The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is an electromagnetic thruster under development for possible use in spacecraft propulsion. It uses radio waves to ionize and heat a propellant. Then a magnetic field accelerates the resulting plasma to generate thrust (plasma propulsion engine). It is one of several types of spacecraft electric propulsion systems.
NASA recently delivered $10 million in funding to Ad Astra Rocket Company of Texas for further development of its Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), an electromagnetic thruster proficient of propelling a spaceship to Mars in just 39 days.
According to Diaz, “this is like no other rocket that you may have seen in the past. It is a plasma rocket. The VASIMR Rocket is not used for launching things; it is used for things already in orbit. This is called “in-space propulsion.”
VASIMR heats plasma, an electrically charged gas, to exceptionally high temperatures using radio waves. The system then offers thrust by funneling the hot plasma out of the back of the engine. According to Diaz, VASIMR will save thousands of gallons of rocket fuel and tens of millions of dollars a year.
In the following video, Diaz explains in great detail the origins of space travel and why the magnetoplasma rocket technology will transform space travel and exploration.
NASA’s funding was part of the “12 Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership.” Ad Astra’s rocket will travel ten times quicker than today’s chemical rockets while using one-tenth the amount of fuel.
The VASIMR system would cut the trip to Mars by months according to Franklin Chang Diaz, a former MIT student, NASA astronaut, and now CEO of Ad Astra.
Ad Astra Rocket was established in 2005 by former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. Ad Astra Rocket is working on one project in particular: the VASIMR plasma engine. Franklin Chang-Diaz made seven flights in the Space Shuttle. He imagined the VASIMR plasma engine several decades ago.
The VASIMR engine is able to vary its specific power and impulse. Like ion engines, it can operate for very long durations to provide slow but very economical propellant acceleration. It can also provide a very strong boost but less economical, provided you have a powerful source of electricity available. VASIMR is very promising but also needs a lot of energy.
The operation of VASIMR is complex and involves many techniques of electric propulsion. Hydrogen and helium are brought successively at a temperature of 30,000 degrees and then several million degrees, which transforms it into plasma. That would be enough to produce a big push. But the VASIMR plasma engine is more efficient : by heating the plasma it is then possible to accelerate it even more, thanks to magnetic fields. Also a magnetic nozzle directs the plasma in the desired direction to produce a thrust. The plasma ions then reach a maximum speed of 50 kilometers per second.