In just over four years, NASA’s Dragonfly mission will blast off into space and begin its long journey toward Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. As part of the New Frontiers program, this quadcopter will explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface, and methane lakes for potential signs of life (aka biosignatures).
This will begin in 2034, with a science phase that will last for three years and three and a half months. The robotic explorer will rely on a nuclear battery — a multi-mission radioisotope thermogenerator (MMRTG) — to ensure its longevity.
But what if Dragonfly was equipped with a new generation of fusion power System? In a recent mission study paper, a team of researchers from Princeton Satellite Systems showed how a direct fusion drive (DFD) could significantly boost a mission to Titan. The New Jersey-based aerospace company is developing fusion systems based on the Princeton Field Reverse Configuration (PFRC).
This research could lead to compact fusion reactors that could lead to fast transits, long-duration missions, and miniature nuclear reactors here on Earth.
The research team was led by Michael Paluzek, president of Princeton Satellite Systems (PSS) and an aerospace engineer with a long history of experience in space systems and the commercial space industry. He was joined by numerous colleagues from PSS, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB, Princeton University and Stanford. Their mission study, “Titan’s Nuclear Fusion-Powered Airplane” recently came out. space acta.
The concept of nuclear propulsion dates back to the early space age when NASA and the Soviet space program sought to develop reactors to power future missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. Between 1964 and 1969, their efforts led to the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA), a solid reactor based on the slow decay of highly enriched uranium (235U) to power a nuclear thermonuclear propulsion (NTP) or nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) system.
The first relies on a reactor to heat deuterium (2H) fuel and liquid oxygen (LOX), which is then funneled through nozzles to generate thrust. The latter includes a reactor that supplies electricity to a Hall effect engine or an ion engine based on it electromagnetic field To ionize an inert gas (such as xenon) it is directed through nozzles for propulsion. Unlike these conventional nuclear engines, the direct fusion engine (DFD) calls for a Nuclear fusion A rocket engine that would produce both thrust and electricity of an interplanetary spacecraft.
in previous study, an international research team has proposed how a spacecraft equipped with a 2-megawatt (MW) DFD could deliver a 1,000-kg (2,200-pound) payload to Titan in less than 2.6 years (about 31 months). This is more than twice the mass of the Dragonfly mission, which (relatively) weighs a feather by comparison – 450 kg (990 lb). a transit time 2.6 years is also much less than the seven years it would take the Dragonfly spacecraft to reach Titan.
In their paper, Paluzek and his colleagues extend this work to an aircraft as payload, which will explore Titan’s atmosphere and surface for years. And unlike the Dragonfly quadcopter design, their Titan will be a fixed-wing robotic explorer. As Paluszek told Universe Today via email, the key to this spacecraft concept is the PFRC reactor concept developed by researchers at PPPL:
“The inverse Princeton field configuration is a magnetic topology in which the fields, produced by the antennas, close the field lines within a magnetic mirror. The antennas produce what is called a rotating magnetic field (RMF). Fusion occurs in this closed field region. Additional low-temperature plasma flows around the region fusion to produce an exhaust stream with the best exhaust velocity and thrust for a given task.”
According to their paper, the DFD thrust engine could haul a large spacecraft to Titan in less than two years. A second fusion reactor will power the Titan spacecraft as a closed-loop electrical power generator. Both reactors will be based on the PFRC concept and rely on a new radio frequency plasma heating system and deuterium/helium-3 (2h /3is) fuel. This would give the Titan more power (by several orders of magnitude) and greatly extend the life of the mission. Said Baluzik:
“Titan’s plane is much bigger. It saves more than 100 kilowatts for experiments. Dragonfly saves about 70 watts. More power means faster data transmission to Earth and a whole new class of high-powered instruments. NASA’s Jupiter Ice Moon Orbiter mission had a similar amount of power.” energy, and many new tools that require kilowatts of energy are planned.”
Using nuclear power to advance space exploration has been something that space agencies have been exploring since the dawn of the space age. With the Artemis program and a return to the Moon this decade, and missions to Mars and other deep space destinations in the future, NASA and other space agencies are thinking again about potential applications. These include NTP- and NEP-equipped dual-mode nuclear spacecraft that could reduce the transit to Mars to 100 days (it currently takes six to nine months to travel there).
The NTP system was recently selected for phase one development as part of NASA’s 2023 Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC) that could reduce transit times to as little as 45 days. In addition, NASA has contracted with DARPA to test a prototype of the NTP—Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO)—in orbit by 2027. There are also efforts to develop small, lightweight fission systems through NASA’s Fission Surface Power (FSP) project to provide Up to 10 kW of power continuously for at least ten years.
This latest effort builds on NASA’s KiloPower Project, which led to the KiloPower reactor using Stirling technology (KRUSTY). As Paluszek demonstrated, a DFD based on PFRC reactor design could significantly improve these proposals. Moreover, this technology has major implications for space exploration and terrestrial applications as well:
“The key figure is the power-to-mass ratio of the power plant. The DFD should be about 1 kWh/kg. The NEP is about 0.02 kW/kg. This technology could be used for portable power for emergencies or for the military. It could work remotely in towns that don’t have network link [and] For industrial applications where a network link is not available. It can power ships and long endurance drones. It can also be used for modular power plants, such as wind and solar turbines. Another application is peak energy. ”
This isn’t the first time that Paluszek and colleagues at PPPL and Princeton Satellite Systems have proposed DFD technology to advance space exploration. In 2014, as part of the 65th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), they recommended the DFD spacecraft for a manned orbital mission to Mars. In 2016, they proposed how the DFD-equipped spacecraft and rover could facilitate the Pluto mission, which has been selected for Phase I and Phase II by NIAC.
In the next decade, nuclear power and nuclear propulsion systems are likely to become regular a task Features. This likely includes miniatures fusion reactors that provide power to facilities that support exploration and development on the lunar surface. It could also provide rapid transportation and power systems at Mars and astrobiology missions to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, and other ocean worlds in the outer solar system. In short, the power of fission and fusion is a vital part of humanity’s effort to go into space and stay there for the long haul.
Michael Paluzek et al., Titan’s fusion-powered aircraft, space acta (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2023.04.029
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