MIT Externs at Princeton Satellite Systems

Every year during MIT’s Independent Activities Period in January MIT students can apply for externships at alumni’s places of business. Externships last from one to four weeks. Over 300 undergraduate and graduate students participate each year. As part of the program, MIT also helps students find housing with alumni who live near the businesses sponsoring the externship. Externships are a great opportunity to learn about different types of career opportunities. Students apply in September and go through a competitive selection process run by the MIT Externship office.

This year Princeton Satellite Systems had two externs, Tingxao (Charlotte) Sun, a sophomore in Aeronautics and Astronautics and Eric Hinterman, a first year graduate student in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Eric started January 9th and Charlotte on the 16th after spending time on the west coast visiting aerospace companies as part of an MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics trip. Eric took a break during the externship to attend a meeting at JPL on an MIT project.

Both externs worked on our Direct Fusion Drive research program to develop a space nuclear fusion propulsion system. An artist’s conception is shown below.

Second Unit-render-1d

This project is currently funded by NASA under a NIAC grant. Eric worked primarily on the Brayton cycle heat recovery system that turns waste energy from bremsstrahlung radiation, synchrotron radiation and heat from the plasma into power that drives the rotating magnetic field (RMF) heating system. He produced a complete design and sized the system. He also wrote several MATLAB functions to analyze the system. Charlotte worked on the design of the superconducting coil support structure making good use of her Unified Engineering course skills! Here is a picture of Charlotte and Eric in front of the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration Model 2 test machine (PFRC-2) at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Dr. Samuel Cohen, inventor of PFRC, is showing them the machine.


Both Charlotte and Eric made important contributions to our project! We enjoyed having them at Princeton Satellite Systems and wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors!

3-D Modelling of Direct Fusion Drive Rocket Engine

My name is Matthew Daigger and I’m a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Princeton University going into my senior year. I was given the opportunity to intern and learn at Princeton Satellite Systems this summer. Through this internship, I got a lot of valuable experience in 3-D modelling, research and design. I was able to work with the fantastic engineers at Princeton Satellite Systems as well as Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, who helped whenever questions in their areas of expertise arose.

Side view of the reactor showing the coils

DFD CAD model generation by Matt Daigger

The Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) is an innovative and exciting new technology being designed by Princeton Satellite Systems. This Rocket engine utilizes the Princeton Reverse Field Cycle fusion reactor setup in order to create both thrust and power for a satellite. The vehicle it is currently being designed for is an exploratory satellite being sent to Pluto. What makes the DFD unique is that it can potentially halve the flight time to Pluto, from ten years to five, as well as have enough fuel left to put the satellite into orbit. Along with this, the craft should have enough extra power to deploy a rover to the surface of Pluto and power a drill. This technology could also open other exciting doors, such as manned missions to Mars, given its capability to cut travel times so drastically.

The first task I worked on this summer was looking into how to incorporate a Brayton cooling cycle into the design of the DFD. This Brayton cycle had a dual purpose. The first is to help cool the reactor and prevent too much heat and radiation from escaping and potentially damaging other parts of the satellite. The second function is to re-use this waste heat and convert it back into usable energy. Two simple brayton cycles running in parallel were chosen in order to maximize heat absorption from the reactor and power developed. The working fluid, its flow rate and the diameter of piping, as well as approximate dimensions of the turbine and compressor were also determined. Another important design factor is the ability for the satellite to withstand launch loads. Preliminary launch load calculations were also done in order to get a better idea for the stresses involved with launch using a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle.

All of this information helped to conceptualize the physical design, which was drawn up in Inventor. The shielding and incorporation of the Brayton cycle flowing through the shielding were ideas which were confirmed by members at PSS and PPPL. The length of the reactor is a key factor in determining how high energy it will be. The length was chosen so to produce a 1 MW engine. The superconducting coils were also a main topic of research. These are active superconductors which are used to shape the plasma. This is still an ongoing process, as using active coils hasn’t been done before, and our engine has unique weight and size limitations which other similar lab reactors don’t. The debate as to whether to use high temperature or low temperature superconducting coils comes down to total size and weight, including that of a cryo-cooling system in the case of the low temperature coils. High temperature superconducting coils are the more massive option, which generally makes them less desirable for space application. The support structure was designed to keep the size compact while being able to handle the stresses calculated earlier. All information about the RMF heating coils, which are used to actually excite and drive the plasma, was received and confirmed by colleagues at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. The separation coils at the tail-end of the thruster are power variable, and allow the expelled products to be manipulated, giving the engine high precision control in space travel.

