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VASIMR® VX-200SS Plasma Rocket Completes Record 88-Hour High Power Endurance Test

Press Release From: Ad Astra Rocket Company
Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2021

Ad  Astra Rocket Company’s VASIMR® VX-200SS  Plasma Rocket has completed 88 hours of  continuous operation at 80 kW at the company’s  Texas laboratory near Houston. In doing so, the  company establishes a new high-power world endurance record in electric propulsion. The test  also demonstrates the maturity of the VASIMR® engine technology as a competitive option for  high-power in-space electric propulsion with  either solar or nuclear electric power. Electric  rockets operating above 50 kW/thruster are  considered “high-power.”

The test began at 12:50 pm (CST) last Monday  July 12 and ended Friday, July 16 at 4:55 am (CST). The firing stopped only 12 hours shy of its  intended duration of 100 hours due to a spurious temperature sensor located in the test support  equipment and not on the rocket structure. The  rocket, however, was performing normally and all  indications were that, were it not for this faulty sensor, it would have met and exceeded the 100- hour goal. Ad Astra believes the 88-hr test provides objective and sufficient evidence that  the VASIMR® engine has met the intent of the  high-power endurance goal set by NASA.

“The test is a major success, the culmination of years of trial-and-error testing and painstaking  attention to detail and a handsome reward for the  team’s tenacity and dedication,” said Franklin R.  Chang Díaz, Ad Astra’s chairman and CEO and  a decorated former NASA astronaut. “With a new  set of engine modifications already in the  manufacturing stage, we’ll now move to  demonstrate thermal steady state at 100 kW in  the second half of 2021,” he added.

The VASIMR® engine is unique in that it retains  the high power of a chemical rocket but with ten  times the fuel efficiency. As such, it is an excellent  candidate for a host of applications, ranging from  high-payload solar-electric robotic commercial  cargo and resupply missions in cis-lunar space,  to fast human missions to Mars and beyond with  nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP). The growing importance of NEP missions for  which VASIMR® is ideally suited is reflected in the language of the 2022 Bill submitted by the  Committee on Appropriations for Commerce,  Justice, Science and Related Agencies of the US  House of Representatives, which states that “…at  least $10,000,000 shall be utilized to begin a  systematic approach to Nuclear Electric  Propulsion…”, and “Within 180 days of the  enactment of this Act, NASA, in coordination with  other relevant Federal departments and agencies  such as the Department of Energy, shall submit a  multi-year plan for in-space propulsion-system  demonstration for NEP.”

"It is absolutely inspiring to see how much  Franklin Chang Díaz and the Ad Astra team have  been able to accomplish and advance in the  years that I have known them. This technology  has major potential to revolutionize the space  industry,” said U.S. Congressman Brian Babin,  Ranking Member of the House Space and  Aeronautics Subcommittee. “Ad Astra's small but  dedicated team is a true testament of  perseverance and continuing to invest in  advanced technologies such as VASIMR® is  critical if we want to remain a country that leads  in space exploration," he added.

The company’s main goal is for the VASIMR® engine to demonstrate thermal steady-state  operation at increasingly higher power levels. This condition calls for all the temperatures of the  engine’s critical components to be stably  maintained by the engine’s thermal management  system.

“The ability to operate continuously at 80 kW is  exciting because we are so close to our 100-kW design goal and needing to focus on upgrading  just a few components,” said Dr. Matthew  Giambusso, Ad Astra Senior Research Scientist,  and leader of experiment operations. “The rapid sequence of successful tests of the last few  weeks have been thrilling,” he added.

Major advances in the design of this system have  been achieved in experimental campaigns lasting  days to weeks, each followed by a period of  inspection, disassembly, and improvement. This  rapid prototyping is the basis for Ad Astra’s  approach to mature the VASIMR® technology  quickly and provide a competitive high-power  electric propulsion option for both public and  private customers.

The thermal management of the VASIMR® engine is uniquely challenging, as temperatures  from millions of degrees in the rocket’s plasma core to near absolute zero in the superconducting  magnet, located a few tens of centimeters away,  must be carefully controlled. This, of course, in  the vacuum environment where the engine must  operate. These stringent requirements have  required Ad Astra to develop innovative  manufacturing and assembly techniques to meet  unusual thermal and electromagnetic constraints within the available engine envelope. “Getting the  great diversity of materials to work in harmony in  the environment we subject the engine to has  presented major manufacturing challenges we  have had to overcome,” said Mr. Lawrence “DJ”  Dean, Ad Astra’s head of manufacturing.

About the technology: Short for Variable  Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket,  VASIMR® works with plasma, an electrically  charged gas, heated to extreme temperatures by  radio frequency (RF) waves, and controlled and  guided by strong magnetic fields, which also  provide insulation. Plasma rockets, such as  VASIMR®, have an extremely low fuel  consumption and much higher power and/or  performance as compared to other electric or  chemical rockets. VASIMR® offers economic and  operational advantages in satellite deployment,  re-boost, refurbishment, and end-of-life disposal.  With the proper nuclear-electric power source,  VASIMR® could enable much faster and safer  human and robotic transportation in deep-space  where solar power is insufficient.

About Ad Astra: A US Delaware corporation  established in 2005, Ad Astra Rocket Company is  the developer of the VASIMR® engine, an  advanced plasma space propulsion system aimed at the emerging in-space transportation  market. Ad Astra has its main laboratory and  corporate headquarters at 141 W. Bay Area Blvd  in Webster, Texas, USA, near NASA’s Johnson  Space Center.

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