eBook Textbook now available on Barnes & Noble

Our aerospace theory textbook, Spacecraft Attitude and Orbit Control, has been included with purchases of the Spacecraft Control Toolbox for years and available for purchase as a standalone PDF. We have now compiled our book as an eBook and it is available from Barnes and Noble for Nook:


The companion tutorial software for the book (Chapter 2) is available for download from our website.

IAEA Nuclear Systems for Space Exploration Webinar: Recordings now Available

The recordings of this webinar from February 15-16, 2022, are now available on YouTube. Each segment is two hours long. Ms. Thomas’ presentation is in Part 2 at about 30:30.

Organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), this webinar focuses on nuclear systems for space exploration. It gives an overview and historical perspective on the status of development in this area and showcases the ways in which nuclear systems can be used for space exploration, as well as discuss possible future innovations in the field.

IAEAvideo, YouTube

Part 1 Agenda:

  • Progress towards space nuclear power objectives | Mr Vivek Lall (General Atomics Global Corporation)
  • Developing the VASIMR® Engine Historical Perspective, Present Status and Future Plans | Mr Franklin R. Chang Díaz (Ad Astra Rocket Company)
  • Application of Space Nuclear Power Sources in Moon and Deep Space Exploration Missions in China | Mr Hui Du (Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)
  • Q&A
Part 1, February 15, 2022

Part 2 Agenda:

  • Promises and Challenges of Nuclear Propulsion for Space Travel | Mr William J Emrich (NASA)
  • Fusion Propulsion and Power for Advanced Space Missions | Ms Stephanie Thomas (Princeton Satellite Systems) – at time 30:30
  • NASA Investments in Space Nuclear Fission Technology | Mr Anthony Calomino (NASA)
  • Q&A
Part 2, February 16, 2022

IAEA Atoms for Space: Nuclear Systems for Space Exploration

This webinar hosted by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, is coming up this week, Feb. 15-16, 2022.

The exploration of space requires power at many stages, not only for the initial launch of the space vehicle, but also for various house loads such as instrumentation and controls, communication systems, maintaining the operating environment for the space mission’s essential hardware, etc. Nuclear can provide long-term electrical power in space. Nuclear systems can be configured in several ways for use in space exploration.

Atoms for Space: Nuclear Systems for Space Exploration

PSS VP Stephanie Thomas will give a talk during this webinar, Fusion Propulsion and Power for Advanced Space Missions.

Register here: https://iaea.webex.com/iaea/onstage/g.php?PRID=a626af96640b6b59dbee10fcc4910e15

A recording of the webinar will be available! The full agenda:

  • Progress towards space nuclear power objectives | Mr Vivek Lall (General Atomics Global Corporation)
  • Developing the VASIMR® Engine Historical Perspective, Present Status and Future Plans | Mr Franklin R. Chang Díaz (Ad Astra Rocket Company)
  • Application of Space Nuclear Power Sources in Moon and Deep Space Exploration Missions in China | Mr Hui Du (Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering)
  • Promises and Challenges of Nuclear Propulsion for Space Travel | Mr William J Emrich (NASA)
  • Fusion Propulsion and Power for Advanced Space Missions | Ms Stephanie Thomas (Princeton Satellite Systems)
  • NASA Investments in Space Nuclear Fission Technology | Mr Anthony Calomino (NASA)

Here is the article posted on the webinar:


Writing about Fusion

Hi! I’m Paige, and I’m an undergraduate at Princeton interested in physics and science communications. This January, I got to work as an intern here at Princeton Satellite Systems. These past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the fusion-related projects PSS is working on, such as their Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor concept and plans for a space propulsion engine.

My first task was to write a four-page report on the PFRC, including its design, market demand, and development timeline. I knew very little about fusion coming into this internship, so first I had to learn all I could about the process that powers the sun and has the potential to supply the earth with clean, practically limitless energy.

Various types of fusion reactors are under development by companies and coalitions all over the world; they differ in the reactors they use and their methods of confining and heating plasma. ITER, for instance, is an example of a tokamak under construction in France; it uses superconducting magnets to confine plasma so that the reaction of tritium and deuterium can occur. 

