Much shorter flight times to interplanetary destinations to soon become a reality: VASIMR / Vasimir to be tested on the International Space Station

Thursday, August 07, 2008


This is a small piece of news about a technology that could have a very large impact some time in the future. VASIMR stands for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, and is a type of propulsion using plasma that could reduce flight times by a huge amount...luckily NASA does a better job of explaining the technology than I could, so I'll just quote them from here:

One possible way to change that would be the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). Test of the VASIMR engine. Not only would VASIMR allow for faster space travel, it would have some pretty incredible side benefits, as well. For example, NASA researchers believe that VASIMR would be able to travel to Mars much more quickly than a contemporary chemical-powered rocket, and then, once there, to refuel on Mars for the return flight to Earth. The VASIMR engine could also even help protect astronauts from the dangerous effects of radiation during their trip. In the less-distant future, VASIMR could even help keep the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit without requiring extra fuel to be brought up from Earth.

VASIMR is a plasma-based propulsion system. An electric power source is used to ionize fuel into plasma. Electric fields heat and accelerate the plasma while the magnetic fields direct the plasma in the proper direction as it is ejected from the engine, creating thrust for the spacecraft. The engine can even vary the amount of thrust generated, allowing it to increase or decrease its acceleration. It even features an "afterburner" mode that sacrifices fuel efficiency for additional speed. Possible fuels for the VASIMR engine could include hydrogen, helium, and deuterium.

The use of hydrogen as the fuel for the VASIMR project has many side benefits, according to researcher Franklin Chang-Diaz. In addition to being the director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, Chang-Diaz is an astronaut who has flown into space on seven missions, more than any other NASA astronaut. "We're likely to find hydrogen pretty much anywhere we go in the solar system," he said. What this means is that a VASIMR-powered spacecraft could be launched with only enough fuel to get to its destination, such as Mars, and then pick up more hydrogen upon arrival to serve as fuel for the return trip home. Another benefit of hydrogen fuel is that hydrogen is the best known radiation shield, so the fuel for the VASIMR engine could also be used to protect the crew from harmful effects of radiation exposure during the flight.
Wikipedia also has the following:
Current VASIMR designs should be capable of producing specific impulses ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 seconds (jet velocities 30 to 300 km/s). The low end of this range is comparable to some ion thruster designs. By adjusting the manner of plasma production and plasma heating, a VASIMR can control the specific impulse and thrust. VASIMR is also capable of processing much higher power levels (megawatts) than existing ion thruster electric propulsion designs. Therefore it can provide orders of magnitude higher thrust, provided a suitable power source can be provided.
The way I understand it, VASIMR combines the best parts of chemical rockets and ion thrusters. Chemical rockets are inefficient and result in having to lug up huge amounts of fuel for relatively little gain, ion thrusters are efficient but take a huge amount of time to get up to speed. VASIMR has neither of these problems.

Now to the main article for this post:
NASA expects to sign an agreement to test a new propulsion system on the International Space Station, according to the US space agency's administrator Michael Griffin.

At the AirVenture show in Oshkosh on 29 July, Griffin was asked about the status of NASA's advanced space propulsion research. His reply referred to the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (Vasimir).
and:

Griffin says that the next step for the Vasimir is to operate it in space and that "we are at the end stages of agreeing a co-operative agreement for NASA to test the Vasimir engine on station".

The Vasimir engine taken to the ISS would be a scale-model test engine. Griffin says he does not know whether that scale-model engine would be launched by a Space Shuttle and would not give a timescale for Vasimir's possible deployment to the ISS.

A VASIMR engine would cut down travel times to a destination like Mars from six months to three. Venus is even closer: Venus Express took a total of 153 days to get to its destination, or 5 months and 2 days. Mars Express took a total of 206 days or 6 months, 23 days to get to Mars, and that was including being launched at a time when the orbits of the two planets were especially close.

The conclusion? VASIMR / Vasimir is under the radar now, but expect it to suddenly jump into the world's stream of consciousness within the next few years as it undergoes more and more substantial testing. Perhaps 2010 will be the date, as we have the following from Wikipedia:
The Ad Astra Rocket Company plans to test a ground prototype rocket in early 2008, the VX-200 rated at 200kW total radio frequency power, to demonstrate the required efficiency, thrust and specific impulse. A flight version of the VASIMR, the VF-200, is expected to be tested in space in late 2010.
For some more information on this VF-200, see this forum thread on space.com.

Lastly, here's a video of a conceptual mission to Mars by NASA using the technology:



The person that uploaded the video has written the following comment:
We are working like crazy to assemble the first space-demonstration VASIMR (VX-200) unit on the ground in Houston, with the hope of testing one on the ISS by 2012.

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