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Home News Archive Will VASIMR© Revolutionize Space Flight?

Will VASIMR© Revolutionize Space Flight?

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In June 2009, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) named the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR©) one of the “Top 10” emerging aerospace technologies of 2009.  The August 10, 2009 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology (AW&ST) carried a 2 ½ page article on the technology and the company that is developing it, Ad Astra Rocket Co. (located near Houston, Texas with a subsidiary lab in Guanacaste, Costa Rica).  The AW&ST article reported that Ad Astra’s technology “offers a potentially less expensive alternative to chemical propulsion” and—more importantly—the technology might lead to vastly increased speeds and thus to incredibly reduced space flight durations.  As in:  Earth to Mars in 39 days flat.  Interested in new technology with such potential, we visited the Ad Astra website to see if the concepts were real and achievable, or if they were simply the starry-eyed dreams of theoretical physicists.


Once we finished slowly downloading the company’s content-heavy home page, we learned about Ad Astra (“to the stars”) and its mission, which is “to revolutionize space transportation and exploration”.  A lofty goal, indeed.  Ad Astra’s proprietary VASIMR© propulsion system consists of three modules: (1) a plasma source cell that injects neutral gases (typically hydrogen, but it could also utilize deuterium, helium, xenon, or argon) and an ionization subsystem that work to create the “stage one” plasma, (2) an “RF Booster” module that uses electromagnetic waves to energize” (or disassociate atoms) the gas into “stage two” plasma, and (3) a “Magnetic Nozzle” module that directs the plasma into useful thrust via the magnetic field lines of a surrounding superconducting magnet. 


The company boasts that its technology “has two additional important features that distinguish it from other plasma propulsion systems: 1. Ability to vary the exhaust parameters (thrust and specific impulse) in order to optimally match mission requirements. This results in the lowest trip time with the highest payload for a given fuel load. [and] 2. VASIMR® is driven by electromagnetic (RF) waves and has no physical material electrodes in contact with the hot plasma. This results in greater reliability and longer life and enables a much higher power density than competing designs.


©Ad Astra Rocket Co.

Pretty cool, but is it for real?  According to AW&ST and the company’s website, it is.  In July 2009, Ad Astra completed maximum power operation testing of its first 30-kw first stage and started producing thrust with the engine’s 170-kw. second stage.  AW&ST reports that, “If successful, efforts to achieve full rated power with combined firing of both stages … will pave the way for a preliminary design review of the first operational Ad Astra hardware early next year.”  At that point, the company will begin development of a flight version of its engine, for delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2013.  The engine would then undergo space trials, being used to “reboost” the ISS to counter atmospheric drag.  AW&ST reports that the company is currently in negotiations with both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for transportation of the VX-200 engine to the ISS.


The space test plans for VASIMR® envision a solar powered plasma rocket.  But Ad Astra’s aspirations do not stop there.  The company has a dream of nuclear powered space plasma drives that will dramatically change how space flights are conducted by increasing speed and lowering flight durations.  And all of this is being done by private industry, NASA having “redirected” its plasma propulsion funding toward the Constellation program.


It’s perhaps too early to jump on the Ad Astra VASIMR® bandwagon.  But then again, looking at the upcoming U.S. manned space flight “space gap,” perhaps it is several years too late.


Visit the Ad Astra website here



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