Feeds

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

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

Intelligent flash storage arrays

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.

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
GRAV WAVE DRAMA: 'Big Bang echo' may have been grit on the scanner – boffins
Exit Planet Dust on faster-than-light expansion of universe
SpaceX Dragon cargo truck flies 3D printer to ISS: Clawdown in 3, 2...
Craft berths at space station with supplies, experiments, toys
That glass of water you just drank? It was OLDER than the SUN
One MEELLION years older. Some of it anyway
NASA rover Curiosity drills HOLE in MARS 'GOLF COURSE'
Joins 'traffic light' and perfect stony sphere on the Red Planet
Big dinosaur wowed females with its ENORMOUS HOOTER
That's right, Doris, I've got biggest snout in the prehistoric world
Japanese volcano eruption reportedly leaves 31 people presumed dead
Hopes fade of finding survivors on Mount Ontake
Relive the death of Earth over and over again in Extinction Game
Apocalypse now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that ...
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
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?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.