From Earth to Mars in 39 daysStaff writer ▼ |
Franklin Chang-Diaz, a former astronaut, says that reaching Mars could be dramatically quicker using his high-tech VASIMR rocket, now on track for liftoff after decades of development. VASIMR is prettier name for The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket which could change space travel.
NASA has called on firms to provide new technology to power rovers or even future manned missions, and Chang-Diaz quickly spotted the opportunity. His rocket would use electricity to transform fuel, most probably hydrogen, helium or deuterium, in plasma gas that is heated to 11 million degrees Celsius. The plasma gas is then channelled into tailpipes using magnetic fields to propel the spacecraft.
That would send a shuttle toward the moon or Mars at ever faster speeds up to an estimated 55 kilometres per second until the engines are reversed. Chang-Diaz said this rapid acceleration could allow for trips of just 39 days instead of the current anticipated round trip voyage to Mars that would last three years, including a forced stay of 18 months on the Red Planet, as astronauts await an opening to return to Earth.
The distance between the Earth and Mars varies between 55 million and 400 million kilometres depending on their points of orbit. The use of ionized fuel could have the extra benefit of creating a magnetic field around the spacecraft to protect against potentially deadly space radiation.
Scaled-down models of the VASIMR craft have been built and tested in a vacuum, under a deal with NASA, and the next major step will be orbital deployment at the end of 2013 of a vessel using the 200-kilowatt prototype VASIMR engine, the VX-200.
Talks are underway with fellow space firms SpaceX and Orbital Science Corp to make that a reality. Despite the hurdles ahead, Chang-Diaz sees the potential for a vast market for his technology, maintaining and repairing fixing satellites or launching robotic and commercial missions to Mars. His rocket may just launch NASA's brave new, commercial, world of space exploration. ■