The final version of our paper, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft,” by Mr. Michael Paluszek, Ms. Annie Price, Ms. Zoe Koniaris, Dr. Christopher Galea, Ms. Stephanie Thomas, Dr. Samuel Cohen, and Ms. Rachel Stutz is now available, open access, on the Acta Astronautica website. As described in our earlier post, the paper discusses a mission to Titan using the Direct Fusion Drive on the transfer vehicle, and a Princeton Field Reversed Configuration reactor to power an aircraft, that could fly around Titan for years. The reactor allows for high-power instruments, some of which were first proposed for the NASA Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter Mission. The paper was first presented at IAC 2022 in Paris.
Two key figures were updated from the preprint version of the paper – Figure 11 and Figure 12, showing the power flow and mass breakdown of the PFRC for the electric aircraft. The earlier figures were from a larger version of the engine. The final engine design produces 0.5 MWe and has a mass of 1006 kg. This is now consistent with the system masses presented in Table 6. Vehicle Power and Payloads.
We had a great conversation with the host of this podcast, Rafael Roettgen, who asked us thoughtful questions. In this episode, we discuss topics such as: the future of space propulsion, the history and benefits of field-reversed configurations and how they compare with other fusion reactor concepts, mass and power budget considerations of a fusion rocket, and the road ahead for research and development to get us to a prototype for space. We additionally talk about terrestrial (on earth) applications of the PFRC concept as a globally-deployable power plant for remote areas and look forward to even more futuristic space concepts that could follow after the PFRC.
Our IAC paper on a fusion-powered Titan mission is now available in preprint on Acta Astronautica online, with the final version to come soon! Our mission concept utilizes two PFRC reactors: one configured as a Direct Fusion Drive rocket for the journey to Titan, and a second configured as a power source for the electric aircraft that will survey Titan. The paper includes a detailed design of the aircraft and analysis of optimal entry into the atmosphere and landing on the moon’s surface.
Our latest paper on DFD applications, “A Fusion-Propelled Transportation System to Produce Terrestrial Power Using Helium-3 From Uranus”, is now available from AIAA. This paper was part of the Future Flight Propulsion track and AIAA SciTech 2023. For those with AIAA membership, there is a video recording of the presentation as well! Download the paper here.
Our goal with this paper is to create a framework within which we can study the potential cost of electricity produced on Earth using helium-3 mined from Uranus. The scarcity of terrestrial helium-3, along with the radioactivity of methods to breed it, lead to extraterrestrial sources being considered as a means to enable clean helium-3 fusion for grid-scale electricity on Earth.
This paper builds on the work of Bryan Palaszewski who has published numerous papers on mining the atmospheres of the outer planets. Palaszewski’s work assumed fission-based power and propulsion systems, with a much lower (worse) specific power than we anticipate from a PFRC-based Direct Fusion Drive. We consider both transport and mining vehicles that are instead fusion-powered, including a fusion ramjet. This ramjet may be able to be both the mining vehicle and the orbital transfer vehicle to bring the refined helium-3 to the interplanetary transport,
The results allow us to estimate levelized cost of electricity, LCOE, for the electricity produced on Earth as a function of assumed cost of the fusion transports and mining system, cost of the PFRC reactors, amount of helium-3 stored on each transport and numbers of trips per year, etc. You can learn more about LCOE from the NREL website. Uranus is likely the most economical outer planet for mining due to its lower gravity and radiation environment and high concentration of helium in its atmosphere, about 15%. We find that with our set of assumptions, the resulting cost of electricity could potentially be competitive with wind and solar.
Future work will include analysis of the fusion ramjet trajectories between mining and transfer altitudes, and research into sizing a mining payload using membranes and adsorption to separate the helium-3 from the helium, rather than depend on heavy cryogenic techniques.
Annie Price, who was an intern at Princeton Satellite Systems during the summer of 2021, presented our paper, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft,” at session C4,10-3.5 which was the Joint Session on Advanced and Nuclear Power and Propulsion Systems.
There were many interesting papers. One was on generating electric power in the magnetic nozzle of a pulsed fusion engine. Another was on the reliability of nuclear thermal engines. The lead-off paper was on a centrifugal nuclear thermal engine with liquid fission fuel.
Annie’s paper covered the design of a Titan aircraft that can both do hypersonic entry and operate at subsonic speeds. Her design uses a 1 MWe nuclear fusion power plant based on PFRC and six electric propeller engines.
She discussed the aerodynamic design, why Titan is so interesting and how the available power would enable new scientific studies of Titan. Annie also described how a PFRC rocket engine or power plant operates. She included a slide on our latest results.
The paper was well received. She had a couple of good questions after her talk and engaged in interesting discussions after the session. Great job Annie!
This is a really excellent article on nuclear fusion, “Small-scale fusion tackles energy, space applications,” by M. Mitchell Waldrop, written January 28, 2020, Vol 117, No. 4 for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). The article quotes team Dr. Cohen and Mr. Paluszek and provides an excellent and technically accurate discussion of FRCs, heating methods, and fusion fuel physics.
