NASA Rocket Design Could Cut Mars Trip Time by 50%

By Keith Cowing
June 13, 2000
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VASIMR conceptNASA has announced a new rocket research collaboration which, if successful, promises to cut the amount of time it would take to get to Mars in half. The announcement centers around a rocket concept under development at NASA JSC’s Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory called VASIMR -the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. The engine uses magnetic fields to guide superhot plasma out an engine nozzle producing an immense amount of thrust. NASA will sign a so-called “Space Act Agreement” with MSE Technology Applications Inc. to pursue development of this rocket concept.

VASIMR is comprised of three linked magnetic cells. The first cell injects the propellant (Hydrogen gas) and the ionizes it. The next cell heats the plasma further (up to 50,000°) using ion cyclotron resonance heating. The last cell (located at the end of the engine) contains a magnetic nozzle which serves to channel the plasma into a directed flow exiting the nozzle. This engine is capable of modulating the exhaust thus allowing it to be throttled back and forth at differing energy levels.

One particular advantage of this engine technology is that it would fire more or less continuously. On the first half of a trip to Mars it would fire to accelerate the spacecraft. At the half way point the spacecraft would be swung around and the engine would fire to slow the vehicle down. Not only would there be continuous acceleration, trip time would also be reduced. An 8 to 10 month trip to Mars could be cut to as little as 3 or 4 months.

As such, astronauts would not be exposed to long periods of weightlessness which can lead to bone loss and other forms of deconditioning. After prolonged exposure to microgravity, a number of months and some postflight therapy is usually required before an astronaut can fully return to preflight condition. Shorter transit times would also reduce the radiation exposure experienced by the crew, reduce the amount of provisions and life support required, and allow crews to adapt faster to the 1/3G gravity field of Mars.

Testing of this concept is expected to occur around 2004 in Earth orbit utilizing a small, 10 kW solar powered spacecraft with a VASIMR engine. Development of larger vehicles such as the 10 Megawatt-sized spacecraft needed to go to Mars, will have to wait until NASA is given the go ahead to send humans to Mars.

Related Links

° New Rocket Technology Could Cut Mars Travel Time, NASA JSC press release

° Advanced Propulsion, NASA JSC

° MSE Technology Applications Inc.

Background Information

° Future Technology, SpaceRef Directory

° Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, Scientific American

° Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory, Rice University

° Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory, University of Michigan

° Oak Ridge boosts plasma rocket engine to send spacecraft farther, faster, Lockheed Martin Today

° NASA MSFC Begins Pulse Detonation Rocket Engine Testing, SpaceRef

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