Abstract: Existing space propulsion technologies are limited in terms of either fuel efficiency or thrust. We have recently introduced a new concept for rocket thrusters that exploits the mechanism behind solar flares, where magnetic energy is converted to kinetic energy through the process of magnetic reconnection. Theoretical and computational studies of fast magnetic reconnection in PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) led to the first experimental evidence of plasmoids, plasma objects enclosed by magnetic fields that are detached from the externally applied fields (PRL 2015 https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.205003). Inspired by these studies of fundamental processes in fusion experiments, using state-of-the-art simulations, I will demonstrate that a particular configuration of electric and magnetic fields can both create plasma and accelerate it by continuously producing plasmoids via the process of fast magnetic reconnection. [Journal of Plasma Physics 86, Issue 6, (2020)] High and variable exhaust velocities as well as large continuously adjustable thrust are the key benefits of magnetic reconnection thruster. The new rocket is scalable from short to long range missions, ranging from solar powered drone delivery from LEO to the moon, as well as nuclear powered interplanetary space exploration. The engine can use a wide variety of gases as propellant without sacrificing performance, allowing it to be refueled with gases extracted from asteroids or the lunar surface.
Bio: Fatima Ebrahimi is a principal research physicist in the PPPL Theory Department and an affiliated research scholar in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University. Her research interests span from magnetically confined fusion plasmas to flow-driven plasmas, such as astrophysical accretion disks. Before PPPL, she was a research associate at the Alfven Laboratory, Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden for one year, and then was a research associate and research scientist with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Frontier Center for Magnetic Self-Organization in Laboratory and Astrophysical Plasmas (CMSO) at the University of Wisconsin. Before her research appointment at Princeton University in 2013, she was a research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire. She received her Ph.D. in plasma physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003. Ebrahimi has been serving on DPP, Sherwood and DCOMP Executive committees as well as the APS Informing the Public committee. She is the inventor of a concept for a magnetic reconnection plasma-based rocket thruster (the most read JPP article ever and 2021 most read aerospace story of Institution of Mechanical Engineers).