Saturday, September 15, 2007

To Mars and Beyond

Astra Rocket Company is working on a propulsion system that could shorten trips in space and improve fuel efficiency.

This coming January, Astra Rocket Company will test the VX-200, a full-scale ground prototype of the variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMIR), first conceived in 1979 by the company's president and CEO, astronaut and plasma physicist Franklin Chang Diaz. The rocket is an attempt to improve on current space-propulsion technologies, and it would use hot plasma, heated by radio waves and controlled by a magnetic field, for propulsion. Chang Diaz believes that the system would allow rockets to travel through space at higher speeds, with greater fuel efficiency.

If the prototype demonstrates sufficient efficiency, thrust, and specific impulse on the ground, the next step will be the VF-200, a flight version of the rocket. Ad Astra plans to fly the VF-200 to the International Space Station, where it would help maintain the space station's orbit. If all this goes according to plan, Chang Diaz hopes to eventually build VASIMIRs that could travel to Mars and beyond.