AIAA ASCEND 2023 Papers: Liquid Rockets and Solar Parasols

We presented two papers at the 2023 AIAA ASCEND conference in Las Vegas on October 25, featuring the work of our interns William Huang and Aniesha Dyce. All GN&C analysis and simulations were performed using our Spacecraft Control Toolbox, while the parasol model was built in Fusion 360.

Thanks to the session chairs Dr. Erica Rodgers (NASA), Evan A. Bell (NASA), Melodie Yashar (ICON), and John Carsten (MEI). Our sessions included a variety of intriguing research including optical payload development, robotics from GITAI, deep space internet, a student smallsat design using a solar sail and a study of perceived spaciousness in astronaut living spaces.

Here are the abstracts for our papers:

All Liquid Fuel Space Launch System

The recent Artemis launch demonstrated the performance of the NASA Space Launch System (SLS), specifically the SLS Block 1 configuration. The launch vehicle has a central core stage with four RS-25 engines and two 5-segment solid rocket boosters (SRB). The second stage uses an RL10C-3 engine. This paper presents a conceptual design of an SLS variant using the same core vehicle but with five liquid boosters, each with a single RS-25D. This launch vehicle provides the same performance with two-thirds the launch mass. This is conceptually similar to some Shuttle variants. This paper provides an analysis and comparison of the launch vehicles’ performance and presents simulation results. In addition, it shows how the add-on boosters can be used independently as part of a high-performance two-stage to orbit (TSTO) launch vehicle. Payload and performance are given for the single boosters with a 2nd stage powered by an RL10C-3 engine. Comparison with other commercial available launch vehicles show that the TSTO vehicle proposed in this paper is a competitive in terms of the payload mass it is able to carry to low earth orbit (LEO). This launch vehicle is more complex than comparable launch vehicles. Additional work will be required to determine the cost per kilogram of the two stage launch vehicle and the cost of operating SLS with liquid boosters.

DOI: 10.2514/6.2023-4742

Gateway Momentum Unloading using a Solar Parasol

This paper describes the use of a robotic arm for momentum unloading and orbit control. A panel is attached to the end of a robotic arm. It is positioned, in angle and position, to optimize unloading. The robot arm can move about the spacecraft giving additional degrees of freedom. The panel can be stowed when necessary. The work is based partially on a technology developed by the Canadian Space Agency. The parasol can be grabbed and deployed by the robot arm whenever it is needed, to remove momentum. When it is not needed the parasol is retracted and stowed. The system can be used in high orbits for both momentum and orbit control using solar pressure. In lower orbits, it can use atmospheric drag for the same purpose. This paper focuses on its use for momentum unloading for the NASA Gateway space station. The paper includes a complete GN&C design using single gimbal CMGs with thrusters for orbit control and backup attitude control. The dynamical equations are derived and simulation results are presented for all modes of operation. This includes an optimal attitude profile for minimizing solar and gravity gradient torques over the Gateway orbit.

DOI: 10.2514/6.2023-4781
CAD model of Gateway with a solar parasol in orbit around with moon.
Gateway with Notional Solar Parasol

It was great to be part of the ASCEND conference and share our work!

Technology-to-Market Summer Internship

My name is Riya Anand. I am a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Chemistry and pursuing minors in Environmental and Sustainability Management and Engineering Entrepreneurship at the Wharton School. This summer I worked at Princeton Satellite Systems (also doing business as Princeton Fusion Systems) as a Business and Product Development intern. 

I predominantly worked on two projects during my time at PFS: GAMOW & PFRC-3. 

GAMOW: ARPA-E GAMOW brings together Princeton Fusion Systems, Princeton University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Qorvo (formerly UnitedSiC) to develop high efficiency switching amplifiers using cascode wide bandgap (WBG) devices, employing advanced cooling technology in the form of digitally controlled boards. The Technology-to-Market (T2M) plan allows for the development of a strong understanding of a product and its surrounding market, customers, and acquisition strategies. Over the past few months, I worked on the third revision of the GAMOW T2M plan. Specifically, I worked to insert various elements to improve the strength and effectiveness of the plan to the reader. 