Overall, this was an incredibly interesting and educational experience. The work that the Engineers are doing at PSS is innovative and exciting. The big ideas that are being developed here today are what lead to the next big step in space travel tomorrow. I am very thankful for the opportunity to spend my summer here and learn from some of the best engineers in the industry.

NIAC Pluto mission talk now available online

On Tuesday, August 23rd I had the privilege of giving my talk on our Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander at the 2016 NIAC Symposium. The video of the LiveStream is now archived and available for viewing. My talk starts at 17:30 minutes in, after Michael VanWoerkom’s NIMPH talk.

The talk was well-received and we had some good questions from the audience and the LiveStream. In retrospect I did wish I had added a slide on our overall program plan in terms of the PFRC machine and temperature and field strength, since I got quite a few questions on those specifics at the poster session. PFRC-1 demonstrated heating electrons to 0.3 keV in 3 ms pulses. The goal of the current machine – PFRC 2 – is heating ions to 1 keV with a 1.2 kG field. The next machine I refer to in the talk, PFRC 3, would initially heat ions to 5 keV with a 10 kG field, and towards the end of its life we would push the field to 80 kG, heat ions to 50 keV, and add some helium-3 to get actual fusion events. The final goal would be 100 second-duration plasmas with a fusion gain between 0.1 and 2. A completed reactor would operate in steady-state.

Thank you NIAC for this opportunity!!

NEA Scout Toolbox

Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout is a exciting new NASA mission to map an asteroid and achieve several technological firsts, including being the first CubeSat to reach an asteroid and demonstrate CubeSat technologies in deep space.


NEA Scout will perform a survey of an asteroid using a CubeSat and solar sail propulsion and gather a wide range of scientific data. NEA Scout will be launched on the first Space Launch System (SLS) launch.

NASA asked Princeton Satellite Systems to develop custom MATLAB software based on the Princeton Satellite Systems Spacecraft Control Toolbox and Solar Sail Module to assist with this mission. We just delivered our first software release to NASA!

The NEA Scout module provides MATLAB scripts that simulate the spacecraft. One, TrajectorySimulation, simulates just the trajectory. It includes a solar sail force model and uses the JPL Ephemerides to compute the gravitational forces on the sail. In addition it can use a 150 x 150 Lunar Gravity model during lunar flybys. It also simulates the orbit dynamics of the target asteroid.

AttitudeSimulation expands on this script. It adds attitude, power and thermal dynamics to the model. A full Attitude Control System (ACS) is included. This ACS uses reaction wheels and optionally cold gas thrusters for control. Momentum unloading can be done with the thrusters our using NASA’s Active Mass Translation (AMT) system that moves one part of the CubeSat relative to the other to adjust the center-of-mass so that it aligns with the system center-of-pressure or adds a slight offset to unload momentum. The control system reads command lists that allows the ACS to perform attitude maneuvers, do orbit changes with thrusters and for the user to change parameters during simulations. It adds the rotational dynamics of the asteroid.

The dynamics of the AMT can be modeled either with a lag on the position or a full multi-body model. Dynamics of the reaction wheels, including a friction model, are included in the simulation. The following are a few figures from a typical simulation.

The first figure shows reaction wheel torques during attitude maneuvers. The ACS uses quaternions as its attitude reference. You can mix reaction wheels and thrusters or use either by themselves for attitude control.


This GUI shows the current command and allows you to control the simulation.


The Figure GUI lists all figures generated by the simulation. It makes it easy to find plots when you have many, as you do in the attitude simulation.


The Telemetry GUI gives you telemetry from the ACS system. You can easily add more data to the telemetry GUI which can have multiple pages.


This figure shows solar sail pointing during simulations.


The following figure shows the spacecraft with its solar sail deployed. This is built in the CAD script using the  Spacecraft Control Toolbox CAD functions. The sail is 83 meters square.


The sail is huge but the core spacecraft would sit comfortably on your desk.

