NASA Funds Fusion Rocket Research
Kyle Maxey posted on June 15, 2017 | 2276 views

Nuclear fusion is one of the most potent methods for generating energy in the universe. Fusion drives the furnaces at the core of stars where deuterium and tritium ions are heated to millions of degrees, transformed into a plasma, and ultimately fused together. The result of the reaction – uncanny energy generation.

And it’s that potential that has led researchers to invest their careers in the development of sustainable, controllable fusion reactions. But as of yet, no net positive fusion reactions have been engineered. Fortunately, that track record isn’t stopping the people at NASA.

An artist's rendering of PSS's fusion rocket engine. (Image Courtesy of PSS)
An artist's rendering of PSS's fusion rocket engine. (Image Courtesy of PSS.)

In a move that’s sure to generate a lot of buzz around the future of spaceflight, NASA has funded Princeton Satellite Systems (PSS), a startup aiming to develop a miniature fusion engine that could replace traditional chemical rockets and newer ion engines.

Fueled by nearly $1M in NASA monies, PSS has plans to build a 4-8 meter long, 1.5 meter diameter fusion engine that can produce 1 kilowatt of power for every kilo of mass carried. According to PSS founder Michael Paluszek, unlike experimental fusion reactors which can cost $20B, the PSS engine might only run up a $20M tab. 

To achieve a stable, sustainable fusion reaction, PSS engineers will use a mixture of deuterium and helium-3 as its seed material. Radio waves and magnetic fields will be used to compress the 2H and He-3 ions until they’re so hot that they begin to fuse. At that point, a magnetic field would be used to shape the reaction’s heat through a nozzle where it would become a torrent of thrust.

As of now, PSS has yet to demonstrate how their fusion engine will work. However, the company believes it can demonstrate a viable system sometime between 2019 and 2020.

That seems ambitious.

However, if fusion rockets are successfully engineered, a whole new scope might be opened for human space flight. Not only would the boundaries of our solar system be open to robotic exploration (a trip to Alpha Centauri might only take 500-700 years aboard a 10 megawatt fusion sled), the number of scientific instruments that could be powered by a fusion engine would be enormous. What’s more, fusion engines could amplify the amount of data that could be shipped back to Earth by space craft, making our off-world view even richer.

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