In order to do this, I conducted market analysis (using a TAM/SAM/SOM framework for GAMOW’s primary, secondary, & tertiary markets) and cost analysis (using both a “bottom-up” and cost-benefit framework). In conducting the analyses, I was able to meet with leaders at PFS’s collaborating companies including the Head of Marketing at Qorvo, a company that specializes in creating cascodes, to collect metrics and strategies. 

I followed up my market research with competitive analysis where I analyzed areas such as technology of focus, products, financial resources/market share, marketing strategies, future plans and growth, etc. for various competitive startups and companies. This allowed me to pinpoint areas PFS’s strengths and use it to compose a value proposition.

Figure showing the growing power electronics market for GaN, a WBG semiconductor. Source: Semiconductor Today.

Additionally, I worked to organize all of the end-user organizations that PFS has come in contact with at previous summits, conferences, etc. to ensure room for effective communication and to serve as a reminder for the needs of clientele as the GAMOW technology develops.

Finally, after meeting with some potential investors for the GAMOW technology, I put down a framework for the EBITDA margin (earnings before interest, taxes, and amortization, a measure of company profitability), valuation at exit, & return on investment that would allow for derivation of numbers that could be presented to investors, collaborators, clients, etc. and helped in creating a GAMOW Product Roadmap document and pitch deck that simplified descriptions of each of GAMOW’s products, down to images and definitions of each component, both essential for strong understanding of the technology. 

Apart from adding this information to the T2M plan, itself, I created a business/marketing slide with T2M information (including goals, target market, assessment of competitiveness, assessment of market, and a value proposition) that was used as PSS’s lead slide at the ARPA-E 2023 Energy Summit. I compiled all of the above information and other highlights within the plan into an Executive Summary of the technology that now leads the T2M report. 

PFRC: The Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (PFRC) device is a nuclear fusion reactor which provides a revolutionary approach to fusion power generation. The reactor is small and clean and can be used in diverse applications, from submarines to urban environments to space propulsion. A model of the PFRC is shown below. Under this project, I attended the 5th Annual Department of Defense Power and Energy Conference outside Washington D.C. where I heard from renowned figures such as Major General David Maxwell and was able to speak to and learn from figures such as Honorable Sharon Burke and numerous representatives from Guernsey, Ammentum, and NextEra Energy about PFRC technology and applications. 

Prior to the conference, I had been attending weekly Plasma Physics lectures under Professor Samuel Cohen at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (a national Department of Energy laboratory) and using the information I learned here to create T2M and general marketing slides, later accessible by all we spoke to at the conference. The slides included an extensive value proposition (in terms of military, space propulsion, civil terrestrial), market standing, manufacturing lead, product roadmap, end-user understanding, competitive advantage and analysis of the general industry). All of the contacts and information accumulated in this conference were compiled into a multipage summarizing document. 

Via my conversations at the Summit, I was able to set up meetings with potential collaborators/clients and PFS. One of these meetings in particular experienced success and led to further discussion and strong possibility of collaboration once technological details are finalized. 

Overview: As a whole, PFS provided me with a space where I was able to diversify my past experiences through exposure across various industries. The integration of hands-on-experience, being able to join conversations with clients, investors, and collaborators as an intern, into academic offerings made PFS an ideal environment for me to develop skills such as problem solving, effective communication, thought leadership, and collaboration, which will give me the agility and ability to understand and move between industries. I have gained experience in fields ranging from plasma physics and aerospace engineering to entrepreneurship and operations, giving me exposure to the crossroads between STEM and business. The tight knit network within the company provided me a place where I could grow, learn, and eventually, contribute to the business development efforts of the company. I would not have been able to do this without the help of each and every person at PFS who was extremely welcoming and willing to provide 1:1 mentorship and guidance each step of the way. I am extremely appreciative of PFS for giving me the opportunity to work with them this summer. I am confident that I will apply all that I have learned here to all of my future endeavors. 

