Can we use the outflow of particles from the Sun to drive spacecraft, helping us build the Solar System infrastructure we’ll one day use as the base for deeper journeys into the cosmos? Jeff Greason, chairman of the board of the Tau Zero Foundation, presented his take on the idea at the recent Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop. The concept captured the attention of Centauri Dreams regular Alex Tolley, who here analyzes the notion, explains its differences from the conventional magnetic sail, and explores the implications of its development. Alex is co-author (with Brian McConnell) of A Design for a Reusable Water-Based Spacecraft Known as the Spacecoach (Springer, 2016), focusing on a new technology for Solar System expansion. A lecturer in biology at the University of California, he now takes us into a different propulsion strategy, one that could be an enabler for human missions near and far.
by Alex Tolley
Suppose I told you that a device you could make yourself would be a more energy efficient space drive than an ion engine with a far better thrust to weight ratio? Fantasy? No!
Such a drive exists. Called the plasma magnet, it is a development of the magnetic sail but with orders of magnitude less mass and a performance that offers, with constant supplied power, constant acceleration regardless of its distance from the sun.
At the recent Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW), Jeff Greason presented this technology in his talk . What caught my attention was the simplicity of this technology for propulsion, with a performance that exceeded more complex low thrust systems like ion engines and solar sails.
What is a plasma magnet?
The plasma magnet is a type of magsail that creates a kilometers wide, artificial magnetosphere that deflects the charged solar wind to provide thrust.
Unlike a classic magsail  (figure 1) that generates the magnetic field with a large diameter electrical circuit, the plasma magnet replaces the circular superconducting coil by inducing the current flow with the charged particles of the solar wind. It is an upgraded development of Robert Winglee’s Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion (M2P2) [7, 8], a drive that required injection of charged particles to generate the magnetosphere. The plasma magnet requires no such injection of particles and is therefore potentially propellantless.
Figure 1. A triple loop magsail is accelerated near Jupiter. Three separate boost beams transfer momentum to the rig, carefully avoiding the spacecraft itself, which is attached to the drive sail by a tether. Artwork: Steve Bowers, Orion’s Arm.
Developed by John Slough and others [5, 6], the plasma magnet drive has been validated by experimental results in a vacuum chamber and was a NIAC phase 1 project in the mid-2000s . The drive works by initially creating a rotating magnetic field that in turns traps and entrains the charged solar wind to create a large diameter ring current, inducing a large scale magnetosphere. The drive coils of the reference design are small, about 10 centimeters in diameter. With 10 kW of electric power, the magnetosphere expands to about 30 kilometers in diameter at 1 AU, with enough magnetic force to deflect the solar wind pressure of about 1 nPa (1 nN/m2) which produces a thrust in the direction of the wind of about 1 newton (1N). Thrust is transmitted to the device by the magnetic fields, just as with the coupling of rotation in an electric motor (figure 2).
For a fixed system, the size of the induced magnetosphere depends on the local solar wind pressure. The magnetosphere expands in size as the solar wind density decreases further from the sun. This is similar to the effect of Janhunen’s electric sail  where the deflection area around the charged conducting wires increases as the solar wind density decreases. The plasma magnet’s thrust is the force of the solar wind pushing against the magnetosphere as it is deflected around it. It functions like a square-rigged sail running before the wind.
Figure 2. Plasma magnetic sail based on rotating magnetic field generated plasma currents. Two polyphase magnetic coils (stator) are used to drive steady ring currents in the local plasma (rotor) creating an expanding magnetized bubble. The expansion is halted by solar wind pressure in balance with the magnetic pressure from the driven currents (R >= 10 km). The antennas (radius ~ 0.1 m) are shown expanded for clarity. 
