Super-Fast Engine Could Put Us on Fast Track to Mars

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Now, that’s fast.

Ad Astra Rocket Company says its engine can travel 10 times faster than current models in use. The goal in a challenge from NASA: To develop the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) for a trip to Mars – in 39 days.

Soon after the December 2014 deadline for applicants for its exploration partnership project, NASA made the investment – $10 million.

Ad Astra is located in Webster, Texas near the Johnson Space Center. Franklin Chang-Diaz is CEO. He participated in seven space shuttle missions as a NASA astronaut. He describes VASIMR technology as “in-space propulsion.” It works by radio waves heating plasma, an electronically charged gas, to extreme temperatures.

[See video here.]

Traditional launching methods carry the craft into space, then this advanced space propulsion system slingshots the rocket to super speeds. Magnetic fields direct the plasma through an engine. This creates thrust, and a boost into space.

It’s like hyper-speed for the Star Wars Millennium Falcon– in theory.

It also wins on fuel economy: It’ll use about 90% less fuel than current chemical rockets.

To asteroids by 2025; Mars in the 2030s

Ad Astra’s rocket is part of NASA’s 12 Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership.

NASA wants the versatile rocket to run at high power for at least 100 hours. It’s part of an initiative that would include human travel to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. The red planet, closest to earth in the solar system, has long been a target for exploration.

Orbiter and rover missions paved the way for more ambitious journeys.

What else can it do?

More than 25 years in the making, VASIMR’s been through rigorous ground tests. Ad Astra has closer plans for VASIMR, too.

ASTROID RETRIEVAL | A VASIMR-powered craft could retrieve an asteroid from the belt for mining and exploration. NASA could bring the asteroid into a stable lunar orbit before returning it. Such a craft could also divert an asteroid if its course intersected Earth’s.

DEEP-SPACE CATAPULT | A satellite with a VASIMR engine could push robotic packages throughout the solar system. It could do so at a fraction of the cost of modern rockets.

FUELING THE STATION | A switch to a VASIMR engine could result in $20 million in fuel-cost savings annually for the International Space Station and Bigelow private facility.

SPACE TUG | VASIMR engines could power a commercial low-Earth orbiting craft. A low-Earth orbit would help the craft avoid orbital decay and altitude loss. VASIMR engines could also rely on solar power to clean up space junk and service man-made satellites efficiently.


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Eli

Eli studied English and Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte. A former sportswriter, he writes a blog about coaching his daughters in soccer and once was mistaken for racecar driver Juan Pablo Montoya. He writes on the Internet and other technology. He’s a native of Greeley, Colo., an avid NPR listener and average disc golfer.

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