engine, named VASIMR, could provide exactly the solution needed. Developed by
former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz, the engine could change a lot
about how we interact with space. The new rocket, driven by
plasma, is able to use cheaper fuels like neon, argon, or hydrogen,
while providing finer control over thrust and specific impulse -- two
key parameters that determine a rocket's movement and speed.
The new rocket is also much safer and more reliable than traditional
chemical rockets, reducing the risks associated with space
The engine exhausts plasma, a fourth state of matter
along with solids, liquids, and gases. Plasma is essentially
ionized gas. It is typically created via either low pressure or
extremely high heat (10,000° C or more). Plasma consists of a
mix of electrons and positively charged gas ions.
material can contain plasma, so VASIMR instead uses magnetic fields
for containment. It uses radio frequency waves to ignite and
throttle the rocket precisely. The rocket is capable of long
burns, with its long term goal being to produce enough sustained
thrust and impulse to reach Mars in under three months.
new engine is the flagship technology of Mr. Diaz's startup, Ad Astra
Rocket Company. After three decades of development at NASA,
MIT, and elsewhere, the rocket engine is finally approaching
commercial readiness. The rocket recently passed a momentous
milestone -- 200 kilowatts of power, the amount necessary for the
company to start developing its flight version.
Mr. Diaz, "[Ad Astra is] getting ready to fly the VASIMR engine
on the International Space Station (ISS). It is a 200-kilowatt plasma
rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built to fly in space, and the
prototype is being tested on the ground in our facilities in Houston.
We have been gradually ramping up the power over many months, and our
goal is to reach 200 kilowatts, which is the power level the rocket
will run at on the ISS, and we achieved that today. We actually
reached 201 kilowatts. It was a very exciting moment because it
happened right when we were in the meeting, and I kept getting text
The rocket will be first tested in space in
October 2013, aboard the International Space Station. Describes
Mr. Diaz, "We will install it on the ISS and test it there.
After the test is finished, we will use it commercially to reboost
the space station [to a higher altitude] to provide the drag
compensation. [Currently the ISS requires periodic boosts to get it
to the right orbit for space shuttle or Progress dockings.]"
Astra is trying to convince NASA to enter a greater contractual
relationship with it to lower costs manned and unmanned space
missions, via use of the VASIMR engine. Given the shaky state
of NASA's Shuttle-successor, Orion, that certainly seems possible.
Founder Diaz believes that using commercial bidding and innovation
are key to NASA and other international space organizations lowering
their costs, as well as the key to getting other commercial entities
involved in the space industry.
Mr. Diaz explains, "The
agency really transformed the world in space with the achievements of
the moon landings, but the whole world changed, and NASA didn't
change. NASA remained in the glory days of the past, and 40 years
have gone by, and NASA is still the same NASA as the 1960s. And I
don't mean it in a bad way. It was so wonderful what was done, and
people were completely fascinated by it. But a new opportunity has
been created because NASA's fascination with its own past in the
present has created a gap, a hole, which is perfect for the private
sector to move into.
"The private sector is going to fill
the void in rapid access to low earth orbit, allowing NASA to be
NASA, to do what NASA was really meant to do, which is look forward
to the frontier. Let the private enterprise build the base camp now
that we know how to do it, and NASA can go conquer the summit."
startup is in talks with two space tourism companies -- SpaceX
and Orbital Sciences -- to create the body to house the VASIMR engine
and finish a contract-ready rocket, which would incorporate efficient chemical boosters to reach orbit and then fire the VASIMR to continue its spaceflight. Both of these organizations
have the advantage of access contracts to the ISS -- Ad Astra is
currently trying to figure out which best meets its needs.