Princeton Satellite Systems, a space technology company working in conjunction with the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, has won a NASA grant to develop an advanced nuclear fusion-powered propulsion system for sending a mission to Pluto. Stephanie Thomas of PPS won the $100,000 grant, which will fund a study of a fusion engine that physicist Sam Cohen is building at the lab (See U.S. 1, November 4, 2015.)

The company was one of a handful of private companies to win a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program grant, which aims to fund creative, technically feasible concepts in aerospace technology. Winners of the 2016 grants included ideas from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the NASA Kennedy Space Center, and the NASA Ames Research Center.

The fusion drive is an offshoot of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab’s main project, which is fusion power, made using magnetically confined plasma, for generating electricity on Earth. Cohen has proposed that a spacecraft could use plasma for both propulsion and electricity production, allowing engineers to design spacecraft that are faster and more capable than their conventional counterparts, which use chemical burning rockets.

Thomas, an engineer at PSS, wrote a paper detailing how Cohen’s engine could be used in a mission to explore Pluto and even send a rover to the distant planetoid’s surface. The NASA grant will fund further analysis of the Pluto mission and a more refined design of Thomas’s proposed spaceship.

“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,” NASA wrote on its website.

Princeton Satellite Systems, 6 Market Street, Suite 926, Plainsboro 08536; 609-275-9606; fax, 609-275-9609. Michael Paluszek, president. www.psatellite.com.

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