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Space boffins fire up plasma engine

Four hour run for experimental tech

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Costa Rica-based scientists from the Ad Astra Rocket Company have run a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine continuously for over four hours, thereby setting a new record for the tech.

The company, headed by Costa Rica-born former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, told Reuters yesterday it hopes the engines can be used to stabilise space stations "in a few years" and power a Mars jaunt within 20.

Chang-Diaz's brother Ronald, who is Ad Astra's executive director, said: "The first objective is to move small spacecraft in low orbit by 2010."

For those of you not au fait with VASIMR, the company's website explains:

The system encompasses three linked magnetic cells. The "Plasma Source" cell involves the main injection of neutral gas (typically hydrogen, or other light gases) to be turned into plasma and the ionisation subsystem. The "RF Booster" cell acts as an amplifier to further energize the plasma to the desired temperature using electromagnetic waves. The "Magnetic Nozzle" cell converts the energy of the plasma into directed motion and ultimately useful thrust.

Ad Astra ran an earlier test on its VASIMR engine last December, but managed just two minutes before overheating forced a shut-down. Since then, the scientists have been working on an improved cooling system. The company's Costa Rica branch focuses on endurance, while another lab in Houston conducts tests "aimed at boosting the engine's overall power". ®

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