The engine is little more than 2 pairs of charged rotating coils and is therefore extremely simple and inexpensive. The mass of the reference engine is about 10 kg. Table 1 shows that the plasma magnet has an order higher thrust to weight ratio than an ion engine and 2 orders better than a solar sail. However, as the plasma magnet requires a power source, like the ion engine, the comparison to the solar sail should be made when the power supply is added, reducing is performance to a 10-fold improvement. [ A solar PV array of contemporary technology requires about 10 kg/kW, so the appropriate thrust/mass ratio of the plasma magnet is about 1 order of magnitude better than a solar sail at 1 AU]
The plasma magnet drive offers a “ridiculously high” thrust to weight ratio
The plasma magnet, as a space drive, has much better thrust to weight ratio than even the new X-3 Hall Effect ion engine currently in development. This ratio remains high when the power supply from solar array is added. Of more importance is that the plasma magnet is theoretically propellantless, providing thrust as long as the solar wind is flowing past the craft and power is supplied.
Engine mass only
|Thrust/weight (N/kg) with power supply|
|X-3||Ion (Hall Effect)||0.02||0.004|
|Solar Sail||Photon Sail||0.001 (at 1 AU)||N/A|
Table 1. Comparison of thrust to mass ratios of various types of propulsion systems. The power supply is assumed to be solar array with a 10 kg/kW performance.
The downside with the plasma magnet is that it can only produce thrust in the direction of the solar wind, away from the sun, and therefore can only climb up the gravity well. Unlike other propulsion systems, there is little capability to sail against the sun. While solar sails can tack by directing thrust against the orbital direction, allowing a return trajectory, this is not possible with the basic plasma magnet, requiring other propulsion systems for return trips.
Plasma magnet applications
1. Propulsion Assist
The most obvious use of the plasma magnet that can only be used to spiral out from the sun is as a propellantless assist. The drive is lightweight and inexpensive, and because it is propellantless, it can make a useful drive for small space probes. Because the drive creates a kilometers sized magnetosphere, scaling up the thrust involves increased power or using multiple drives that would need to be kept 10s of kilometers apart. Figure 3 shows a hypothetical gridded array. Alternatively, the plasma magnets might be separated by thrusters and individually attached to the payload by tethers.
Figure 3. Plasma magnets attached to the nodes in a 2D grid could be used to scale up the thrust. The spacecraft would be attached by shroud lines as in a solar sail with a trailing payload. Scaling up the power supply to create a larger magnetosphere is also possible.
For a mixed mode mission, the plasma magnet engine is turned on for the outward bound flight, with or without the main propulsion system turned on. The use of power to generate thrust without propellant improves the performance of propellant propulsion systems where the accumulated velocity exceeds the performance cost of the power supply mass or reduced propellant. For an ion engine as the main drive, the plasma magnet would use the same power as 4 NSTAR ion engines but provide 3x the thrust.
2. Moving Asteroids for Planetary Defense
The propellantless nature of the plasma magnet drive makes it very suitable for pushing asteroids for planetary defense. Once turned on, the drive provides steady thrust to the asteroid, propelling it away from the sun and raising its orbit. Because the drive does not need to be facing any particular direction, it can be attached to a tumbling asteroid without any impact on the thrust direction.
3. Charged particle radiation shield for crewed flights
The magnetosphere generated by the engine makes a good radiation shield for the charged particles of the solar wind. It should prove to be a good solution for the solar wind, solar flares and even coronal mass ejections (CME). This device could, therefore, be used for human flight to reduce radiation effects. For human crewed flights, the 1N of thrust is insufficient for the size of the spacecraft and would have a marginal propulsion compared to the main engines. Given the plasma magnet’s small size and mass, and relatively low power requirements, the device provides a cost-effective means to protect the crew without resorting to large masses of physical shielding. The plasma magnet would appear to be only effective for the charged solar wind, leaving the neutral GCRs to enter the craft. However, when an auxiliary device is used in the mode of aerobraking, the charge exchange mechanism should reduce the galactic cosmic ray (GCR) penetration (see item 8 below).
4. Asteroid mining
The plasma magnet thruster might be a very useful part of a hybrid solution for automated mining craft. The hybrid propulsion would ally the plasma magnet thruster with a propellant system, such as a chemical or ion engine. The outward bound trip would use the plasma magnet thruster to reach the target asteroid. The propellant tanks would be empty saving mass and therefore improving performance. The propellant tanks would be filled with the appropriate resource, e.g. water for an electrothermal engine, or for a L2/O2 chemical engine. This engine would be turned on for the return trip towards the inner system. The reverse would be used for outward bound trips to the inner system
5. Interstellar precursor using nuclear power
A key feature of the plasma magnet is that the diameter of the magnetosphere increases as the density of the solar wind decreases as it expands away from the sun. The resulting expansion exactly matches the decrease in density, ensuring constant thrust. Therefore the plasma magnet has a constant acceleration irrespective of its position in the solar system.
