A Third Planet Discovered Orbiting Proxima Centauri

Introduction

A third planet, as large as 26% of the mass of Earth, has been discovered orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri .Astronomer João Faria and his collaborators detected Proxima Centauri d using the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations.

It would be exciting to send a spacecraft to enter the Alpha-Centauri system and orbit this planet. At Princeton Satellite System we’ve looked at interstellar flight using the Direct Fusion Drive nuclear fusion propulsion system.

Interstellar Fusion Propulsion

At the 2021 Breakthrough Energy Conference we presented findings for both flyby and orbital missions. Flyby missions are easier, but orbit entry would allow detailed study of the planet. A flyby gets your spacecraft close, but it is moving really fast!

The following charts give an outline of our talk. The first shows the optimal exhaust velocity based on sigma, the ratio of power to mass. Our designs have a sigma from 0.75 to 2 kW/kg. With 2 kW/kg, the optimal exhaust velocity is 4000 km/s. The mission would take about 800 years. Our current designs can’t get exhaust velocities higher than 200 km/s. We’d need another method to produce thrust.

Mission Analysis

The next plot shows a point mission that reaches Alpha Centauri in 500 years. This requires a sigma of about 20. The spacecraft accelerates and decelerates continuously. The mission could be improved by staging, much like on a rocket that launches from the Earth into orbit.

Selected Mission

The next figure shows how the starship would enter the Alpha Centauri system.

Alpha Centauri System Insertion

The final plot shows the orbital maneuvers that lower the orbit and rendezvous with the planet.

Lowering the orbit to rendezvous with the planet.

Even 500 years is a long time! This is over ten times the lifetime of Voyager, but much less than some engineering marvels built on the Earth.

We hope to someday be able to build fusion powered spacecraft that will head into interstellar space!

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.

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:

https://www.thespaceshow.com/show/24-aug-2021/broadcast-3744-stephanie-thomas

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!

FISO Talk: Fusion Drive for Rapid Deep Space Propulsion

On May 29, 2019, Ms. Thomas gave an invited talk to the Future In-Space Operations working group on Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) for deep space propulsion. The slides and talk audio are available from FISO’s online archive here. The group hosts weekly telecon seminars to discuss upcoming technologies and their potential impact on space operations.

Our talk introduces Direct Fusion Drive, explains how it is based on the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC), and reviews some potential missions. There are summaries of the key physics points enabling the PFRC and the computational and modeling tools we apply. We conclude with the roadmap to spaceflight, including the supporting technologies that will be required for successful space engines, like lightweight space radiators.

We hope you enjoy this talk on DFD!

Rendezvous with 1I/’Oumuamua

An interstellar asteroid, 1I/’Oumuamua, was discovered on a highly hyperbolic orbit by Robert Weryk on October 19, 2017 moving with a speed of  26.32 km/s. It appears to come from the direction of the star Vega in the constellation Lyra. It would be really great to send a mission to rendezvous and fly in formation with 1I/’Oumuamua to study the asteroid. The high velocity makes it hard to do with current technology.

Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) might provide a answer. We designed a spacecraft with a 1 MW DFD power plant and assumed a launch on March 16, 2030. The following plots show the trajectory and the force, mass and power of the spacecraft during the 23 year mission. As you can see we don’t have to use the full 1 MW for propulsion so we have plenty of power for data transmission and the science payload.

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The code for this analysis will be available in Release 2018.1 of the Princeton Satellite Systems  Spacecraft Control Toolbox for MATLAB.

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.

17X0123_008

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!

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!!

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Selection

We are very pleased to announce that Ms. Stephanie Thomas of Princeton Satellite Systems has been selected to be a 2016 NIAC Fellow. This Phase I study, entitled “Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander,” will explore the possibility of using Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) to deliver an orbiter to Pluto complete with a lander. DFD is a fusion propulsion concept built upon a small, clean field-reversed configuration fusion reactor with a naturally linear geometry. The reactor becomes a rocket engine when additional propellant flows through, providing power as well as propulsion in one integrated device. This engine could halve the transit time to Pluto to 5 years from the nearly 10 years needed for New Horizons, while delivering 1000 kg worth of payload into orbit and providing up to 2 MW of power. This will enable remarkable data collection such as high-definition video and drilling into the planet’s surface. The technology provides a path to terrestrial fusion as well as eventual human missions across the entire solar system. The Phase I study will focus on creating higher fidelity models of the engine performance to enable optmization of possible mission trajectories and better quantification of the predicted specific power.

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DFD for Europa Exploration

Europa-luna

The Galileo moons of the Jovian system are of great interest for future space exploration due to the belief that three of the four of the largest moons (Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) contain water (in liquid and/or ice form). So far the eight spacecraft that have visited the vicinity of Jupiter are Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, Cassini, and most recently New Horizons. NASA has ambitions to send another probe to further study Europa.

At Princeton Satellite Systems, in collaboration with Dr. Samuel Cohen at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, we’ve been working on the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) engine, an advanced technology for space propulsion and power generation. Using the DFD, we have simulated two potential missions to Europa, an orbiter mission and a lander mission. The simulations were completed in MATLAB using functions contained within our Spacecraft Control Toolbox.

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