Friday, July 31, 2009

The VASIMR® Rocket Propulsion System - A New Day For Space Travel?

Isn't it amazing how technology evolves - usually first from a concept or an idea - then to the actual implementation, and then the inevitable happens... Granted - sometimes it takes many years - but eventually the inevitable happens - the technology evolves from what it first was.

And so it seems to be happening again. This time, it has to do with the way rockets of the present and the future will be propelled. And dare we say, this technology is almost like the rocket being re-invented, instead of just evolved.

This new propulsion system will enable a trip from earth to Mars to be shortened from about 6 months, to only 39 days. So what is it you ask?

Well, instead of the usual fuel rockets use, this new engine is based on a plasma propulsion system. It is called the VASIMR®, and has been named one of the top ten emerging technologies of 2009 by the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics).

The company behind the technology, "Ad Astra Rocket Company" (AARC), summed up their vision for this technology with the following: "To revolutionize space transportation and exploration, through the development and commercialization of the VASIMR® engine and related technologies".

According to the company's website, Dr. Franklin R. Chang Díaz (who also serves as company President and CEO) was responsible for inventing the VASIMR® concept, which has been a work in progress since 1979. Work first began on the project at the The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge Massachusetts and continued at MIT Plasma Fusion Center. After that, the project moved to the Johnson Space Center in 1994.

The "Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket" (VASIMR®) consists of 3 linked magnetic cells.

- The "Plasma Source" cell is involved in the main injection of neutral gas (usually hydrogen or other light gases) which is turned into plasma, and also involves the ionization subsystem.

- Using electromagnetic waves, the "RF Booster" cell works as an amplifier which further energizes the plasma to reach the desired temperature.

- Finally, the "Magnetic Nozzle" cell then converts the energy of the plasma into thrust.

The company claims some of the advantages of the system includes variable specific impulse and thrust at full power, an electrodeless design incorporating magnetic insulation, and high efficiency ion cyclotron resonance heating. The system also uses more abundant, less expensive fuels. These include argon, neon, and hydrogen.

But how does the rocket work? Basically we need to understand what "plasma" is. A Plasma state is achieved when a gas, or a substance in gas form, is heated to super high temperatures - tens of thousands, even millions of degrees. At these temperatures, something happens to the electrons. The electrons (which hold a negative charge) are stripped, or lost, from neutral atoms. Magnetic fields are then used to accelerate the resulting plasma to generate thrust.

This type of rocket is ideal for use in space, but it will need to catch a ride on a traditional rocket up into space. Once there, the engine can be powered by solar or nuclear power. The benefit of this type of propulsion system is that it is extremely fuel eficient for use in space - far more than traditional rocket motors. The system will be tested in 2012 on the International Space Station. Fast, efficient and long range space travel could be made possible by this new technology.


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