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VASIMR plasma engine: Earth to Mars in 39 days?

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In Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novels and movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two, the spaceships Discovery and Alexei Leonov make interplanetary journeys using plasma drives. Nuclear reactors heat hydrogen or ammonia to a plasma state that’s energetic enough to provide thrust, reported Space Flight Insider.

In 1983, seven-time Space Shuttle Astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz turned Clarke’s speculations into reality with an engine known as the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR).

An electric power source ionizes hydrogen, deuterium, or helium fuel into a plasma by stripping away electrons. Magnetic fields then direct the charged gas in the proper direction to provide thrust.

“A rocket engine is a canister holding high-pressure gas,” Chang Diaz explained. “When you open a hole at one end, the gas squirts out and the rocket goes the other way. The hotter the stuff in the canister, the higher the speed it escapes and the faster the rocket goes. But if it’s too hot, it melts the canister.”

The VASIMR engine is different, Chang Diaz explained, because of the fuel’s electrical charge: “When gas gets above 10,000 [kelvins], it changes to plasma – an electrically charged soup of particles. And these particles can be held together by a magnetic field. The magnetic field becomes the canister, and there is no limit to how hot you can make the plasma.”

Chang Diaz has pointed out that hydrogen would be an advantageous fuel for the VASIMR engine because the spacecraft would not have to lift off carrying all the fuel it needs for the journey.
“We’re likely to find hydrogen pretty much anywhere we go in the Solar System,” he said.

A spacecraft using conventional chemical rockets would take eight months to get to Mars during opposition. However, the VASIMR engine would make the journey in as little as 39 days.

Chang Diaz explained: “Remember, you are accelerating the first half of the journey – the other half you’re slowing, so you will reach Mars but not pass it. The top speed with respect to the Sun would be about 32 miles per second [or 51.5 km/s]. But that requires a nuclear power source to heat the plasma to the proper temperature.”

The use of nuclear power in space is not without its controversy. In 1997, there was widespread public concern when NASA’s Cassini probe, which carried a plutonium battery, made a flyby of Earth to perform a gravity assist. Although NASA denied that the risk to the public, should an accident occur, was no greater than that posed every day by other sources of radiation, some scientists, including the popular theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, disagreed.

In April 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission was deeply concerned about the return of Apollo 13 to Earth. Where an Apollo mission would usually leave the lunar module’s descent stage on the Moon, the unsuccessful Apollo 13 dropped its lunar module Aquarius, with its plutonium-powered scientific experiments, into the ocean, raising concerns about radioactive contamination.

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), is skeptical about the viability of the VASIMR engine. One reason is the concern about radioactive debris falling to Earth in the event of an accident.

Musk is also skeptical that the VASIMR engine would be a significant improvement over chemical rockets, stating: “So people like Franklin – basically it’s a very interesting ion engine he’s got there, but it requires a big nuclear reactor. The ion engine is going to help a little bit, but not a lot in the absence of a big nuclear reactor.” Musk also points out that the big nuclear reactor would add a lot of weight to a rocket.

Chang Diaz dismisses the concerns about nuclear reactors in space, stating: “People are afraid of nuclear power. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima – it is a little misunderstood. But if humans are truly going to explore space, we eventually will have to come to grips with the concept.”

Another vocal critic of the VASIMR engine is Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society, who designed the Mars Direct plan to colonize Mars and wrote the popular book The Case For Mars. He has gone as far as to call the VASIMR engine a “hoax”.

Zubrin wrote in SpaceNews: “To achieve his much-repeated claim that VASIMR could enable a 39-day one-way transit to Mars, Chang Diaz posits a nuclear reactor system with a power of 200,000 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 1,000 watts per kilogram. In fact, the largest space nuclear reactor ever built, the Soviet[-era] Topaz, had a power of 10 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 10 watts per kilogram. There is thus no basis whatsoever for believing in the feasibility of Chang Diaz’s fantasy power system.”

Chang Diaz, however, says in his paper: “Assuming advanced technologies [emphasis added] that reduce the total specific mass to less than 2 kg/kW, trip times of less than 60 days will be possible with 200 MW of electrical power. One-way trips to Mars lasting less than 39 days are even conceivable using 200 MW of power if technological advances allow the specific mass to be reduced to near or below 1 kg/kW.”

In other words, Chang Diaz is allowing for further developments that would enable such a reactor.

Zubrin, however, stated: “[T]he fact that the [Obama] administration is not making an effort to develop a space nuclear reactor of any kind, let alone the gigantic super-advanced one needed for the VASIMR hyper drive, demonstrates that the program is being conducted on false premises.”

The 2011 NASA research paper “Multi-MW Closed Cycle MHD Nuclear Space Power Via Nonequilibrium He/Xe Working Plasma” by Ron J. Litchford and Nobuhiro Harada, indicates that such developments are feasible in the near future.

Whether the VASIMR engine is viable or not, in 2015, NASA awarded Chang Diaz’s firm – Ad Astra Rocket Company™ – a three-year, $9 million contract. Up to now, the VASIMR engine has fired at fifty kilowatts for one minute – still a long way from Chang Diaz’s goal of 200 megawatts.


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