This may be the engine that takes us to Mars and beyond
When President Kennedy announced that we would be going to the moon within a decade, the blood of many ran cold. It wasn’t the danger or the difficulty of the trip itself that concerned people, it was the reality that going to the moon would require us to advance technology that we hadn’t even created yet.
The same is somewhat true with the possible mission to Mars, but the time frame is far more forgiving. Scientists working on the various problems have decades rather than years, and those in charge have the luxury of examining several possible solutions rather than choosing one and hoping it works.
For the trip to Mars, one of the most important new technologies that needs to be developed is a new engine for the spacecraft that will take humanity to the Red Planet and beyond.Using conventional chemical engines available to us now, the trip to Mars takes around 270 days. That’s not impossible to imagine humans undertaking, but it’s highly impractical. A new engine that NASA just approved additional funding for, however, can do the trip in 39 days.
From chemical to plasma
The Texas based Ad Astra Rocket Company is currently working with NASA to develop the new Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASMR), a plasma engine that generates significantly more thrust than a current chemical engine. Its fuel consumption is also extremely low, according to Yibada.com, and it is promising enough that NASA just approved funding for the next round of the engine’s testing.
The engine works by using plasma, an electrically charged gas that can reach extreme temperatures. The plasma engine uses radio waves to heat the plasma; the output is then controlled and guided using magnetic fields top create thrust much more powerful than chemical engines.
To generate the level of electrical power that would be needed to reach Mars, the VASIMR engine requires nuclear fission. The goal is to operate within the 50 to 300 kilowatt range. By comparison, the Dawn spacecraft, which entered orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres on March 6, 2015 after a seven and a half year voyage, uses about 5 kW
Creating a new engine is a top priority for the mission to Mars. Using a conventional engine, the round trip would take nearly two years – 540 days there and back, and that’s not counting the time spent on Mars, which would likely be weeks if not months. Even with complete recycling and renewable food sources like vegetables, the amount of supplies needed to make the trip would increase the weight requirements exponentially. That in turn would increase the fuel consumption. It’s not impossible, but it would make the trip significantly more difficult. A new, faster engine would shorten the trip, which would decrease the weight due to supplies.
Nearly four decade in the making
VASIMR is currently the leading candidate to be the engine that will take humanity to Mars sometime after 2030. The prototype engine was first tested in 2013, but the concept for the plasma engine has been in development since 1977, under the watch of former NASA astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz.
Diaz founded Ad Astra with the goal to work with NASA in order to create a working plasma engine, and it is making the most of it. The company has just been granted $10 million in funding from NASA, along with a three year window to work on its new VX-200-SS prototype.
The 2013 VASIMR prototype successfully completed 10,000 firings, but the new engine needs to prove that it can be continuously fired for 100 hours before it goes any further into development. If it can do so, the engine could be the basis for not just the Mars mission, but all future space missions. If attached to the ISS, for example, it is estimated that it could keep the station in a stable orbit for one-twentieth the cost.
For the next stage of testing, Ad Astra’s VF-200 will soon make its way to the ISS. The prototype consists of two 100 kW VASIMR units with opposite magnetic dipoles, which will prevent rotational torque. The next tests will occur at some point in 2016.