The PFRC, currently in the second stage of experiments at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, uses radio frequency waves to create a rotating magnetic field that spins and heats the plasma inside, which is contained by closed magnetic field lines in a field-reversed configuration resulting from the opposition of a background solenoidal magnetic field to the field created by the rotating plasma current. The fusion reaction within the PFRC is that of helium-3 and deuterium, which offers multiple advantages over reactions involving tritium. Compared with other fusion reactors, the PFRC is incredibly compact.  It will be about the size of a minivan, 1/1000th the size of ITER; this compactness makes it ideal for portable or remote applications.

After learning about the design and market applications of the PFRC, I created a four page brochure about PFRC, writing for a general audience. I included the basics of the reactor design and its advantages over other reactors, as well as market estimates and the research and development timeline. I went on to write four page brochures about PSS’s Direct Fusion Drive engine, which will use PFRC technology for space propulsion purposes, and GAMOW, the program under which PSS is collaborating on developing various power electronics for fusion reactors.

These past few weeks have been quite informative to me, and I realized how much I loved writing about science and technology! I learned all about fusion, and I especially loved learning the details of the PFRC reactor design. To summarize the design, research, and development of the PFRC and other technologies within four page flyers, I had to learn how to write about technology and research comprehensively and engagingly for a general audience, which improved my science communication skills.

Moonfall – The Movie

Moonfall is a movie coming out in 2022. It creates a scenario where the Moon’s orbit is changed and set on a collision course with the Earth. It is fun to work out the orbital mechanics.

Let us assume that the Moon is in a circular orbit around the Earth. It is actually more influenced by the Sun than the Earth, but the circular orbit approximation is sufficient for our purposes. A mysterious force changes the orbit from circular to elliptical so that at closest approach it hits the Earth. The transfer orbit has an eccentricity of 0.9673 and a semi-major axis of 195000 km. The new orbital period is 9.9 days so it will hit the Earth in 5 days!

What kind of force is needed? The required velocity change is 0.83 km/s so a force of 6 x 1016 N applied over 10 seconds is required. To get an idea of how large that force really is, the Space Launch System (SLS) Block 2 vehicle produces about 10 million pounds of thrust [1], which is approximately 50 x 106 N (50 MN). Hence it would take 1.2 billion SLS rockets firing for 10 seconds to perform such a re-direction of the Moon! An image of the SLS is shown below (image from [1]).

As the Moon approaches the Earth it is going to raise the tides. A simple formula (really only valid when the Moon is far from the Earth) is

where is the gravitational constant for the moon, is the gravitational constant for the Earth, r is the distance between the Earth and Moon and a is the radius of the Earth. The distance during the approach and the wave height are shown in the following plot.

By around 3 days the tides started getting really big! We’d expect the Moon’s gravitational force also to pull on the solid part of the Earth’s surface, causing all sorts of trouble.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/0080_sls_fact_sheet_10092018.pdf

PSS Toolboxes 2021.1 Now Available!

Version 2021.1 of Princeton Satellite Systems toolboxes for MATLAB is now available! Over 50 new functions and scripts are included. Many other existing functions have been improved.

One new function is AtmNRLMSISE.m, an atmosphere function based on the NRL MSISE model. It is uses extensive flight data and includes sun effects. It computes the overall density and the number density of all atmospheric constituents. Our function has an easy to use interface that automatically incorporates the sun information and lets you input your spacecrafts ECI coordinates. You can also choose to use the original interface. Here is a comparison with the existing scale height model.

We provide a complete set of functions for planning lunar missions in the Missions module. The software includes landing control systems and trajectory optimizaton tools. You can use our Optical Navigation system for your cis-lunar missions and explore our cutting-edge neural network terminal descent software.

Here are two images from an optical navigation simulation for a solar sail.

Solar Sail and Earth paths in the heliocentric frame.
Navigation camera view.

The Spacecraft Control Toolbox provides you with a lot of ways to do things, so you can use your own creativity to perform analyses or design a mission.

Contact us to purchase or for a demo!