Aerospace Engineering Winter Internship

I worked on two projects during my winter internship at Princeton Satellite Systems: a two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) launch vehicle design proposal related to the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) and a satellite conjunction maneuver demo. These both used the Spacecraft Control Toolbox for MATLAB.

One of the main ideas behind the TSTO launch vehicle project is to propose an all-liquid variant of the SLS. Currently, the SLS first stage is mostly powered by two solid rocket boosters (SRB) upgraded from the Space Shuttle SRBs. However, our proposal is to replace the two SRBs with five liquid boosters (LB), each mated with an RS-25 engine. The second stage would remain the same. Using MATLAB, I analyzed the launch and trajectory performance of both variants and found similar performance. Additionally, the total mass of the all-liquid SLS variant would be approximately two-thirds the mass of the SRB-powered spacecraft. An approximate CAD model of the all-liquid SLS version is shown below.

In addition, the LBs can be used independently to power smaller high-performance TSTO launch vehicles that carry around 8,000 kg of payload to low earth orbit. Trajectory plots and a preliminary CAD model are shown below.

My other project this internship was to help out with a satellite conjunction avoidance demo with Ms. Stephanie Thomas. The goal was to create a solution in MATLAB to identify potential satellite-debris conjunctions and develop a method/algorithm to avoid the conjunctions. I mainly worked on testing the code and relevant functions and providing feedback about the solution’s comprehensiveness.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this internship and the opportunity to work at PSS. I saw firsthand how even a small company can make significant contributions to aerospace and engineering through diverse interests yet specific, impressive skill sets.

Winter Power Electronics Internship

At MIT, we are given the month of January off from classes to pursue our own interests, whether they be career-oriented or hobby-based. During these five weeks, I have worked at PSS as a power electronics intern. My time at PSS has given me the opportunity to explore so many of the industry based applications of electronics and electrical engineering amongst some of the most innovative minds in the aerospace and energy industries. 

Within the GAMOW (Galvanizing Advances in Market-Aligned Fusion for an Overabundance of Watts) project, my work centered around helping redesign, assemble, and test a power load switch, the resulting prototype of which is shown above. Within this project, I received a wide array of experience ranging from 3D-modeling PCB boards with Eagle software, to physical board assembly, to designing testing procedures for the completed board. Initially, I worked on redesigning the load switch PCB to reduce loop currents and noise. My next steps were to source and order all needed components for in-house assembly. During the assembly process, I worked with both a soldering iron and hot air rework station to assemble surface mounted devices (SMDs) and through-hole components. 

Raspberry Pi setup for PWM

I also dipped into some software based components of the project, programming in C and Python to create hardware based signals to our desired testing specifications. Specifically, I was aiming to make Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) signals of a specific duration for the Raspberry Pi to output. This led to various tests on the outputs of the code, through the use of an oscilloscope (two PWM pulses on the oscilloscope are shown below). Ultimately, I had the chance to start testing the board in connection with a power supply and the Raspberry Pi’s program.

Moreover, I had the opportunity to dip into so many different branches of electrical engineering and project design. In attending meetings about all of the individual components of the massive GAMOW project, I saw how the team plans and executes each individual collaborative part of the project. This experience in the project process and cutting edge electrical project design as a whole have given me many insights into the professional world of electrical engineering.

Winter Mechanical Engineering Internship

During my time at Princeton Satellite Systems, I worked on a momentum unloading project for NASA’s Gateway, a component of the Artemis program. I designed a deployable parasol that is controlled by Canadarm using Solidworks.

Solidworks is a platform I am familiar with, but I was still able to learn new functions. My favorite part of working with Solidworks is the puzzle-like nature of assemblies. When trying to make dynamic parts you have to think about how to best add relations without over-constricting or under-constricting the part. Once I finalized my initial design I was able to attend a Zoom meeting and present it to another company.

