NASA aims for space tests of Mars-in-a-month plasma drive

270hp Star Wars-esque blue glow engine for the ISS?


NASA will work with a firm started by a former astronaut to build a spaceworthy plasma drive capable of revolutionising travel beyond Earth orbit. However it appears that the space tests may not take place aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as had been planned.

The VX-200 blasting Argon at full bore in ground trials. Credit: Ad Astra Rocket Co

The blue glowing engine exhausts in Star Wars are actually quite realistic, it turns out

The Ad Astra Rocket Company, headed by Dr Franklin Chang Díaz. has already built an experimental prototype version of its Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). The VX-200, (VASIMR eXperimental 200 kilowatt) unit works fine in a vacuum chamber on Earth. Now Ad Astra has announced an agreement under which it will work in partnership with NASA to produce the VF-200 flight version, which has long been planned for installation aboard the International Space Station.

According to the Ad Astra announcement:

NASA will support Ad Astra’s efforts to mature the design of the 200 kW VF-200 VASIMR flight demonstrator. This support includes, among other things, engineering design on two of the VF-200 flight demonstrator’s subsystems, integration support and structural engineering of interfaces with a launch vehicle and a potential flight platform (eg ISS or free flyer).

The VASIMR works by squirting stuff out of its exhaust just as a normal rocket does: the difference is that it does so much more violently, hurling its argon reaction mass out as a plasma hot as the interior of the Sun and moving at better than 50 kilometres per second. This means that VASIMR gets a lot more poke out of a given mass of propellant than ordinary chemical rockets possibly can: though unlike them it needs electrical power to work.

The radical rocket was invented by Chang Díaz, who is a plasma physicist by training and who has seven Shuttle missions in his logbook from his days as a NASA astronaut. He considers that it is far more fuel-efficient even than existing ion engines, already used in satellites and space probes for orbital maintenance and manoeuvring.

The VASIMR isn't any use for getting into space in the first place as its power-to-weight ratio is small: the VX-200, the size of a small car, can only produce enough thrust to lift half a kilogramme or so off the ground.

Once in orbit, however, a VASIMR comes into its own. A normal rocket will burn up any practical amount of fuel very quickly: thus it can be used only in brief bursts. A spacecraft driven by such means must spend almost all its time coasting along unpowered. Thus a journey to Mars, for instance, would take 6 months for a conventional spacecraft.

A VASIMR, however, can keep on exerting its relatively tiny push for weeks on end without using any more juice, gradually boosting a ship up to terrific speeds that would never be possible with a chemical rocket. VASIMR ships could get to Mars in just 39 days.

That's for the future: but in the meantime there's the International Space Station, which needs to regularly fire up its normal rocket thrusters in order to maintain its orbit. Several tons of fuel are shipped up to the ISS every year for this purpose aboard Russian Progress (and now European ATV) supply capsules at huge expense.

If the space station gets the new VF-200, however, the plasma drive's more efficient use of fuel could do the same job with less propellant, so allowing more payload to reach the ISS on a given number of supply flights. It had been loosely planned that the VF-200 would be installed on the station in 2014 - perhaps travelling up atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk's famous startup company SpaceX, hired for the occasion under NASA's new commercial launch arrangements.

The station is a good fit for VASIMR as it has vast solar-panel arrays - the largest ever placed in space* - and thus there is considerable electrical power available on board, up to 250 kW. The station could muster enough juice at times to run the VF-200 at full bore and really try it out properly.

But now we learn that the VF-200 may not in fact go to the station, but instead fly in some other "flight platform". This could be bad news for a really comprehensive test programme, as today's spacecraft don't have enough juice to really put a 200 kW machine through its paces. Even powerful communications satellites don't generally dispose of more than 15 kW or so. A large, costly (and correspondingly heavy, thus expensive to launch) solar array would probably be required for any "free-flyer" non-ISS option.

The other option for long-term power generation in space is nuclear, but this too is so far quite limited in output. Soviet radar-ocean-reconnaissance satellites carried Topaz reactors which could generate several kilowatts of electricity: they were the most powerful nuclear units so far flown. US nuke boffins have developed a space reactor, the SAFE-400, that could produce 100kW of electricity (two of these and the VF-200 could easily be lifted right up to geosynchronous transfer orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9) but it has never been used.

The fact is that even the launch of comparatively simple and low powered radioisotope-decay power units (as opposed to reactors proper) often draws a lot of technofear protest, and the bureaucracy and expense associated with spaceflight-rated nuclear technology is immense. Chang Díaz has always suggested - in common with most serious analysts - that flight beyond Earth orbit, or anyway beyond the Earth-Moon system, can't ever become a serious activity without the use of nuclear power. Even so, his chances of getting a nuclear powerplant for the inaugural VF-200 trial flight would seem slim.

