A company's nuclear fusion rockets could help us escape the Solar System in our lifetime

The space firm has already built the most powerful electric propulsion engine in Europe.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of a Pulsar rocket.
An artist's impression of a Pulsar rocket.

Pulsar Fusion / YouTube 

Nuclear fusion-powered rockets might be nearer than you think.

UK rocket company Pulsar Fusion has been awarded funding from the UK Space Agency to help it develop "integrated nuclear fission-based power systems for electric propulsion", a press statement shared with IE via email reveals.

The company is working toward both nuclear fission and fusion-based rocket engines. Fusion is a longer-term goal as the technology required to effectively harness nuclear fusion on Earth is in development but does not yet exist.

The firm will collaborate with the Universities of Cambridge and Southampton, as well as Nuclear AMRC to make its vision of green rocket technology, in the form of nuclear propulsion, a reality.

Harnessing nuclear fusion to build hyper-speed rockets

Pulsar Fusion's main mission goal is to eventually harness its namesake, nuclear fusion, to build hyper-speed rocket technology. Nuclear fusion is the method the Sun and the stars use to produce vast amounts of energy over millennia.

In the company's press release, Pulsar Fusion says, "while nuclear fusion may be the answer to the energy crisis it is also the answer to in-orbit satellite management, in addition to deep space exploration. [Pulsar] believes the only way the human race can ever leave the solar system in a lifetime is with fusion propulsion."

Scientists all over the world are working towards harnessing nuclear fusion for energy production on Earth, but they're not quite there yet. Pulsar Fusion may have to wait for advances in that technology before it can achieve its ultimate goal, though it may also help to advance the pursuit of commercially viable nuclear fusion technologies.

In the meantime, the company also is also developing and manufacturing a number of other rocket engines. This includes the largest and most powerful electric spacecraft engine in Europe, which has been independently tested by scientists at the University of Southampton via a government-funded initiative in 2021.

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The most powerful electric propulsion engine in Europe

Pulsar Fusion's "green" hybrid rocket engine burns nitrous oxide (N2O) oxidizer, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) fuel, and oxygen. A control valve feeds the liquid oxidized under a regulated pressure through to a combustion chamber.

The company conducted a series of successful tests on its engine last November (2021) at the Cranfield Ordnance Test and Evaluation Centre (COTEC), a UK Ministry of Defence military base in Salisbury, Wilts. Before that, it also successfully carried out an international demonstration for space clients in Switzerland.

"Pulsar has built and tested the most powerful electric propulsion engines in Europe," Dr. James Lambert, Head of Operations at Pulsar, explained.

"Combining this part of our propulsion portfolio with nuclear fission reactor technology is perfectly suited to the company’s skillsets and I am delighted that this has been recognized by the UKSA. The project will help us to build relationships and gather important data that will contribute towards our longer-term ambitions for nuclear fusion propulsion."

Pulsar Fusion also received UK government funding in September last year to help develop its Mach-7 Hall Effect Thruster, or HET, plasma satellite engines, which are capable of 20-kilometer-per-second particle exhaust speeds. The company aims to carry out in-orbit tests on its engines in the near future.

The UK rocket firm has previously stated it aims to build a nuclear fusion rocket prototype by 2025. Ambitiously, its latest release states the company believes it can develop the "fusion-based infrastructure and propulsion systems" required to enable nuclear fusion rockets "in less than four years."

If it does so, that technology could also be adapted for Earth, meaning it would help to transform the way we travel through space as well as how we produce energy down here on the ground.

Editor's note (05/12/22): An extra paragraph was added to the article to clarify the fact that Pulsar Fusion is working towards both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion-based rocket propulsion.