You can view Stephanie Thomas’ talk from the 2017 NIAC symposium, “Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander,” on NASA’s livestream link:
Her talk starts at timestamp 26:15 of the video. Her poster and slides are linked below:
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!
Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander paper:
Open access to the AIAA Space Forum technical program:
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!
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.
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).
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!
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.
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!
NASA 360 has published a video on our Fusion-Enabled Pluto Explorer NIAC grant. The video uses audio from my talk in August with great visuals of Pluto and our rocket models!
We are thrilled that NASA likes our work enough to invest in this video. Thank you, NASA!
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.
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!