I read an interview the other day where a scientist was asked for an update about the VASIMIR (the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) project which we first heard about way back in 2007. He said he would leave an update at the end of the interview but I couldn't locate. So I decided to investigate! -NASA was supposedly involved in its development and then nothing more on it for many years.
SIDE NOTE: In my first book Sanacion: The Black Hole Mission I make use of this technology as the propulsion method of one of the three ships. The concepts involved sounds not only workable but once it is up and running at super-fast speeds, the fuel becomes no problem in outer space.
So, after reading the interview I decided there had to be something more out there. Then I found the first part of the trail. Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz, an astronaut from the 1980’s (serving on seven different shuttle missions) retired in 2005 and formed the Ad Astra Rocket Company to develop and commercialize the technology.
It continued on to in 2013 they reached a milestone in that all important Design Review stage. In that stage the design is evaluated against its requirements and usually requires physical tests, engineering simulations and walk-through examinations.
Next up is a multi-month test with a planned location of the ISS. Cool, no?
From the Ad Astra Rocket Company website:
The VF-200TM engine is the first flight unit of the VASIMR® engine. It will be tested on the International Space Station (ISS) where the thrust and performance can be measured without the limitations of ground-based space simulation chambers. The VF-200 will consit of two 100 kW thruster units side-by-side.
The VF-200TM engine is being designed to reach the steady-state operating temperature to prove that it is capable of operating indefinitely for future missions. It will use electrical power from the ISS to charge a large battery pack capable of powering the thrusters for approximately 15 minutes at full power. This project will serve as a “pathfinder” for the ISS National Laboratory by demonstrating a new class of larger, more complex science and technology, payloads.
*The depiction of the engine below helps to demonstrate what I feel is one of the greatest advantages of this system, few moving parts. You don’t want to be zooming along in space and have to stop because you forgot to pack a back-up to one of the 1000’s of pieces of you engine!*
How VASIMIR works: VASIMIR engine is a new form of electric thruster and can use a large variety of ‘fuel’. Argon gas, Xenon, Hydrogen or other similar gases is injected into a tube that is surrounded by a magnet and two RF couplers. The primary purpose of the first coupler is the conversion of the gas into plasma by causing an electron to fall loose from each atom. (this is done in thehelicon section) The electrons and ions carry charge and so then are contained by a magnetic field which shields the rocket core from the plasma. The second coupler (theIon Cyclotron section) heats the plasma to temperatures that are much the same as those found in the Sun. Pushing the ions around the magnetic field lines than results in accelerated motion & higher temperature. The plasma thermal motion which runs mostly perpendicular to the rockets direction of travel is converted, through the rocket’s magnetic nozzle, to a directed jet. The end result is speeds around 180,000 km/hr or (for the metric challenged) 112,000 mph.
How this retired-astronaut is able to do all this: When you were a child looking up at the sky and dreaming of going to space did you consider what you might need to become one? To be considered for the Astronaut corp there is no age restriction, granted you must be a US citizen but the main criteria is that you must have a bachelors from an accredited university in one of the following disciplines: engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. Then you must have followed this degree with 3 years of related professional experience or graduate work or studies OR at least 1,000 piloting/command time in a jet aircraft. Of course an advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience. Teaching experience is also considered a qualifying experience….Once you have the correct credentials now you have to pass the space flight physical.
Now let’s get specific. Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz is the astronaut we are speaking of. Dr. Diaz developed the concept for the VASIMIR engines back in 1979 soon after his graduate research in fusion and plasma-based rocket propulsion at MIT. After his selection for the Astronaut corp he retired in 2005. He formed the company Ad Astra Rocket Company in order to develop and commercialize these technologies.
What else could VASIMIR do, where is the technology going: Glad you asked. VASIMIR engines are not only use on the Star Trek type transportation we all envision and secretly long for, but also for satellite or probes that can survive not three months or three years but a long life in outer space. (at least their engines can) AND ALSO this technology may appear clearing out space debris from Geosynchronous and other orbits, cargo transfer to the moon, cargo in support of a human mission to Mars, Asteroid Deflection, drag compensations for Space Stations, and more.
I could continue talking about the VASIMIR because I feel it is an exciting advance and am excited that it's all coming together, but that's just me. Hope you see the possibilities as well!