When not working on my Gateway project, I fiddled with the 3D printer to print models of the PFRC fusion reactor.

Although I have used 3D printers several times before, this time was more of a learning process. I was an acting 3D printer technician and wrote a guide with troubleshooting tips for future employees. Due to problematic unspooling and tangled filament the printer became jammed a few times, and I was unable to do the typical loading/unloading to set the filament free. This gave me the opportunity to take apart the 3D printer and see the internal mechanisms, which in turn allowed me to unjam the printer and solve the problem. I was thrilled to see inside the 3D printer and how the parts blend together!

Through my internship I learned about the complexity of the design process and how many things you need to consider when creating a product. Conceptualizing is one step, but bringing that concept into the real world requires much more research and planning. Overall, this internship was a great opportunity that allowed me to learn how to solve several engineering problems.

Plasma Circuit Models for RF Heating

This summer, I worked on creating a plasma circuit model as part of PSS’s work under the ARPA-E GAMOW grant. As part of this project, I wrote MATLAB functions to reproduce the results of two papers on impedance of radio frequency (RF)-driven circuits for plasma heating. Both functions take in some plasma and geometric parameters and return impedance values as well as plots of impedance as a function of other parameters.

The first function is based on reference [1], which uses the transformer model to describe the coupling between the plasma and the rest of the circuit. This means that the plasma can be represented as a resistor-inductor circuit that is inductively coupled with the main circuit. In addition to calculating the equivalent circuit impedance for values in passed-in density and frequency ranges, I reproduced the figures showing resistance/inductance and reflection coefficient as a function of the electron density of the plasma. Plotting over many orders of magnitude of density, you can see drastic changes in the plasma resistance and inductance.

Plasma resistance (solid lines) and inductance (dashed lines) as a function of electron density for five different frequencies, based on the transformer model in [1].

Since ion cyclotron resonance heating (ICRH) is a leading technique for plasma heating in fusion reactors, we also wanted a function that dealt specifically with ICRH in its plasma model. I then read through some literature on ICRH in order to find a suitable reference to model in MATLAB. I found this in reference [2], which became the basis for my second function. This model uses transmission line theory to calculate the antenna impedance with the effects of the plasma incorporated. This paper also compared a previously-formulated 2D model with its own 3D model, and the implications of this extension to three dimensions can be seen in the way impedance changes as a function of the wavenumber.

Antenna reactance (left) and resistance (right) as a function of the parallel wavenumber, based on the transmission line model in [2].

The impedance values produced from both of these models can be used to help account for the effect of plasma on antennas used in RF heating, especially ICRH. While assumptions are made in these models to allow for analytical calculations to be made (notably assuming uniform current density and neglecting volume propagation effects) and adjustments are needed to resolve minor discrepancies between the MATLAB models and the figures in the reference papers, they should be a reasonable first approximation of the physics that is occurring and the impedance generated by the plasma.

This summer has given me a lot more knowledge about plasma physics, in particular about resonance heating. I have also gained a lot of experience in conducting literature reviews, reproducing published results, and working in MATLAB.

[1] Nishida, K., et al., “Equivalent circuit of radio frequency-plasma with the transformer model.” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 85, 02B117 (2014); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.4832060.

[2] Bhatnagar, V.P., et al., “A 3-D analysis of the coupling characteristics of ion cyclotron resonance heating antennae.” Nucl. Fusion 22, 280 (1982); https://doi.org/10.1088/0029-5515/22/2/011.

Annie Price Presents, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft” at IAC 2022 in Paris France

Annie Price, who was an intern at Princeton Satellite Systems during the summer of 2021, presented our paper, “Nuclear Fusion Powered Titan Aircraft,” at session C4,10-3.5 which was the Joint Session on Advanced and Nuclear Power and Propulsion Systems.

There were many interesting papers. One was on generating electric power in the magnetic nozzle of a pulsed fusion engine. Another was on the reliability of nuclear thermal engines. The lead-off paper was on a centrifugal nuclear thermal engine with liquid fission fuel.

