July 20, 2006

Costa Rican lab to test plasma space rocket

By John McPhaul

LIBERIA, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Better known for coffee,
surfing and jungles, tiny tropical Costa Rica is now home to
scientists working on a plasma rocket engine they hope will
slash travel times to the moon and beyond.

Led by Costa Rican-born former NASA space shuttle astronaut
Franklin Chang-Diaz, the Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Company
inaugurated a site last weekend in the Central American nation
to test rocket components.

The company hopes to sell the finished rocket engine,
propelled by super-hot plasma, to NASA for moon trips planned
for the next decade and an eventual lunar space station.

Scientists believe rockets that run on plasma, the stuff
that makes stars shine, will be faster than rockets currently
used in space travel.

Considered the fourth state of matter because it is neither
a solid, liquid or gas, plasma is a high energy form of matter
that can reach millions of degrees, making it a potentially
powerful fuel.

Closer to home, plasma is found in lightning bolts and neon

Chang-Diaz said he located the laboratory in the Costa
Rican town of Liberia with the hope it will plant the seeds of
space-age industry in a developing country that depends on
tourism for much of its income.

"Eventually as our people learn from experience they could
design components, and that would become intellectual property
of Costa Rica," Chang-Diaz said in a recent interview.

The extreme power of his proposed rocket, which uses
Variable Specific-Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, or VASIMR,
technology, conceived in the 1970s, could eventually cut travel
time to Mars by about a third, he said.

Chang-Diaz, a physicist, helped develop VASIMR during
several space shuttle missions after he joined NASA in the

A prototype of the rocket, to be built in Ad Astra's
Houston laboratory, should be completed by the end of 2007 with
a price tag of $10 million.

Ad Astra hopes to unveil two operational rockets by the end
of 2010 and 2011 at a cost of $150 million.