One of the biggest things holding back serious space exploration is time. After all the idea of sticking a bunch of astronauts in a tin can and then sending them on a six month journey to Mars isn’t overly appealing. The main problem with this is that we are relying on a chemical propulsion system that is for the most part inefficient, not to mention that 90% of any space mission initial launch is the fuel needed to escape our gravity.
While there have been many different ideas floated around for many years to find a better method of launching and/or fueling the actual travel between planets nothing has really gained any traction. This is something that former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz is aiming to change with his proposed Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). Using the VASIMR ion propulsion system Chang-Diaz believes that Mars could be reached in 39 days and using a fraction of the fuel.
The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR, for short) consists of three linked magnetic cells. The first stage works a bit like a kettle, heating the atoms of a neutral gas like argon with a radio frequency (RF) generator until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma.
The plasma is now very hot – about 50,000 degrees Celsius – but not hot enough to produce efficient thrust. The second stage of VASIMR acts as an amplifier, further energizing the plasma using electromagnetic waves. By now, the plasma reaches about a million degrees, comparable to the center of the sun.
The third and final stage is a “magnetic nozzle” that converts the energy of this superheated plasma into directed motion and, ultimately, high velocity thrust. And, in case you’re wondering how anything so hot could be possibly contained, that’s one of the reasons the cells are all magnetic. A magnetic field not only helps heat plasma but also contains it, so it won’t ever actually touch anything.
Source: GizMag :: New ion engine could reach Mars in 39 days
Don’t start packing your bags just yet though as there are two primary things that would have to be worked out before any possibility of the VASIMR system being used. Principally the VASIMR base ship would need to still be launched into space using traditional methods because it couldn’t produce enough thrust to break through our gravity.
The second problem that would have to be surmounted – especially for deep-space missions is the power needed by VASIMR. This need could only be met by some sort of on-board nuclear reactor but this isn’t slowing anyone down at this point as the VASIMR team along with NASA is getting ready for testing in 2012.