At first glance one might not know whether to take Princeton Satellite Systems (PSS) seriously, but their ambitions certainly show serious determination. The team of half a dozen or so engineers and scientists has a long term plan of sending humans to Mars, to launch probes to the outer solar system and to send missions to Alpha Centauri and more, and it plans to achieve this through the as-yet-unattainable power of nuclear fusion.
Physicists have been trying to tame the power of nuclear fusion for more than 50 years and it is not likely that this carbon emission-free and minimal radioactive waste source of power will see the light of day for decades to come. Yet, the team at PSS think they can make it work and think it could be used to power a rocket across the solar system. If the team were able to create a suitable nuclear fusion device they would have rockets with more thrust than conventional ones, a greater speed would decrease the astronauts exposure to interplanetary radiation and it would slash the food and water requirements in half. Certainly a good list of benefits.
But how do they expect to tame this immense technology I hear you ask? Traditional nuclear fusion machines use radio waves as a heat source and powerful magnets for containment of the hydrogen atoms and with a little fiddling the scientists and engineers at PSS think they could create a linear fusion device which would be significantly smaller and cheaper to build than the traditional torus shaped devices. While they haven’t yet achieved burning plasma, they have designed and built machines which have displayed confident confinement and heating at sub-fusion levels. The engineers admit that this doesn’t mean it will necessarily work and that they have a long way to go, but they feel confident and so does the U.S. Department of Energy as they are sponsoring some of their research. When they attended the 2012 International Astronautical Congress they were the only ones to have actual experiments, something they are quite proud of and is indicative of their lead on the other labs.
Their design has one small problem, which is also strangely an advantage. They have designed their system to run on a combination of deuterium and helium 3 instead of the traditional deuterium and tritium. This means that while their reactor will produce less radiation meaning less shielding needed for the spacecraft, helium 3 is very rare and the supply on Earth is very limited.
It will be fascinating to see how their research progresses over the next few years and how other labs such as their progress alongside them. I for one would love to see this technology perfected and used as a viable means for interplanetary and interstellar transport. It would also be of great benefit to us here on Earth as it would be a great step towards removing our dependency on hydrocarbons as a fuel source and to minimising our impact on the ecosystem that is Earth. (x)