Space travel: Nex-gen fusion drive concept unveiled in bid to search for alien life
Fusion is the holy grail of power generation, as it is capable of creating almost infinite amounts of clean energy. Although it has long remained elusive, scientists believe fusion could one day unlock mankind’s dream of scouring the Universe in the search alien life, with craft powered by space drives. However, the persistent obstacle is how it requires considerably more energy to create the fusion reactions than it produces.
Yet undeterred by fusion energy’s current unavailability, such a concept drive is already in development at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
Engineers are currently working on the second iteration of what they have dubbed the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD), known as the Princeton field reversed configuration-2 (PFRC-2).
Developers hope to one day launch their drive into space for testing, and they are increasingly confident a descendent of this cutting-edge system will one day power exploration throughout the Solar System.
Although still highly theoretical, a fully-operational engine boasts numerous advantages of aneutronic fusion, primarily an impressively high power-to-weight ratio.
Direct fusion drive is mainly fuelled by deuterium and a helium-3 isotopes.
With even the smallest of this potent mix, DFD can easily outperform the chemical or electric propulsion methods currently in use.
The specific impulse of the system, measuring how effectively an engine uses fuel, is comparable to electrical engines, considered to be the most efficient available at this time.
In addition, the DFD engine would provide 4-5 Newtons of thrust (approximately 1 pound of thrust) in low power mode.
To put this into context, this is only slightly less than what a chemical rocket would output over long stretches.
The DFD, therefore, combines the excellent specific impulse of electric propulsion systems with the superb thrust of chemical rockets, making this the best of both systems.
Should these superb specifications ever result in a real drive, the papers’ authors have already picked where their still-theoretical spacecraft should travel to first.
Ringed planet Saturn’s biggest moon Titan has been selected as it remains relatively distant while also extremely interesting.
This is due to Titan’s liquid oceans and potentially abundant organic molecules.
An Italian team collaborated with the DFD’s developers and were granted access to PPPL performance data from the test engine.
This resulted in two different potential paths: one where constant thrust was only applied at the beginning and the end of the journey, and another where the thrust was constant for the journey’s duration.
Both options would require switching the thrust’s direction in order to slow such a craft to allow it to enter into the Saturnian system.
Experts estimate providing a constant thrust would mean the journey a little less than two years.
The other option would result in a journey with a duration of 2.6 years, if the spacecraft was significantly larger than NASA legendary Cassini.
Neither of those paths would require any gravity assists, which probes travelling to such outer worlds have so far relied on.
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