An Overview and Plan for an Interstellar Mission Study with the novel Helicity Drive fusion propulsion concept

Author: Alan Stern, Ph.D., Astrophysics and Planetary Science, Univ. Colorado-Boulder

Background: Helicity Space is a startup based in California developing an in-space fusion propulsion drive.

Objective: In this presentation we will summarize the company’s objectives, team, technology, progress, and plans. We will also outline our planned 2021 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) proposal to study an interstellar probe traveling to 1000 Astronomical Units (AU) using the Helicity Drive fusion propulsion system.

Methods: The Helicity Drive is a new magneto-inertial fusion concept based on decades of experimental and theoretical fusion plasma research. The concept exploits magnetic reconnection and a new magnetic confinement configuration (plectonemes) to enable scalable propulsion characteristics and simplify fusion engineering.

Results: Our calculations show that the engine concept can operate from small 100 kW engines to 10 Giga-watt engines by increasing the number of plasma sources, similar to the way a car engine increases power with more cylinders. With variable high specific impulses inherent to fusion, our Helicity Drive engines could thus take, for example, a 5-ton probe to 1000 Astronomical Units in about 11 years using medium-sized 37 Megawatt-thrust engines or as little as 3 years using large 5 GW-thrust engines.

Conclusion: The Helicity Drive fusion propulsion system presents a significantly new capability for an interstellar mission concept. The interstellar mission could use larger scientific instruments and be completed substantially earlier and faster, eliminating the need for difficult and expensive design and qualification issues associated with conventional propulsion approaches.