For now, it's probably best for plasma-rocket fans to hope that in fact NASA will find room for the VF-200 aboard a supply flight to the ISS. ®

Bootnote

*These are a large part of the reason that the ISS needs to refuel so much. The huge panels, ploughing through the not-quite-vacuum of low Earth orbit, exert a small but significant drag on the station, continually slowing it down and thus tending to make it fall out of the sky.

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Google keeps legacy G Suite alive and free for personal use
    Phew!

    Google has quietly dropped its demand that users of its free G Suite legacy edition cough up to continue enjoying custom email domains and cloudy productivity tools.

    This story starts in 2006 with the launch of “Google Apps for Your Domain”, a bundle of services that included email, a calendar, Google Talk, and a website building tool. Beta users were offered the service at no cost, complete with the ability to use a custom domain if users let Google handle their MX record.

    The service evolved over the years and added more services, and in 2020 Google rebranded its online productivity offering as “Workspace”. Beta users got most of the updated offerings at no cost.

    Continue reading
  • GNU Compiler Collection adds support for China's LoongArch CPU family
    MIPS...ish is on the march in the Middle Kingdom

    Version 12.1 of the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) was released this month, and among its many changes is support for China's LoongArch processor architecture.

    The announcement of the release is here; the LoongArch port was accepted as recently as March.

    China's Academy of Sciences developed a family of MIPS-compatible microprocessors in the early 2000s. In 2010 the tech was spun out into a company callled Loongson Technology which today markets silicon under the brand "Godson". The company bills itself as working to develop technology that secures China and underpins its ability to innovate, a reflection of Beijing's believe that home-grown CPU architectures are critical to the nation's future.

    Continue reading
  • China’s COVID lockdowns bite e-commerce players
    CEO of e-tail market leader JD perhaps boldly points out wider economic impact of zero-virus stance

    The CEO of China’s top e-commerce company, JD, has pointed out the economic impact of China’s current COVID-19 lockdowns - and the news is not good.

    Speaking on the company’s Q1 2022 earnings call, JD Retail CEO Lei Xu said that the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic had brought positive effects for many Chinese e-tailers as buyer behaviour shifted to online purchases.

    But Lei said the current lengthy and strict lockdowns in Shanghai and Beijing, plus shorter restrictions in other large cities, have started to bite all online businesses as well as their real-world counterparts.

    Continue reading
  • Foxconn forms JV to build chip fab in Malaysia
    Can't say when, where, nor price tag. Has promised 40k wafers a month at between 28nm and 40nm

    Taiwanese contract manufacturer to the stars Foxconn is to build a chip fabrication plant in Malaysia.

    The planned factory will emit 12-inch wafers, with process nodes ranging from 28 to 40nm, and will have a capacity of 40,000 wafers a month. By way of comparison, semiconductor-centric analyst house IC Insights rates global wafer capacity at 21 million a month, and Taiwanese TSMC’s four “gigafabs” can each crank out 250,000 wafers a month.

    In terms of production volume and technology, this Malaysian facility will not therefore catapult Foxconn into the ranks of leading chipmakers.

    Continue reading
  • NASA's InSight doomed as Mars dust coats solar panels
    The little lander that couldn't (any longer)

    The Martian InSight lander will no longer be able to function within months as dust continues to pile up on its solar panels, starving it of energy, NASA reported on Tuesday.

    Launched from Earth in 2018, the six-metre-wide machine's mission was sent to study the Red Planet below its surface. InSight is armed with a range of instruments, including a robotic arm, seismometer, and a soil temperature sensor. Astronomers figured the data would help them understand how the rocky cores of planets in the Solar System formed and evolved over time.

    "InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. "We can apply what we've learned about Mars' inner structure to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems."

    Continue reading
  • The ‘substantial contributions’ Intel has promised to boost RISC-V adoption
    With the benefit of maybe revitalizing the x86 giant’s foundry business

    Analysis Here's something that would have seemed outlandish only a few years ago: to help fuel Intel's future growth, the x86 giant has vowed to do what it can to make the open-source RISC-V ISA worthy of widespread adoption.

    In a presentation, an Intel representative shared some details of how the chipmaker plans to contribute to RISC-V as part of its bet that the instruction set architecture will fuel growth for its revitalized contract chip manufacturing business.

    While Intel invested in RISC-V chip designer SiFive in 2018, the semiconductor titan's intentions with RISC-V evolved last year when it revealed that the contract manufacturing business key to its comeback, Intel Foundry Services, would be willing to make chips compatible with x86, Arm, and RISC-V ISAs. The chipmaker then announced in February it joined RISC-V International, the ISA's governing body, and launched a $1 billion innovation fund that will support chip designers, including those making RISC-V components.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022