Fusion-based fuel for spacecraft may be available soon. DFD engines based on this tech will begin operations by 2028, stated its developers. This is big news since the engine with a size of a minivan can propel at 10-ton spacecraft up to Saturn within 2 years and Pluto within 5. This is better than Cassini which took 81 months till Saturn and New Horizons mission which took 114 months to reach Pluto. The engine is a viable power source, allowing multiple off-Earth usages as well.
DFD can also power The Gateway mission, which is a space station along the moon’s orbit, currently under planning. Mars and Moon bases could also be powered. Stephanie Thomas of this team stated this while speaking at a presentation. DFD is another version of PFRC, which was a concept for fusion reactors invented by Cohen of PPPL during the 2000s. Exhaust flows out generating thrust, through one open end of the DFD, which mostly resembles a PFRC build.
Deuterium and helium-3 plasma that’s magnetically contained will be present in DFD’s interior. Atoms will fuse and generate energy without radiation risks. A cool propellant will be heated by plasma which would produce requisite thrust, with power around 1-10 MW. Brayton cycle-based engines will be used to convert this heat into useful electricity. Scientific missions will also be possible as fusion based orbiters could beam power to lenders on a planet’s surface and transmit hi-def. video to Earth, stated Thomas.
Nuclear fission is yet to be viable. However, Thomas thinks her model is likely to be successful since it has plasma-heating, low radiation, clean operation, and small size. Funding has been secured to continue development on the project. Work between 2016 and 2019 was funded by NASA. ARPA-E was also awarded to it for more funding availability. PFRC-1 has already proved its core concepts. An experiment was conducted at PPPL between 2008 and 2011 with PFRC-2 currently operating now. Fusion will be achieved by PFRC-2 set for the 2020s. This would be followed by flight prototype designs with the mission coming to life by 2028.