June 13, 2000
The technology could reduce astronauts' total exposure to space radiation and lessen time spent in weightlessness, perhaps minimizing bone and muscle mass loss and circulatory changes.
Called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), the technology has been under development at Johnson's Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory. The laboratory director is Franklin Chang-Diaz, a NASA astronaut who holds a doctorate in applied plasma physics and fusion technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
Chang-Diaz, who began working on the plasma rocket in 1979, said, "A precursor to fusion rockets, the VASIMR provides a power- rich, fast-propulsion architecture."
Plasma, sometimes called the fourth state of matter, is an ionized (or electrically charged) gas made up of atoms stripped of some of their electrons. Stars are made of plasma. It is gas heated to extreme temperatures, millions of degrees. No known material could withstand these temperatures. Fortunately, plasma is a good electrical conductor. This property allows it to be held, guided and accelerated by properly designed magnetic fields.
The VASIMR engine consists of three linked magnetic cells. The forward cell handles the main injection of propellant gas and its ionization. The central cell acts as an amplifier to further heat the plasma. The aft cell is a magnetic nozzle, which converts the energy of the fluid into directed flow.
Neutral gas, typically hydrogen, is injected at the forward cell and ionized. The resulting plasma is electromagnetically energized in the central cell by ion cyclotron resonance heating. In this process radio waves give their energy to the plasma, heating it in a manner similar to the way a microwave oven works.
After heating, the plasma is magnetically exhausted at the aft cell to provide modulated thrust. The aft cell is a magnetic nozzle, which converts the energy of the plasma into velocity of the jet exhaust, while protecting any nearby structure and ensuring efficient plasma detachment from the magnetic field.
A key to the technology is the capability to vary, or modulate, the plasma exhaust to maintain optimal propulsive efficiency. This feature is like an automobile's transmission which best uses the power of the engine, either for speed when driving on a level highway, or for torque over hilly terrain.
On a mission to Mars, such a rocket would continuously accelerate through the first half of its voyage, then reverse its attitude and slow down during the second half. The flight could take slightly over three months. A conventional chemical mission would take seven to eight months and involve long periods of unpowered drift en route.
There are also potential applications for the technology in the commercial sector. A variable-exhaust plasma rocket would provide an important operational flexibility in the positioning of satellites in Earth orbit.
Several new technologies are being developed for the concept, Chang-Diaz said. They include magnets that are super-conducting at space temperatures, compact power generation equipment, and compact and robust radio-frequency systems for plasma generation and heating.
Coordinated by Johnson's Office of Technology Transfer and Commercialization, the Space Act Agreement calls for a joint collaborative effort to develop advanced propulsion technologies, with no money exchanged between the two parties. Such agreements are part of NASA's continuing effort to transfer benefits of public research and development to the private sector.
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