NIAC Focus: Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander

This high-resolution image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). The bright expanse is the western lobe of the “heart,” informally called Sputnik Planum, which has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
This high-resolution image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). The bright expanse is the western lobe of the “heart,” informally called Sputnik Planum, which has been found to be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices. (Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently selected 13 proposals for Phase I awards. Below is the description of an fusion-enabled Pluto orbiter and lander.

Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander

Stephanie Thomas
Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc.

The Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) concept provides game-changing propulsion and power capabilities that would revolutionize interplanetary travel. DFD is based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor under development at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The mission context we are proposing is delivery of a Pluto orbiter with a lander.

The key objective of the proposal is to determine the feasibility of the proposed Pluto spacecraft using improved engine models. DFD provides high thrust to allow for reasonable transit times to Pluto while delivering substantial mass to orbit: 1000 kg delivered in 4 to 6 years. Since DFD provides power as well as propulsion in one integrated device, it will also provide as much as 2 MW of power to the payloads upon arrival. This enables high-bandwidth communication, powering of the lander from orbit, and radically expanded options for instrument design.

The data acquired by New Horizons’ recent Pluto flyby is just a tiny fraction of the scientific data that could be generated from an orbiter and lander. We have evaluated the Pluto mission concept using the Lambert algorithm for maneuvers with rough estimates of the engine thrust and power. The acceleration times are sufficiently short for the Lambert approximation, i.e. impulsive burns, to have some validity.

We have used fusion scaling laws to estimate the total mission mass and show that it would fit within the envelope of a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle. Estimates of the amount of Helium 3 required to fuel the reactor are within available terrestrial stores.

In this Phase I study, we propose to analyze the Pluto mission concept using new models of the engine. We will develop an optimal trajectory including limits on the thrust steering and range of throttle. The throttling of the thrust and specific impulse will affect the efficiency, which we have not yet attempted to model.

Direct Fusion Drive is a unique fusion engine concept with a physically feasible approach that would dramatically increase the capability of outer planet missions. The fusion-enabled Pluto mission proposed here is credible, exciting, and the benefits to this and all outer planet missions are difficult to overstate. The truly game-changing levels of thrust and power in a modestly sized package
could integrate with our current launch infrastructure while radically expanding the science capability of these missions.

  • therealdmt

    Sounds easy…

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    It’s as simple as getting a net energy fusion system to work, which is presently only eight to nine hundreds years away from being achieved.

  • therealdmt

    I heard it would be here in 30 years (back in the 70‘s)

  • Someone has been watching too much of The Expanse…

    “now where did I leave my Epstein drive….”

  • Except for the large one that we already have, which nicely down converts the energy into the proper range for our ease of use.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Going to be tricky yo use that for a Pluto orbiter/lander though.

  • Paul451

    Actually, Orion makes an ideal lander.

    (The real Orion, not that fake capsule thing.)

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Which Orion is that then?, I don’t get the reference.

  • According to some it is as simple as using a giant magnifying glass in space, haha.

  • Flatley

    We’ll get fusion working just as soon as we hit Mars, 20 years from now.

  • therealdmt

    Project Orion from back in the 50‘s /60’s, I think he’s referring to. Nuclear pulse detonation propulsion.

  • Paul451

    I misread TLE’s comment as a reference to nuclear bombs. In hindsight, I realise he (and hence Michael’s reply) meant solar. Doh!

    [The correct response to TLE is that SEP is worthless beyond the asteroid belt, therefore can’t be used to slow a Pluto probe down at its destination.]

  • ReSpaceAge

    Guess Elon will need to do fusion as well to power his Mars city.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Fission works perfectly well and will likely be cheaper – certainly cheaper than any of the highly funded fusion efforts.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Are there detailed plans for building an affordable net energy fusion device waiting on Mars?. Why 20 years?, and why once Mars is reached?.

  • ReSpaceAge

    General point was that important stuff like developing a safer power source like contained fusion seems take forever. I suspect like reusable launch it has been decided that it is to hard, and they have just given up. It may take someone like musk to say hey we need this and just get it done other than depending on government programs that just milk the cost plus project.
    Maybe fusion power will be developed by the Martians instead.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Most of the fusion funding has been pissed down the drain on jokes like tokamaks (as per the pending ITER) and laser confinement (NIF). Even if these machines worked they would be cost prohibitive. I suspect that fusion plasma confinement may be beyond the limits of the physics of materials and so will never be achievable. A combination of fission together with solar and batteries is an easy and affordable solution for the next 10 billion years of human civilisation.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Thus Musks joke of making a small Sun over the poles of Mars using gravity as containment

  • Flatley

    It was a (too deadpan) sarcastic observation that, just as fusion has been 30 years away since the 70’s, a manned Mars mission has been 20 years away. Continuing the analogy, a return to the Moon is 10 years away and space tourism is 5 years away.

  • Flatley

    That’ll dovetail nicely with his plans to use fusion reactions (of a more unstable sort) to “terraform” the poles.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    That thing is unlicensed with the NRC. I heard some Republicans say that Obama was going to shut it down and sue the operator for operating a unlicensed fusion reactor for 5000 million years.