Plasma Rocket Development for Faster and Flexible Space Missions

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Generating and harnessing the powerful properties of Plasma for deep space travel, VASIMR® is one of the twelve selectees for the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites.

On Wednesday, August 26, 2015, a kickoff meeting was held at Ad Astra Rocket Company in Webster, Texas where the participants, including staff from NASA_ARES, EISD discussed the goals for the NextSTEP project and toured the facilities.

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The goals set for the NextSTEP program and the advancement of high power Electric Propulsion (EP) technology include running VASIMR® for 100 hours continuously at 100 kW at a system efficiency greater than 60%. This may not sound like a long time; but to date, there are no EP systems that have run at this power level for this long. They are typically operated at much lower levels or for much shorter periods. While VASIMR® has been run in excess of 200 kW and has been fired over 10,000 times, it has only been operated for seconds to minutes at a time. The rocket performance can be reliably measured during these short firings, as the plasma reaches steady state in milliseconds; however, the longer test program requires that VASIMR® hardware components be built of more durable materials, which can withstand the high temperatures and effects of running for extended periods.

As described by the Ad Astra Rocket Company, “the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, VASIMR® works with plasma, an electrically charged gas that can be heated to extreme temperatures by radio waves and controlled and guided by strong magnetic fields. The magnetic field also insulates nearby structures so exhaust temperatures well beyond the melting point of materials can be achieved. In rocket propulsion, the higher the temperature of the exhaust gases, the higher their velocity and the higher the fuel efficiency. Plasma rockets feature exhaust velocities far above those achievable by their chemical cousins, so their fuel consumption is extremely low.”

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“We are thrilled by this announcement and proud to be joining forces with NASA in the final steps of the technology maturation,” said Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz, Ad Astra’s Chairman and CEO. “We look forward to a very successful partnership as we jointly advance the technology to flight readiness,” he added.

NASAs NextSTEP goal is to stimulate deep space capability development to support more extensive missions that would garner greater scientific returns.

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