Saturday, July 25, 2009
Yay! This is an article from New Scientist explaining a successful test of the VASIMR engine on July 2. You can see a short video here explaining how VASIMR works.
This short video of the test alone is great too. Quite the sound it makes too (assuming the sound has something to do with the engine itself).
If you can't or don't feel like watching the first video, here's the general concept: it heats up argon atoms until the electrons boil off, this creates plasma, and then these ions are heated to about a million degrees, after which they are used for propulsion. It's kind of like a second-generation ion drive engine where the force produced is still pretty small compared to chemical engines, but much greater than the ion drive engines we've been using so far, and this will result in greatly decreased travel times.
39 days to Mars would turn it from sheer impossibility to something now within the realm of possibility (but still phenomenally difficult), and it's only with a system of propulsion like this that I would want to give my first conditional support to a manned mission to Mars...but nevertheless, if we are going to head out in that direction Ceres would still be a better target, and in any case the Moon comes first no matter what. You simply can't beat not having to wait for a launch window, the mere 1.5 seconds or so it takes to transmit a signal to the Earth, the possibility of sending supplies directly from the Earth if an emergency arises, the possibility of integrating tourism into the venture (a mission from Earth to lunar orbit and then back to Earth is doable; Mars is not), and many other reasons. Plus, if we do manage to get a VASIMR-powered craft working, we're still going to need to make use of what we learn on the Moon to live off the land on Mars, if that's where we want to go next.
Along with the possibility of manned missions, the ability to use VASIMR to power a craft that could perhaps carry out a sample-return mission to areas like Europa and Titan is also quite exciting. The difference between the present situation and having VASIMR technology to power spacecraft will IMO be nearly as big a game-changer as the current situation vs. discovering other Earth-like planets. The latter will change the way we see the universe, the former will for the first time give us a way to truly explore our corner of it.