Asteroid Day

June 30 is Asteroid Day. Asteroid Day is a reminder that we need to protect the Earth from asteroids. We need both an early warning system and a means for deflecting asteroids. The B612 Foundation is working on an early warning system. Direct Fusion Drive, a nuclear fusion rocket engine technology under development jointly by Princeton Satellite Systems and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory could provide the means to deflect asteroids that are on a course to collide with the earth. We published a paper in October 2013 on how this might be done

Direct Fusion Drive Rocket for Asteroid Deflection [PDF], J. Mueller, Y. Razin, S. Cohen, A. Glasser, et al, 33rd International Electric Propulsion Conference.

Samuel Cohen, inventor of the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration reactor that is the core of our engine, co-authored a paper on comet deflection.

We are currently supported by a DOE grant, two NASA STTRs and a NASA Phase II NIAC grant! For more information go to our nuclear fusion page.

Foundations of Interstellar Studies Workshop

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

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!

DFD paper accepted for Workshop of Interstellar Flight

Our paper “Direct Fusion Drive for Interstellar Exploration” has been accepted for the Workshop of Interstellar Flight that will be held at CUNY City Tech, 13-15 June 2017! The workshop is organized by the Institute for Interstellar Studies and City Tech’s Physics Department and Center for Theoretical Physics.

We will present the latest results from our NASA NIAC work on DFD design as well as applications to interstellar missions, including:

  • A mission to 550 AU to perform gravitational lensing imaging of exoplanets;
  • Flyby missions to the nearest star;
  • A mission to go into orbit about a planet orbiting either Alpha-Centauri A or Alpha-Centauri B.

NASA NIAC Phase II selected!

We received notice today, March 31, 2017, that our NASA NIAC Phase II proposal was selected for award! We will be able to continue working on the Direct Fusion Drive with PPPL for two more years. Hooray! Dr. Joseph Minervini of MIT will be joining our team to help advance our understanding of the trade space for the superconducting coils, using the very latest data from high-temp superconductor manufacturers. It’s going to be exciting research!

Here’s a link to NASA’s official project summary.

The New Space Age Conference

Charles Swanson of PPPL and Mike Paluszek of Princeton Satellite Systems attended the MIT New Space Age Conference at MIT on March 11. It was held on the 7th floor of building E52 at MIT.


Princeton Satellite Systems was a sponsor of the event. It was a great event! There were a number of interesting presentations including one on the history of the Iridium Program. Iridium was almost ready to deorbit the constellation when an investor cobbled together enough money to keep it flying and then found a new market in places without any cell phone service. They are now  launching Iridium-Next. After the disappearance of the Malaysian Flight 370, the airlines realized that they need to know the position of all planes in real-time. Iridium offered a hosted payload to do that and that payload is effectively funding the new satellites. The speaker showed us a image from their satellite showing the tracks of aircraft.

Professor Loeb gave an overview of the Starshot project to accelerate small sails to 20% of the speed of light. He discussed some of the challenges of the program. The speed was selected specifically so that the probes would reach Alpha-Centauri during the lifespan of the investigators.

Boeing gave a talk on composite structures. The speaker, Dr. Naveed Hussain, VP of Aeromechanics Technology, The Boeing Company, showed how established companies are innovating.

Spaceflight gave a talk on their launch services. We plan to work with them to launch our test satellites.

At lunch Charles and I sat with a group of students from Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at Princeton University. We were joined by Mark Jernigan, Associate Director, NASA/JSC Human Health and Performance Directorate. We talked with him about the challenges of human spaceflight to Mars.

Charles and I were on the propulsion panel. Charles gave a spectacular overview of the plasma physics of our nuclear fusion engine. I filled in the DFD system details. We had a few questions from the audience.

Our 2017 extern, Eric Hinterman, gave a great talk on the oxygen from carbon dioxide project that will be tested on Mars. It would produce the oxidizer for return missions thus saving money. My wife, Marilyn, took pictures of the panel.


At the reception we were the only sponsor with a table display.


It was a great event! We look forward to attending next year!


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!!