Feeds

Plasma space-drive aces efficiency numbers: Set for ISS in 2014

Electro-rocket to open up Mars, the Belt, Jovian moons

Application security programs and practises

Top boffins working at a NASA spinoff company are thrilled to announce that their plasma drive technology – potentially capable of revolutionising space travel beyond the Earth's atmosphere – has checked out A-OK in ground tests.

The VX-200 blasting Argon at full bore in ground trials. Credit: Ad Astra Rocket Co

What interplanetary spaceship exhaust plumes really look like

According to the Ad Astra Rocket Company, building the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), the firm's VX-200 prototype engine has just completed its latest round of trials with flying colours.

“Many of the flight applications at the heart of our business model – orbital debris removal, satellite servicing, cargo flights to the Moon and Mars, and ejecting fast probes to the outer solar system – have required that the propulsion system achieve 60 per cent system efficiency," explains Ad Astra's Dr Tim Glover.

"DC electrical power has to be converted to radiofrequency (RF) power, which is then absorbed by the plasma. The fraction of the RF power that is converted to thrust is called the “thruster efficiency”. Now we have demonstrated in the lab the 70 per cent thruster efficiency we need to achieve the 60 per cent end-to-end system efficiency, at the required exhaust speed," adds the doc.

The VASIMR works by flinging reaction mass out of its exhaust, in a similar fashion to conventional chemical rockets used today. The difference is that the VASIMR blasts the gas out hugely more violently, hurling out its argon reaction mass as plasma hot as the interior of the Sun and moving at no less than 50 kilometres per second.

This means that a VASIMR plasma drive gets a lot more poke from a given mass of propellant than a relatively feeble chemical rocket possibly can, and thus that a VASIMR spacecraft can be accelerated to hugely greater velocities while still carrying decent amounts of payload. As an example, a practical VASIMR ship would be able to carry astronauts to Mars in just 39 days: a chemically-powered vessel, compelled to coast most of the way, would take six months.

The downsides of VASIMR are twofold. Firstly it requires a plentiful supply of electricity to convert argon into plasma and expel it with such terrific violence. Secondly the drive can handle only a relatively limited amount of power and fuel flow for a given mass of engine. While hugely efficient in terms of the results it gets for a given amount of fuel, a VASIMR able to lift itself off the ground is not feasible - the present small-car sized test engine can produce a maximum thrust of just 5.7 Newtons, barely enough to support half a kilogramme against Earth's gravity.

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
Asteroid's DINO KILLING SPREE just bad luck – boffins
Sauricide WASN'T inevitable, reckon scientists
BEST BATTERY EVER: All lithium, all the time, plus a dash of carbon nano-stuff
We have found the Holy Grail (of batteries) - boffins
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Famous 'Dish' radio telescope to be emptied in budget crisis: CSIRO
Radio astronomy suffering to protect Square Kilometre Array
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
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.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.