A Fusion Thruster for Space Travel

Clean, highly energetic reaction delivers a lot of drive from a drop of fuel

3 min read
Image of fusion rockets.
Illustration: George Retseck

28 June 2011—Designers of satellites obsess about how little fuel their creations are able to carry into space. So the propulsion method they choose for maneuvers such as orbital transfers has to deliver a lot for a little.

Now a NASA engineer has come up with a new way to fling satellites through space on mere grams of fuel, tens of times as efficiently as today’s best space probe thrusters. The answer, he says, is fusion. You might be thinking, "Fusion? Really?" But it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds at first blush. The engineer delivered the details today at the IEEE Symposium on Fusion Engineering in Chicago.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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