A former NASA astronaut has developed a new type of rocket that will revolutionize space travel and enable trips to and from Mars and beyond.
Franklin Chang Díaz, an immigrant from Costa Rica who became an American citizen in 1977, is an MIT-trained physicist, mechanical engineer and NASA astronaut who logged more than 1,600 hours in space while flying 7 shuttle missions. He retired from NASA in 2005 and founded a rocket company named “Ad Astra” (Latin for “to the stars”).
Ad Astra is located in a suburb of Houston, TX and is devoted to the development of a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), the world’s most powerful plasma rocket. Plasma is a fourth kind of matter (besides solid, liquid and gas) composed of ions (charged particles) that acts like a gas but is also responsive to electromagnetism. Instead of burning fuel for propulsion, as do common rockets, the VASIMR uses electricity to heat a gas such as Argon to temperatures as high as the sun’s surface until the gas becomes plasma. The plasma is trapped by a strong magnetic field, funneled into a focused beam and shot out of the engine at speeds of more than 100,000 mph. This rocket, fueled by an electrical generator such as a lightweight nuclear fission reactor (which doesn’t exist yet), will make deep-space exploration possible.
The application of VASIMR to space travel is expected to transform space travel. For example, a current round-trip to Mars with our normal rockets would supposedly take six – nine months to Mars, with radiation equivalent to a whole-body CT scan every five – six days, then a wait of up to 2 years on Mars for Earth’s closest point, then another six – nine months return trip with the same radiation levels. However, with the developed VASIMR and lightweight nuclear fission reactor, the same round-trip would take fewer than 6 weeks with a lot less radiation exposure. Now we’re talkin’ deep-space exploration!
VASIMR is scheduled for testing in 2016 on the International Space Station. Chang Diaz hopes the next step will be VASIMR’s use as a “space tug” to transport provisions and satellites and as a “garbage truck” to economically remove dead satellites and rocket stages from their orbits around Earth. He considers those uses steps toward VASIMR’s ultimate purpose for deep-space exploration. Chang Diaz believes shuttles to Mars are in the not-too-distant future: “The first person that is going to walk on Mars has already been born.”
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