbit around the potentially Earth-like planets there! The 550 AU telescope mission, however, could be achieved in as little as 12 years with just one small PFRC and is an exciting new mission possibility.
Our next interstellar appearance will be at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in October in Huntsville, AL!
We have been selected for two NASA STTRs on their new topic, T2.01-9960, Advanced Nuclear Propulsion! Our research institution partner is Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Our proposals were featured in NASA’s official press release! Here is a quote:
High temperature superconducting coils for a future fusion reaction space engine. These coils are needed for the magnetic field that allows the engine to operate safely. Nuclear fusion reactions are what power our sun and other stars, and an engine based on this technology would revolutionize space flight.
You can read our project abstracts as posted on NASA’s SBIR website:
These Phase I STTRs of $125,000 each will run for one year, at which point we have the opportunity to propose Phase II work up to $750,000. If successful, they will go a long way towards demonstrating critical subsystem technology needed for DFD and other high-tech space propulsion technologies!