As the solar wind operates out to the heliopause, about 80 AU from the sun, the acceleration from a nuclear powered craft is constant and the craft continues to accelerate without the tyranny of the rocket equation. Assuming a craft with an all up mass of 1 MT (700 kg nuclear power unit, 10 kg engine, and the remaining in payload), the terminal velocity at the heliopause is 150 km/s. The flight time is 4.75 years, which is a considerably faster flight time than the New Horizons and Voyager probes.
Slough assumed a solar array power supply, functional out to the orbit of Jupiter at 5 AU. This limited the velocity of the drive, although the electrical power output of a solar array at 1 AU is about 10-fold better than a nuclear power source, but rapidly decreases with distance from the sun. Assuming a 10 kW PV array, generating decreasing power out to Jupiter, the final velocity of the 1 MT craft is somewhere between 5 and 10 km/s, but with a much larger payload.
In his TVIW talk , Greason suggested that the 10kW power supply could propel a 2500 kg craft with an acceleration of 0.5g, reaching 400-700 km/s in just half a day. Greason [i] suggested that with this acceleration, the FOCAL mission for gravitational lens telescopes requiring many craft should be achievable. *
6. Mars Cycler
Greason suggested that the plasma magnet might well be useful for a Mars cycler, as the small delta v impulse needed for each trip could be easily met.
7. Deceleration at target star for interstellar flight
For interstellar flights, deploying the plasma magnet as the craft approaches the target star should be enough to decelerate the craft to allow loitering in the system, rather than a fast flyby. Again, the high performance and modest mass and power requirements might make this a good way to decelerate a fast interstellar craft, like a laser propelled photon sail.
8. Magnetoshell Aerocapture (MAC)
While the studies on the plasma magnet seemed to have stalled by the late 2000s, a very similar technology development was gaining attention. A simple dipole magnet magnetosphere can be used as a very effective aerocapture shield. The shield is just the plasma magnet with coils that do not rotate, creating a magnetosphere of a diameter in meters, one that requires the injection of gram quantities of plasma to be trapped in the magnetic field. As the magnetosphere impacts the atmosphere, the neutral atmosphere molecules are trapped by charge exchange. The stopping power is on the order of kilonewtons, allowing the craft to achieve orbit and even land without a heavy, physical shield. The saving in mass and hence propellant is enormous. Such aerobraking allows larger payloads, or alternatively faster transit times. Because the magnetoshell is immaterial, heat transmission to the shield is not an issue. The mass saving is considerable and offers a very cost-effective approach for any craft to reduce mass, propellant requirements or increase payloads. This approach is suitable for Earth return, Mars, outer planets, and Venus capture. Conceivably aerocapture might be possible with Pluto.
Figure 4. A dipole magnet creating a small diameter magnetic field is injected with plasma. As the magnetosphere impacts the atmosphere, charge exchange result in kilonewton braking forces. The diagram at left shows the craft with the training magnetosphere impacting the atmosphere. The painting on the right shows what such a craft might look like during an aerobraking maneuver. Source: Kirtley et al .
Making the plasma magnet thrust directional
A single magnetosphere cannot deflect the solar wind in any significant directional way, which limits this drive’s navigational capability. However, if the magnetosphere could be shaped so that its surface could result in an asymmetric deflection, it should be possible to use the drive for tacking back to the inner system.
Figure 5 shows an array of plasma magnets orientated at an angle to the solar wind. The deflection of the solar wind is no longer symmetric, with the main flow across the forward face of the array. Under those conditions, there should be a net force against the grid. This suggests that like a solar sail, orientating the grid so that the force retards the orbital velocity, the craft should be able to spiral down towards the Sun, offering the possibility of a drive that could navigate the solar system.