The Space Show appearance

It was my pleasure to appear on David Livingston’s “The Space Show” radio program last night, now available as a podcast:


People from all over the country called and emailed in their questions about fusion and fusion-propelled spaceflight, and we had a great discussion! David has been running this educational program for 20 years and there are almost 4000 archived episodes covering a wide range of space topics. Author David Brin, whom I met during my NASA NIAC fellowship, is going to be on next week!

So have listen and add to the conversation on The Space Show website!

Funding Options for Fusion Propulsion

The Space subcommittee of the Fusion Industry Association, of which we are a member, has prepared a new white paper recommending government funding for a dedicated fusion propulsion development program, styled similarly to ARPA-E and DARPA.


The next space race is not simply into orbit; it is to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The global competition is fierce, and the stakes are high—from landing the first humans on Mars to harvesting the limitless wealth of asteroids, and much more. Fusion propulsion is the best path to winning this “Deep Space Race.”

Fusion Energy for Space Propulsion, FIA, June 2021

The goal is to provide funding not just for “paper studies,” but enough funding to build real hardware and start to test fusion propulsion concepts. We want the US to remain competitive in the upcoming Deep Space Race – building a human presence on the Moon, and then Mars, and beyond. Direct Fusion Drive is directly applicable to near-term, modestly sized fusion propulsion!

If you want to express your support for government funding of fusion propulsion, contact your Representatives and Senators!



1U CubeSat Structural Design and 3D Print

As a Summer 2021 intern, my first project was to complete the structural design of a 1U CubeSat that will fly in orbit with and observe the NASA Solar Cruiser. The 1U CubeSat needed to follow the CubeSat design specifications set by the California Polytechnic State University; it needed to have specific dimensions, needed to weigh a certain amount, and needed to be able withstand structural loads and natural frequency/vibrational loads. In order to design and test the CubeSat, I used Fusion360’s design and simulation softwares. I based my design of the CubeSat off of the engineering drawing provided by the California Polytechnic State University’s “CubeSat Design Specification” manual.

I designed the initial model in Fusion360 as one part made up of different components, as shown below:

The top of the CubeSat faces the positive z-direction, while the front faces the negative y-direction and the right side faces the positive x-direction. The CubeSat also needed four deployable solar panels attached by hinge mechanisms to the four edges of the top face. The panels needed to start parallel to the walls and then, when deployed by some mechanism, needed to swing upward in the positive z-direction. 

After designing the idealized CubeSat, I ran multiple modal frequency analyses and structural analyses in order to make sure the CubeSat could withstand the proper loads. First, I ran modal frequency analyses, with fixed boundary conditions for a cantilever beam. The natural frequencies for the first four modes of the CubeSat are shown in the following table:

The above natural frequencies calculated in Fusion360 are very similar to the theoretical natural frequencies of a cantilever beam, given by the formula

Where “E” is the modulus of elasticity (also known as Young’s Modulus), and “I” is the area moment of inertia. This formula can be used to find the natural frequencies of a cantilever beam for any mode of vibration, “n”.

My results were also similar to other experimental results. For example, a study titled “Design, Analysis, Optimization, Manufacturing, and Testing of a 2U CubeSat” published in the International Journal of Aerospace Engineering performed a modal frequency analysis of a 2U CubeSat and found the following natural frequencies for the first four modes: 

These results are similar to the ones I found in my modal frequency analyses. 

After running the modal frequency analyses, I ran a few structural load analyses. The CubeSat frame had a honeycomb structure, which I modeled in Fusion360, and was made up of Aluminum 7075 material. The CubeSat needed to be able to withstand a maximum pressure differential of 15.2 psi (0.104 MPa) created by the Space Launch System (SLS) ascent into space, according to NASA’s Space Launch System Program’s White paper.

The maximum displacement of the CubeSat’s structure due to the applied force was 0.009 m, which is very low. Fusion360 calculates Von Mises stresses, and the maximum stress was 16.08 MPa, which is well under Young’s Modulus of Aluminum 7075 (71.7 GPa). The safety factor of the structure was 8+ everywhere on the structure, meaning the structure is much stronger than the  15.2 psi (0.104 MPa) load applied. 

