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!!

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!


Rutgers Engineering Honors Council Keynote Speaker Event

Mike Paluszek gave a talk on the Pluto Orbiter mission to the Rutgers Engineering Honors Council Keynote Speaker Event on March 22, 2016. The talk covered the mission and spacecraft and outlined the design process. Mike also discussed engineering careers and how to make the most of one’s own career.

From a member of the audience, “Just wanted to thank you once more for the wonderful talk you gave last Tuesday evening!”

This is a photo of the group.

A photo of Mike with the officers.


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.


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


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.


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


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.