Figure 5. A grid of plasma magnets deflects the flow of the solar wind, creating a force with a component that pushes against the grid. If the grid is in orbit with a velocity from right to left, the force will reduce the grid’s velocity and result in a spiral towards the Sun.
Pushing the Boundaries
The size of the magnetic sail can be increased with higher power inputs, or increasing the antenna size. Optimization will depend on the size of the craft and the mass of the antenna. Truly powerful drives can be considered. Greason  has calculated that a 2 MT craft, using a superconducting antenna with a radius of 30 meters, fed with a peak current of 90 kA, would have a useful sail with a radius of 1130 km and an acceleration of 2 m/s2, or about 0.2g. As the sail has a maximum velocity of that of the solar wind, a probe accelerating at 0.2g would reach maximum velocity in a few days, and pass by Mars within a week. To reach a velocity of 20 km/s, faster than New Horizons, the Plasma magnet would only need to be turned on for a few hours. Clearly, the scope for using this drive to accelerate probes and even crewed ships is quite exciting.
Coupling a more modest velocity of just 10’s of km/s with the function of a MAC, a craft could reach Mars in less than 2 months and aerobrake to reach orbit and even descend to the surface. All this without propellant and a very modest solar array for a power supply.
An Asteroid, a tether and a Round Trip Flight
As we’ve seen, the plasma magnet can only propel a craft downwind from the Sun. So far I have postulated that aerobraking and conventional drives would be needed for return flights. One outlandish possibility for use in asteroid mining might be the use of a tether to redirect the craft. On the outward bound flight, the craft driven by the plasma magnet makes a rapid approach to the target asteroid which is being mined. The mined resources are attached to a tether that is anchored to the asteroid. As the craft approaches, it captures the end of the tether to acquire the new payload, and is swung around the asteroid. On the opposite side of the asteroid, the tether is released and the craft is now traveling back towards the Sun. No propellant needed, although the tether might cause some consternation as it wraps itself around the asteroid.
The plasma magnet as a propulsion device, and the same hardware applied for aerocapture, would drastically reduce the costs and propellant requirements for a variety of missions. Coupled with another drive such as an ion engine, a craft could reach a target body with an atmosphere and be injected into orbit with almost no propellant mass. The return journey would require an engine delivering just enough delta V to escape that body and return to Earth, where aerocapture again would allow injection into Earth orbit with no extra propellant. If direction deflection can be achieved, then the plasma magnet might be used to navigate the Solar System more like a solar sail, but with a far higher performance, and far easier deployment.
Using a steady, nuclear power or beamed power source, such a craft could accelerate to the heliopause, allowing interstellar precursor missions, such as Kuiper belt exploration and the FOCAL mission within a short time frame.
The technology of the plasma magnet combined with a MAC could be used to decelerate a slowish interstellar ship and allow it to achieve orbit and even land on a promising exoplanet.
The size of the magnetic sail can be extended with few constraints, allowing for considerably increased thrust that can be applied to robotic probes and crewed spacecraft. For crewed craft, the magnetosphere also provides protection from the particle radiation from the sun, and possibly galactic cosmic rays.
Given the potential of this drive and relatively trivial cost, it seems that testing such a device in space should perhaps be attempted. Can a NewSpace billionaire be enticed?
* These numbers are far higher than those provided by Winglee and Slough in their papers and so I have used their much more conservative values for all my calculations.
Greason, Jeff “Missions Enabled by plasma magnet Sails”, Presentation at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vVOtrAnIxM
Janhunen, P., The electric sail – a new propulsion method which may enable fast missions to the outer solar system, J. British Interpl. Soc., 61, 8, 322-325, 2008.
Kelly, Charles and Shimazu, Akihisa “Revolutionizing Orbit Insertion with Active Magnetoshell Aerocapture,” University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.
Kirtley, David, Slough, John, and Pancotti, Anthony “Magnetoshells Plasma Aerocapture for Manned Missions and Planetary Deep Space Orbiters”, NIAC Spring Symposium, Chicago, Il., March 12, 2013
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Greason, Jeff. Personal communication.