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article imageOp-Ed: NASA funding new fast engine that can get to Mars in 39 days

By Paul Wallis     Apr 9, 2015 in Science
Webster - In a very apt kick in the teeth to the detractors of the VASIMR engine, NASA will be funding a development program. The engine was successfully tested in 2013 and has been given the OK for $10 million in funding over three years.
VASIMR’s background
I did a story about this on Digital Journal when VASIMR first came to public awareness back in 2010. MIT physicist Franklin Chang-Diaz, who’s also a former astronaut, (That’s one heck of a resume in half a sentence, isn’t it?) is the brains behind VASIMR.
VASIMR uses electricity to turn a vaporized gas into superheated (11 million degrees C) plasma jets, which are then directed by magnetic fields to control direction and thrust. It’s a sort of cross between a gas jet and a turbine, with the magnetic fields regulating and defining polarized fields, attracting and repelling.
VASIMR is an “in space” drive, not a take-off and landing drive. It’s intended for six basic roles, including space debris mitigation (Thank god!) asteroid capture and deflection, space station orbital boost, deep space travel, and more. It’s also obviously early days for this technology.
VASIMR is very straightforward, and with enough power, extremely efficient. It’s a no-nonsense approach to the demand for massive amounts of power, too, no clunky stuff. Better still, there’s no tortuously expensive, ancient tech processes to get 5 percent payloads off the ground, which is the main economic problem with current space travel.
VASIMR’s creators, Texan company Ad Astra ( Latin for To the Stars) must be feeling vindicated. After the initial announcement of their new engine design, someone took it upon themselves to label VASIMR a hoax. Typical of the “everything is impossible” school of noisy pseudo-science, the hoax claim made a big, annoying racket in the media.
Ad Astra did the next best thing to having a long pointless debate with the enchanting people claiming it was a hoax — they proved it wasn’t a hoax, by running a continuous 100-hour burn of the new VASIMR VX-200-SS engine. That’s the likely scenario which would have attracted NASA — sustainable power, reliable engine, and proven performance at specifications.
What VASIMR means
The other attraction of VASIMR is that it offers meaningful parameters for real space travel. The famous 39 days claim which Ad Astra used as its initial announcement for VASIMR means a lot more than 39 days to the experts. It means an entire logistics system. It means no long epic years in space to get to Mars. It means saving billions. It means a plausible budget which won’t require NASA people to go busking in the streets to get the money.
This could well be the beginning of a very new culture in commercial space travel. The lack of anything but firecracker vehicle technologies has stymied more advanced space exploration. It’s certainly done nothing useful in terms of manned space travel. Everything has looked way too difficult and expensive.
This has hindered the development of basics like artificial gravity (designs have been around for decades now) proper radiation shielding (insert library of ideas that don’t involve armor here) more productive manned missions and other useful things. If economic space travel is now viable, all these things instantly become far more practical propositions for development.
A miniature VASIMR could be a great option for a range of tasks in space and around Earth. A few VASIMRs would totally rewrite the script for Moon bases and space stations. This could be where the choke chain finally gets taken off human space travel.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Frankling Chang Diaz, Ad Astra Rocket Company, spaceflight technology, space exploration economics and logistics, new space tech
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