If you want more information about our products or our customization services you can email us directly by clicking  Mission Simulation Tools.

NIAC Orientation

I had a great time at the NIAC orientation in Washington DC last week, where I got “mugged” with program manager Jason Derleth:

Stephanie Thomas and Jason Derleth posing with a NIAC mug

Stephanie receiving her NIAC mug from Jason

The meeting was at the Museum of the American Indian, which was a great venue with so much beautiful art to see, and a cafe featuring unusual native foods from across America (elderberry sauce on the salmon). I had the opportunity to meet the other NIAC Fellows, and put names and faces to the other creative projects selected, as well as meet the illustrious NIAC external council. These experienced folks provide advice and encouragement throughout the NIAC process from their experience as physicists, engineers, biologists, science hackers, and even science fiction authors.

I have to say, my poster on the fusion rocket engine was popular, and everyone wanted to know how it works, why it hasn’t been funded already, and how soon the engine can be ready. Of course, we have yet to actually demonstrate fusion using Dr. Cohen’s heating method, but that is why we need the NIAC study – to flesh out the science and engineering of the rocket application to help bring in funding for building the next generation machine. And yes, let’s get to Pluto in only 4 years the next time! I’m really looking forward to working on the project in the next few months and presenting it at the NIAC symposium in August!


Lunar Orbit Insertion Maneuver

New functions in the Lunar Cube module in 2016.1 allow you to easily plan lunar insertion and orbit change maneuvers. In the following pictures you can see a lunar orbit insertion from a hyperbolic orbit. In all figures the lunar terrain is exaggerated by a factor of 10.


The same maneuver looking down on the orbit plane. The green arrows are the force vectors.


The following figure shows a two maneuver sequence. The first puts the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit. The second circularizes the orbit.


Lunar Cube Module for 2016.1

We are adding the Lunar Cube Module in 2016.1 to our CubeSat Toolbox for MATLAB! It allows users to analyze and simulateCubeSats in lunar transfer and lunar orbit. It includes a new dynamical model for CubeSats that includes:

  • Earth, Moon and Sun gravity based on the JPL ephemerides
  • Spherical harmonic lunar gravity model
  • Reaction wheels
  • Thrusters
  • Power generation from solar panels
  • Battery energy storage
  • Variable mass due to fuel consumption
  • Solar pressure disturbances
  • Lunar topographic model
  • New graphics functions for lunar orbit operations
  • Lunar targeting function
  • Lunar mission control function for attitude control and orbit control

The module includes a script with a simulation of a 6U Cubesat leaving Earth orbit and reaching the moon. The following figure shows the Earth to Moon trajectory.


This figure shows the transfer orbit near the moon. The lunar topography is exaggerated by a factor of 10 to make it visible. It is based on Clementine measurements.


Here are results from the new LunarTargeting function. It finds optimal transfers to lunar orbits. The first shows the transfer path to the Moon’s sphere of influence.


The next shows the lunar hyperbolic orbit. In this case the transfer is into a high inclination lunar orbit.


Contact us for more information!

Reaction Wheel CAD Project


I’m a sophomore at MIT who joined PSS as an extern over Independent Activities Period (IAP). Free to choose how to spend the month of January, students can take an extended vacation,  attend short, intensive classes, do research in MIT’s various labs, etc. Many like myself choose to participate in short internships with MIT alumni – the correct lingo for this type of job experience is “externship”.

I was assigned the task of 3D modeling a reaction wheel for a 25 kg satellite. Essentially, the wheel controls the orientation of the satellite in space. Comprised of a small axial flux motor and a flywheel for added inertia, the wheel sits at 40 mm tall and 80 mm wide. It must spin in both directions, and meet tight dimensional constraints. I believed I really had my work cut out for me.

Continue reading

Pluto Spacecraft

Here is a picture of our DFD transfer vehicle. You can see the lander on the front and two Deep Space Optical Communication System (DSOC) assemblies mounted on trusses. There are 2 DFD engines.


A picture of the Pluto Lander. The solar panels are illuminated by a laser from the orbiter. The lander has a dry mass of 150 kg.


Both were designed in the Spacecraft Control Toolbox v2015.2.

You can get more information about the Pluto orbital mission on Slideshare.