Annie’s paper covered the design of a Titan aircraft that can both do hypersonic entry and operate at subsonic speeds. Her design uses a 1 MWe nuclear fusion power plant based on PFRC and six electric propeller engines.

She discussed the aerodynamic design, why Titan is so interesting and how the available power would enable new scientific studies of Titan. Annie also described how a PFRC rocket engine or power plant operates. She included a slide on our latest results.

The paper was well received. She had a couple of good questions after her talk and engaged in interesting discussions after the session. Great job Annie!

A Heat Optimized Oxygen-Deuterium Auxiliary Engine for DFD Startup

My name is Pavit Hooda, and I was an intern at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory during the summer of 2022. In my time there, I took on the start-up problem of the Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) and developed a compelling solution. A system to power on or re-start the DFD in space is essential for its use, especially in long-duration missions. Therefore, my work has helped us get closer to a space-faring future where the DFD is the means of propulsion for humanity’s missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Artist’s Rendering of the DFD on a Mission to Mars

The problem at hand was to create an auxiliary power unit that can generate a sufficient amount of power with the use of the Deuterium fuel and liquid Oxygen oxidizer that were on board. The Deuterium is one of the fuels of the fusion within the DFD, and the Oxygen can be recycled from the cabin of the crew. After the power is generated, the objective is to eventually split the deuterium-oxide product back into its constituents for use in their respective areas of the spacecraft. This electrolysis can be done after the fusion core is started and there is a sufficient amount of surplus energy from the DFDs.

The design of the heat engine first begins with the electric pumps that feed the fuel and the oxidizer into the combustion chamber. A turbopump-based feeding system was decided against due to the low mass flow rates that are required to power the DFD. Additionally, the accurate throttle control granted by the use of electric pumps, and the ability to use the batteries on board to spin the pumps, make electric pumps the more viable option. Before the deuterium fuel is fed into the coaxial swirl injector, it is ran across cooling channels surrounding the combustion chamber. This regenerative cooling is performed to heat the deuterium to increase its reactivity and lengthen the lifespan of the combustion chamber by minimizing the effect of the high temperature it is operating at. Additionally, the cooling system provides a healthy temperature gradient for the thermoelectric generation layer that is also wrapped around the combustion chamber. The oxidizer is directly injected into the combustion from its propellant tank.

After passing through the injector and combusting in a successful ignition, the deuterium-oxide steam exhaust is directed towards a turbine system. The turbine system and the combustion chamber are attached with a flange. The turbine system consists of two sets of blades that are separated by a disk that acts like a stator in a steam turbine. The exhaust is first directed towards a doughnut-shaped casing that allows for the heavy water steam to hit the blades in a direction that is parallel to the blade disk’s central normal axis. The two turbine disks are attached to a common axis that extends outside the turbine system’s casing. The rotation of this axle is then used to generate power with an electric generator. Finally, the steam then exits through a large exhaust manifold tube that directs it to a temporary storage container. This design of a heat engine would result in producing 3 MJ, the sufficient amount of power to start up a PFRC, in about 10 minutes. An illustration of the entire design of this system can be seen below.

CAD model of the heat engine

In the pursuit to study the feasibility of this engine, various parts were selected. A 600 W electric generator that matches both the power and mass specifications of the heat engine was found and is shown below.

600 Watt Power Generator

Additionally, the turbine casing in the heat engine matches the geometry and function of a turbocharger that is found as a component in some car engines. The part is displayed below.

Turbocharger component

A significant amount of extensive work still needs to be put into the creation of this heat engine. However, I truly believe that this work presents itself as a good first step in the right direction towards this engine’s small but significant role in humanity’s journey to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Writing about Fusion

Hi! I’m Paige, and I’m an undergraduate at Princeton interested in physics and science communications. This January, I got to work as an intern here at Princeton Satellite Systems. These past few weeks, I’ve been writing about the fusion-related projects PSS is working on, such as their Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor concept and plans for a space propulsion engine.

