Pluto Orbiter – the Next Step after New Horizons

The spectacular success of the NASA New Horizons mission has led to many new discoveries about Pluto. The next step would be to send an orbiter. That isn’t easy to do with chemical propulsion but could be done with Direct Fusion Drive.

We’ve done a preliminary mission analysis for a Pluto orbital mission. We are baselining a Delta IV Heavy that can put up to 9,306 kg into interplanetary orbits. These plots show various parameters versus mission duration. The maximum duration is the same as the New Horizons mission, 10 years.

PlutoMission2MW4Yr

Let’s use the 4 year mission as a baseline. It would use a 2 MW DFD engine to reach Pluto in about 4 years and go into orbit. The engine would thrust for 270 days out of the 4 year mission producing 110 km/s delta-V. The trajectory is shown below

PlutoTraj2MW4Yr

Once there, almost 2 MW of power would be available for the science mission, over 10000 times as much power as is available to New Horizons! The New Horizons bit rate is no more than 3000 bits per second. The high power would allow for a bit rate of over 135 Mbps for data transmission back to Earth using the JPL Deep Space Optical Communications System and a 30 kW laser transmitter. The time in transit is much shorter than New Horizons and would produce significant savings on operations costs. Launch times would be more flexible since gravity assists would not be needed.

DFD would use deuterium and helium-3 as fuels. Only 1700 L of helium-3 would be needed for this project. Current U.S. production of helium-3 is 60000 L per year.

Since we would be going all the way to Pluto it would make sense to include a lander. One way to power the lander is using laser power beamed from the orbiter. Here are results for a possible system, beaming over 30 Wh per pass from a 200 km orbital altitude.

LaserPower

Currently, experiments are taking place in the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration laboratory. Here is the machine in operation at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory:

Experiment

The next step is to build a slightly larger machine to demonstrate fusion. Fusion power generation has been demonstrated in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor and the Joint European Torus but never in a machine using helium-3. A flight engine would follow. Its small size would keep the development and production costs down.

DFD would enable many challenging missions include human exploration of Mars, Europa landers and interstellar probes.