Tuesday, 06 Oct, 2009 Technology

Latest Invention: Powerful Ion Engine to Bring Humans to Mars in Just 39 Days


Recently scientists demonstrated a small-scale prototype of a rocket with an engine that uses charged particles. With their latest invention researchers hope in the near future to build rockets that could carry out fast missions to the red planet. In addition, the ion engine might help maintain the orbit of the ISS over the next 5 years.

Scientists from Ad Astra Rocket Company of Webster, Texas, have been improving their latest invention, called VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) since 2005. Their engine takes advantage of radio waves in order to heat argon gas, thus transforming it into hot plasma. Then magnetic fields shoot the superheated plasma out of the rocket's engine, generating thrust in the opposite direction.

The propellant is shot out at a higher speed compared to engines used today, thus creating more acceleration per kilogram of fuel burnt. Soon scientists look forward to use a 200-kilowatt VASIMR engine to make periodic boosts to the ISS orbit.

Recently the team for the first time tested their latest invention at full power in a vacuum chamber in Houston. Researchers ran the VX-200 engine at 201 kilowatts, for the first time being able to exceed the 200-kilowatt mark. "It's the most powerful plasma rocket in the world right now," outlined Franklin Chang-Diaz, head of Ad Astra Rocket Company and former NASA astronaut.

The company signed an agreement with NASA to carry out trials of its 200-kilowatt VASIMR engine on the International Space Station in 2013. Ad Astra Rocket Company is also in talks with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, regarding the possibility of bringing their latest invention to the ISS on one of the launch vehicles. In case the tests prove to be successful, the company will be able to perform commercial flights to the ISS starting with 2010.

The latest invention from Ad Astra Rocket Company would allow bringing humans to the red planet in just 39 days. It is worth mentioning that using conventional engines it might take about 6 months to perform the same mission. It is also possible that future trips to Mars would be profitable for the company. More information about the project is available here.

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