Feeds

NASA inks deal for ISS plasma drive tests

Keeping the station out of this world

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

Plans to test a super-efficient plasma space drive aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been confirmed. The Ad Astra Rocket Company, which is developing the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), has announced the signing of an agreement for the tests with NASA.

The view from the ISS

The ISS - shortly to be kept up by plasma

The deal was inked on December 8 by Ad Astra chief and former astronaut Dr Franklin Chang Díaz, and for NASA by space-ops honcho William Gerstenmaier.

According to an Ad Astra statement:

Upon the successful achievement of the milestones set forth in the agreement, NASA and Ad Astra envision that VASIMR™ will be launched to the ISS where the rocket can be tested, for the first time, in its intended environment: the vacuum of outer space.

The primary technical objective of the project is to operate the VASIMR™ VF-200 engine at power levels up to 200 kW. Engine operation will be restricted to pulses of up to 10 minutes at this power level. Energy for these high-power operations will be provided by a battery system trickle-charged by the ISS power system.

The VASIMR works by ejecting plasma reaction mass at extremely high velocities, much higher than a normal chemical rocket can achieve by spitting out combusting fuel. This means that a given amount of reaction mass does hugely more work, which could allow Moon ships to carry more cargo or interplanetary voyages to be made much more quickly.

The VASIMR isn't any use for launching a spacecraft into orbit, however, as its thrust-to-weight ratio is far too low. The planned VF-200 for the ISS, for instance, would generate a trifle less than the push exerted by a weight of one pound in Earth-surface gravity. However, it requires very little fuel to maintain this thrust for a long time, meaning that it can be used to prevent the ISS' orbit decaying without the need to ferry up big loads of rocket fuel.

Of course, unlike a chemical rocket a plasma drive needs electricity. In the case of the ISS, this will come from the station's solar panels. Solar-powered VASIMR ships, according to Ad Astra, could move cargoes to the Moon much more efficiently, or perform other missions at Earth orbit or closer to the Sun.

Further from the Sun, Dr Chang Díaz - an MIT plasma physicist before he became a Shuttle astronaut - believes the best currently-available solution for powering VASIMR ships would be nuclear fission. His analysis suggests that a 12-megawatt VASIMR vessel could reach Mars in just 39 days, for instance. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
Cutting cancer rates: Data, models and a happy ending?
How surgery might be making cancer prognoses worse
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
CRR-CRRRK, beep, beep: Mars space truck backs out of slippery sand trap
Curiosity finds new drilling target after course correction
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
Brit balloon bod Bodnar overflies North Pole
B-64 amateur ultralight payload approaching second circumnavigation
Galileo, Galileo! Galileo, Galileo! Galileo fit to go. Magnifico
I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me. But at least I can find my way with ESA GPS by 2017
Astronomers scramble for obs on new comet
Amateur gets fifth confirmed discovery
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?