After running the modal frequency and static stress analyses in Fusion360 and getting the desired results, the CubeSat was ready to be modeled as 3D printable parts and 3D printed with PLA on the FlashForge Creator Pro printer: 

The initial CubeSat design in Fusion360 had to be modified and broken up into different parts that were each 3D printable; after printing each part, I assembled them to form the whole CubeSat. I decided to break the initial design up into the following 3D printable parts: the top, the bottom, four separate side walls, four separate side rails, four deployable solar panels; finally, I needed to add four hinges plus four rods to attach each of the solar panels to the main structure (similar to a door hinge mechanism). This allowed the solar panels to rotate on a hinge from their initial position up to 180 degrees upward and back. Photos of the different 3D printed parts are shown below: 

After 3D printing all the necessary parts, I needed to assemble them. I modeled screw holes in Fusion360 on each 3D printed part in specific locations, so that I would not need to bore holes manually after the parts were printed. I ordered screws for plastic from McMaster Carr, so I knew the correct diameter and length for the screw holes I modeled in Fusion360. This way, the parts were ready to be assembled immediately after 3D printing. Images of the final assembled 1U CubeSat are shown below:

3D printing the final product was an iterative process, so I ended up assembling two different CubeSats entirely and printing a multitude of different versions of each part until I assembled the final product correctly. During the printing process I ran into many problems with the design of the parts, as well as issues with the printer itself. Some design problems included incorrect part sizes, incorrect screw hole placement, incorrect screw hole tolerancing/sizing, and incorrect dimensions of the overall assembled cube. Some printer issues included warping and two nozzle clogs. Some of my parts warped due to a lack of adhesion between the printer bed and the filament coming out of the nozzle, meaning the corners of these parts bent upward and were no longer usable. I solved this problem by reducing the heat of the 3D print bed to make sure the filament could cool down correctly on the bed. On a couple of occasions, parts would not print at all or the filament would come out tangled and would not stick to the bed; I solved this problem by taking apart the nozzle and manually unclogging it so that the filament could come out correctly. I also re-leveled the bed, to make sure the nozzle was close enough to the printer bed so that when the filament initially came out of the nozzle it would stick to the bed immediately. Photos of intermediate designs are shown below: 

Overall, this project was educational, challenging, and fun! I learned a new CAD software, Fusion360, which will be useful in the future, and I practiced my engineering design and 3D printing skills!

Overall, this project was educational, challenging, and fun! I learned a new CAD software, Fusion360, which will be useful in the future, and I practiced my engineering design and 3D printing skills!

Visiting Planet 9

In 2015, astronomers from Caltech determined that a giant ninth planet may be orbiting the Sun. It was called Planet X and then Planet 9. The discovery was based on perturbations in the orbits of TNOs, trans Neptunian Objects. The planet has about the mass of Neptune and is in a 10,000 to 20,000 year solar orbit. Jakub Scholtz of Durham University and James Unwin of University of Illinois at Chicago hypothesize that Planet 9 might be a black hole. The orbit of Planet 9 looks something like this.

We used a semi-major axis of 700 AU, an inclination of 30 degrees and an eccentricity of 0.6. The plot shows the full orbit of Planet 9, but the simulation only shows 150 years of the other planets.

It would be very interesting to visit Planet 9. One way is to use a solar sail. The sail would start on a trajectory aiming at perigee very close to the sun and then accelerate at high speed. Another approach is to use a spacecraft propelled by Direct Fusion Drive, a fusion propulsion system we’ve been working on for several years. A 26000 kg spacecraft with a 12 MW engine and 2000 kg of payload could rendezvous with Planet 9 (based on the above orbit) in just 11 years. This is the spacecraft trajectory

Direct Fusion Drive is based on the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration reactor invented by Dr. Samuel Cohen of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). We have a experiment running at PPPL, funded by an ARPA-E OPEN grant, to perform critical ion-heating tests. Earlier work was funded by the NASA NIAC program. Hopefully we will be in a position to send a mission to Planet 9 in the not too distant future!

This analysis was done using the Spacecraft Control Toolbox v2020.1. Contact us for more information!