Shorter Space Voyages with new Plasma Rocket. Known as Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), a new plasma rocket is being developed to one day transport astronauts to Mars in 39 to 45 days -- a fraction of the six to nine months the trip would take with conventional chemical rockets. Shorter travel time greatly reduces astronauts' exposure to potentially deadly cosmic and solar radiation, currently a show-stopper for human missions to Mars.
VASIMR technology, which uses radio waves to ionize propellant, such as argon, xenon or hydrogen, and heat the resulting plasma to temperatures 20 times hotter than the surface of the sun creating thrust. In place of metal nozzles to control the direction of the exhaust, VASIMR uses magnetic fields.
Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Co., which has raised millions of dollars from private investors, reached a significant milestone last year when it successfully operated a demonstrator VASIMR at full power in a vacuum chamber.
Ad Astra plans to launch its flight version VASIMR to the space station in 2014. As a backup, they intend to manufacture two engines in case a launch accident or other major problem prevents the first from reaching the outpost.
Once the engine is safely installed outside the station, the spare could be tapped for a new missions.
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