Scientists have now created a spaceship engine that reaches speeds hitherto unknown to science. If perfected, it could take astronauts to Mars in just 39 days, instead of the normal 270 days it takes with existing engines. The solution to the problem of long-term inter-planetary space travel is VASIMR.
VASIMR stands for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. VASIMR uses radio waves to ionize a gas propellant that generates high-energy plasma, fed through magnetic fields in a spaceship’s engine to create thrust.
Chemical rockets, the ones that are currently used to transport humans and machinery into space, are extremely inefficient. For example, it take nearly two million pounds of rocket fuel to get a ship into the zero-gravity void just above the highest level of the Earth’s atmosphere. This is due to the fact that the force of the exhaust thrust is not very powerful, compared to other theoretical space engines. Also, it takes a massive amount of power to transport the fuel in the rocket to high altitudes. Therefore, plasma rockets could be much more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Plasma rockets have exhaust velocities that are much greater than the aforementioned chemical rockets. Thus, much less fuel is needed. Plasma is ionized, electrically charged gas that can be provoked to unbelievably high temperatures using radio waves and other forms on the wavelength spectrum, contained and guided by strong electromagnetic fields.
To cover the distance between Earth and Mars in 39 days will take a rocket with speeds unforeseen by astronomers. The VASIMR engine must possess a power capability that has the output of a nuclear fission reactor – something that creates between 50 to 300 kilowatts. To show the vast difference in the new versus conventional engines, existing electric propulsion engines at NASA, such as the ion engine used to power the Dawn spacecraft, uses less than five kilowatts.
Back in 2013, the VASIMR engine, after a successful test of a prototype, was considered to be the first engine used on a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Potentially, the Texas-based Ad Astra Rocket Company will manufacture the engine, according to NASA officials. The company will be given over $10 million dollars by NASA to create the VASIMR engine. Chang Diaz, owner of Ad Astra stated, “We are thrilled by this announcement and proud to be joining forces with NASA in the final steps of the technology maturation.”
Ad Astra will have the necessity to demonstrate the new VASIMR engine, the VX-200-SS, which will have to have the ability to be powered continuously for over 100 hours. In 2013, the first test was undertaken and revealed the VASMIR prototype engine completed 10,000 high power firings. According to Ad Astra and NASA, further testing of the engine will be conducted on the International Space Station. They stated this is important to a successful test of the VASIMR engine due to the station’s relatively low orbit above the Earth, and experiences a large amount of atmospheric drag, making continuous rocket boots of altitude a necessity.
If scientists are able to create a rocket with a power that nearly exceeds 300 kilowatts within the next few years, NASA stated humans may reach Mars within just two decades. If astronauts can reach the Red Planet in just 39 days, other manned mission could be planned for further distances, such as the Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter where astronomers think liquid water is present.
By Alex Lemieux
Photo by NASA/JPL – Flickr License