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Companies Partner on A.I., Fusion Energy for Space Flight

Mars landscape, from the Perseverance Mars rover

Mars landscape, from the Perseverance Mars rover (NASA,

12 June 2023. A developer of fusion energy for space travel and software company for space flight systems are writing machine learning algorithms to design a hyper-fast rocket engine. The collaboration brings together Pulsar Fusion in Bletchley, England, U.K. and Princeton Satellite Systems Inc. in Plainsboro, New Jersey, but the length of the agreement, intellectual property, and financial details are not disclosed.

Pulsar Fusion is an eight year-old enterprise adapting fusion energy for space flight. The company has already developed an operational rocket engine for low-earth orbit missions, powered by high-density polyethylene plastic or HDPE, which it says can be sourced form recycled plastic waste. Pulsar Fusion says its HDPE engines avoid the risks of handling solid-fuel propellants as well as mechanical complexities of liquid fuel rockets.

The company says rockets using fusion energy are its ultimate goal. Fusion energy is generated by the joining of two light atoms from plasma, or partially ionized gas, into a single heavier atom that releases enormous quantities of energy. The sun and stars are huge fire balls of fusion energy from plasma, while lightning is another example on earth. Nuclear fission, the technique used to generate electricity today, splits a heavy element atom into two lighter atoms to produce energy and heat to power steam turbines, but that process requires constant safety monitoring and generates waste material needing safe long-term storage or processing, a continuing and so far unsolved problem.

Fusion reactors seek to emulate the atomic fusion process under safe conditions. One advantage of fusion is its lack of waste by-products, but finding a safe, reliable, and feasible fusion method has been elusive. In Dec. 2022, the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab achieved a breakthrough with 192 lasers producing a reaction that fuses the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium into helium, which then releases 54 percent more energy than the process consumes. Yet, note many experts, much work remains for decades before fusion can become a practical alternative energy source to replace fossil fuels.

Direct-drive fusion design

Pulsar Fusion says for space flight fusion energy generates power directly, with fewer constraints than on earth. “Space is the ideal place to do fusion in terms of it being a vacuum and the extremely cold temperatures,” says Pulsar Fusion CEO Richard Dinan in an email to Science & Enterprise. “Unlike a fusion power station, fusion propulsion doesn’t require a giant steam turbine and fuels can be sourced externally rather than needing to be created on site.” Dinan adds that “fusion offers 1,000 times the power of conventional ion thrusters currently used in orbit.”

Princeton Satellite Systems develops software for space and energy systems, including fusion energy. The company has licensed direct-drive fusion designs from the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab or PPPL, a U.S. national lab managed by Princeton University. One of the PPPL’s reactor concepts is the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration that fuses somewhat heavier atoms, yet releases energy in the form of positively-charged particles rather than neutrons, making the technology potentially safer and more efficient than fusing hydrogen isotope atoms.

Under their agreement, Pulsar Fusion and Princeton Satellite Systems are writing machine learning algorithms from data produced by measurements of super-hot plasma from the latest Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration or PFRC-2 reactor. Those artificial intelligence algorithms are expected to predict ion and electron behavior in plasma, particularly in a reactor fitted into a rocket engine.

Dinan notes that studies going back to 2012 have shown that fusion-powered rockets could hypothetically reduce a space flight to Mars in 30 days, and more recently travel to Saturn’s largest moon Titan to two years.

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