We received a comment on LinkedIn about how fast the “Mars run” could be achieved with a sustained 1 G acceleration. The reader suggested this could be done in 40 hours. What engine parameters would be required to make that happen?
Using a simple constant-acceleration, straight-line analysis, you can indeed compute that the trip should take only a couple of days. Assuming a Mars conjunction, the straight distance is about 0.5 AU. At this speed you can ignore the gravitational effects of the sun and so the distance is a simple integral of the acceleration: d = 1/2 at2. The ship accelerates for half the time then decelerates, and the change in velocity is ΔV = at. Combining the two halves of the trip, at an acceleration of 9.8 m/s2, the trip takes about 2.1 days.
% straight line: distance s = 0.5*at^2
acc = 9.8; % accel, m/s^2
aU = Constant('au'); % km
dF = 0.5*aU*1000; % distance, m
t = sqrt(4*dF/acc); % time for dF, s
dV = t*acc/1000; % km/s
fprintf('\nAccel: %g m/s^2\n',acc)
fprintf('Time: %g days\n',t/86400)
fprintf('Delta-V: %g km/s\n',dV)
Accel: 9.8 m/s^2
Time: 2.02232 days
Delta-V: 1712.34 km/s
Now, your ship mass includes your payload, your engine, your fuel tanks and your fuel. Assume we want to move a payload of 50,000 kg, somewhat larger than the NASA Deep Space Habitat. The engine mass is computed using a parameter called the specific power, in units of W/kg. The fuel tank mass is scaled from the fuel mass, typically adding another 10%. When we run the numbers, we find that the engine needs to have a specific power of about 1×108 W/kg, and an exhaust velocity of about 5000 km/s results in the maximum payload fraction. We can compute the fuel mass and trajectory using our MassFuelElectricConstantUE and StraightLineConstantAccel toolbox functions:
The power needed is… over 2.8 terawatts! That’s about equal to the total power output of the entire Earth, which had an installed power capacity of 2.8 terawatts in 2020. And the engine would need to weigh less than 30 tons, about the size of a loaded tractor-trailer truck. For comparison, we estimate a Direct Fusion Drive would produce about 1 MW per ton, which is a specific power of 1×103 W/kg. So, this is why you see us trying to design an engine that can do the Mars transfer in 90 days and not 3 days!
Now, there is another consideration here. Namely, constant acceleration at 1 G is not the optimal solution by any means. The optimal solution for a fast, light transfer is actually a linear acceleration profile. This knowledge goes way back: 1961! Here’s a reference:
Leitmann, George. "Minimum Transfer Time for a Power-Limited Rocket." Journal of Applied Mechanics 28, no. 2 (June 1, 1961): 171-78. https://doi.org/10.1115/1.3641648.
This would mean that the engine changes its exhaust velocity during trip, passing through infinity at the switch point. We compute this in our “straight-line, power-limited” or SLPL function series. While this can’t be done physically, even an approximation of this with a variable impulse thruster will one day be more efficient than constant acceleration or thrust. How much better? The power needed is nearly 1/2 the constant acceleration solution, 1.5 TW, and the specific power needed is reduced by half, to 5.6×107 W/kg. However, those are still insane numbers!
mD = 80000; % dry mass: engine, tanks, payload
m0 = 1.5*mD; % wet mass: with fuel
tF = 3*86400;
vF = 0;
[Pj,A,tau] = SLPLFindPower( aU, tF, vF, mD, m0 );
mTank = 0.05*(m0-mD); % tanks, scale with fuel
mLeft = mD-mTank;
mEngine = mLeft - mPayload;
disp('Straight-line Power-limited (linear accel)')
fprintf('Engine power is %g GW\n',Pj*1e-9);
fprintf('Engine mass is %g kg\n',mEngine);
fprintf('Payload mass is %g kg\n',mPayload);
fprintf('sigma is %g W/kg\n',Pj/mEngine);
SLPLTrajectory( A, tau, Pj, m0, tF )
Straight-line Power-limited (linear accel)
Engine power is 1573.26 GW
Engine mass is 28000 kg
Payload fraction is 0.416667
sigma is 5.6188e+07 W/kg
The trajectory and engine output are plotted below. The linear acceleration results in a curved velocity plot, while in the constant acceleration case, we saw a linear velocity plot. You can see the spike in exhaust velocity at the switch point, which occurs exactly at the halfway point.
After all, who needs 1G gravity when the trip only takes 2 days?
For even more fun though, we computed a planar trajectory to Mars using the parameters we found – just to confirm the straight-line analysis is in fact a good approximation. This figure shows the paths the optimization takes:
It is in fact approximately a straight line!
In reality though, these power system numbers are not even remotely plausible with any technology we are aware of today. That’s why we are designing engines to reduce the Mars trip time to 90 days from 8 or 9 months – still a big improvement!
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.
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)
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)