My first task was to write a four-page report on the PFRC, including its design, market demand, and development timeline. I knew very little about fusion coming into this internship, so first I had to learn all I could about the process that powers the sun and has the potential to supply the earth with clean, practically limitless energy.

Various types of fusion reactors are under development by companies and coalitions all over the world; they differ in the reactors they use and their methods of confining and heating plasma. ITER, for instance, is an example of a tokamak under construction in France; it uses superconducting magnets to confine plasma so that the reaction of tritium and deuterium can occur. 

The PFRC, currently in the second stage of experiments at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, uses radio frequency waves to create a rotating magnetic field that spins and heats the plasma inside, which is contained by closed magnetic field lines in a field-reversed configuration resulting from the opposition of a background solenoidal magnetic field to the field created by the rotating plasma current. The fusion reaction within the PFRC is that of helium-3 and deuterium, which offers multiple advantages over reactions involving tritium. Compared with other fusion reactors, the PFRC is incredibly compact.  It will be about the size of a minivan, 1/1000th the size of ITER; this compactness makes it ideal for portable or remote applications.

After learning about the design and market applications of the PFRC, I created a four page brochure about PFRC, writing for a general audience. I included the basics of the reactor design and its advantages over other reactors, as well as market estimates and the research and development timeline. I went on to write four page brochures about PSS’s Direct Fusion Drive engine, which will use PFRC technology for space propulsion purposes, and GAMOW, the program under which PSS is collaborating on developing various power electronics for fusion reactors.

These past few weeks have been quite informative to me, and I realized how much I loved writing about science and technology! I learned all about fusion, and I especially loved learning the details of the PFRC reactor design. To summarize the design, research, and development of the PFRC and other technologies within four page flyers, I had to learn how to write about technology and research comprehensively and engagingly for a general audience, which improved my science communication skills.

Millisecond Pulse Load Switch Design

This summer I worked on the design of a millisecond pulse generator as part of the ARPA-E GAMOW grant. The goal of this project was to supply pulses of very high current to a fusion reactor’s plasma control antenna using solid-state power electronics. Some key design considerations were the ability to parallelize the pulse generator to scale to many power levels, to operate at high voltages, and to minimize the current rise time through the load antenna. I spent most of my time working in LTspice XVII to simulate the circuit and its response to rapid pulses of current. I wanted to make sure the circuit performed as desired, while also remaining safe for both the devices in the circuit and the operators controlling the circuit.

We based the design of the circuit on a load switch developed previously at Princeton Satellite Systems by Cindy Li and Eric Ham. Our biggest progress was in the selection of switching devices and the improvement of the gate drive circuitry. Because our goal is to switch current as quickly as possible, we did not want to rely on outdated klystrons as our switches. We decided to use many parallel MOSFETs to switch the current. The device we chose was a 650 V silicon carbide cascode JFET from UnitedSiC. This FET has low on-state resistance, meaning that it does not heat up as much when pulling large amounts of current. By using many devices in parallel, we can pull more total current while keeping each individual FET below its current capacity. Then by using multiple boards in parallel, we can reach different power levels for different fusion reactors. 

Implementing safe gate driver circuitry was another important step. The power MOSFETs used to switch the current cannot be turned on directly from a computer control signal, due to both power and safety concerns. A logic-level signal is not powerful enough to activate the FET, and directly connecting the computer to the high-voltage circuitry is unsafe. To solve both problems, I designed a galvanically-isolated gate drive circuit based on an Infineon gate driving IC. The intermediate circuit takes the computer control signal and steps it up to an intermediate voltage level high enough to activate the MOSFET, while keeping the both sections electrically isolated from each other. Each MOSFET has its own gate drive circuit, enabling independent control.

Working on the millisecond pulse generator was a great experience as an intern. I gained lots of practice working with team members across organizations and disciplines. I became much more proficient in LTspice, and I learned how to rigorously approach challenging engineering problems.