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PPPL Licenses Fusion Technology That Could Revolutionize Space Travel

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has licensed the technology for Direct Fusion Drive (DFD), a fusion-powered rocket engine that could take people on a mission to orbit Mars for 30 days with total trip duration of 310 days, something that is impossible with chemical or nuclear fission engines.

Employing fusion to power rockets has long been a theoretical dream for space travel. The mission could be launched on a single NASA Space Launch System (SLS) booster and be ready when the SLS is available for human spaceflight. This would lead to human lander missions and Mars bases. Current experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) are exploring basic physics principles of the proposed engine’s fuel-confinement scheme at small scale.

PPPL recently licensed the technology to Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., in Plainsboro, N.J. The licenses also cover a potential new and novel fusion facility, with applications that include generating electricity for power stations and propelling space travel. A test facility based on a concept known as magnetic field reversed confinement could be completed by 2022. “That’s when we’ll be in a position to build a flight version,” said Michael Paluszek, president of Princeton Satellite Systems.

The magnetic device would create a cigar-shaped plasma—the superhot, electrically charged gas that fuels fusion reactions—inside a cylinder that is 20 feet long and could produce up to 10 million watts of power. Propulsion would come from the stream of high-speed fusion exhaust that would blast into space through a magnetic nozzle.

Paluszek is already looking far beyond Mars. DFD would enable ambitious robotic solar system missions at far less cost than current technology allows, revolutionizing space exploration as we know it. With DFD we could see Europa robotic orbiter and landing missions; resupply and refurbishment of the James Webb Space Telescope; asteroid mining and deflection operations; power for space stations, moon bases, and advanced earth observation platforms; and robotic probes traveling to nearby stars, possibly even orbiting Earth-like planets.

PPPL and Princeton Satellite Systems are seeking funds for later versions from sources such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

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