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March 13, 2010

The VASIMR propulsion: a serious potential candidate for future human interplanetary exploration


But while Obama would forego a headline destination in favour of having NASA develop exotic technologies to enable human exploration of deep space while the private sector takes on the low- Earth orbit transport challenge, Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz, one former NASA astronaut, thinks he can achieve both goals - and before any crew is carried aloft in a private rocket.

Source: FlightGlobal

The technological brick necessary to do this is the VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket). Thirty years ago the very first VASIMR experiment was conducted at MIT, today the VASIMR technology is almost ready to take-off. Indeed, Ad Astra Rocket (the company fouded by Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz) is actually making test campaigns to build the first flight unit of the VASIMR engine, the VF-200, based on VX-200 thruster (thrust = ~1 lbf, specific impulse = 5000 sec, lifetime = > years). It will mounted externally on ISS probably in late 2013 or early 2014 and it will be used for drag compensation missions. This project will serve as a "pathfinder" for the ISS National Laboratory by demonstrating a new class of larger, more complex science and technology payloads.
Reboosting ISS is just one of the missions planned by Ad Astra Rocket. The VF-200 should be able to thrust a "robotic freeflyer space tug" to perform satellite repositioning, refurbishing and disposal missions.
NASA is contracting Ad Astra Rocket also for a lunar tug concept study, to take cargo from LEO orbits to the Moon and back, and deliver equipment in preparation for a human landing.

Movie of the VASIMR lunar tug concept. Credit: Ad Astra Rocket Company

This is only the beginning. Once the moon re-conquered the next step will be Mars... we just need 200 MegaWatt of electrical power (the VF-200 is a 200 kW thruster).


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