February 27, 2010

Rocket Scientist Eyes Shorter Mars Trip

A rocket scientist has gotten the attention of the US space agency, after he announced that a journey from the Earth to Mars could soon take only 39 days, cutting the travel time down nearly six-fold.

Franklin Chang-Diaz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and former NASA astronaut, says his VASIMR rocket could reach the Red Planet in record time, according to a recent AFP report.

The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, which has been in development for decades, could be the centerpiece of NASA's strategy to find private firms that can meet the exorbitant costs of space exploration.

NASA is looking for firms to build new technology to power future missions to the moon and beyond, after it was shocked by the political decision to cancel its Constellation program that would have put a man back on the moon by the end of the decade. Now it might rely heavily on firms such as Chang-Diaz's Ad Astra Rocket Company in Texas.

In the early developmental days of the rocket project, "NASA support...was rather minimal because the agency did not emphasize advanced technologies as much as it's doing now," Chang-Diaz told AFP.

NASA was focused instead on the series of Apollo missions that delivered men to the moon. "They were mesmerized by the Apollo days and lived in the Apollo era for 40 years, and they just forgot developing something new," he said.

Chang-Diaz is hoping that "something new" is his non-chemical rocket that could speed men to the moon and eventually to Mars.

The rocket uses electricity to transform fuel into plasma gas. That gas is then heated to 51.8 million degrees Fahrenheit. The plasma gas is channeled into tailpipes using magnetic fields, which propels the spacecraft. It would send the shuttle to speeds upward of 35 miles per second until the engines are reversed.

The rapid acceleration could send astronauts on a round trip to Mars and back in as little as three years, which includes an 18-month layover on the Red Planet, as they would need to await an appropriate opening to return to Earth, Chang-Diaz explained.

Chang-Diaz has been working with NASA, testing a scaled-down model of the VASIMR craft in a vacuum chamber. The next step will be orbital development of a vessel at the end of 2013. It will use a 200 kW prototype VASIMR engine. NASA and Chang-Diaz are also talking with space firms SpaceX and Orbital Science Corp to help make the dream a reality.

The distance from the Earth to Mars varies depending on the orbital paths each planet take, but ranges between 35 and 250 million miles. The journey could pose significant risks to radiation in space; however, Chang-Diaz says the use of ionized fuel could have the added benefit of creating a magnetic field around the spacecraft for protection.


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