Led by former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz, Ad Astra Rocket Co. is developing the versatile, high-tech engine, which is known as the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, orVASIMR for short.
Engine work has been underway for more than 25 years, and is based on NASA and U.S. Department of Energy research and development in plasma physics and space propulsion technology. Commercializing the VASIMR electric propulsion engine is the flagship project of Ad Astra, which has been in business for nine years and has invested $30 million to date to mature the concept.
Ad Astra's Texas headquarters and the company's subsidiary research lab in Costa Rica are full of researchers who are attracted by game-changing, disruptive technology, Chang-Díaz said.
VASIMR heats plasma — an electrically charged gas — to extreme temperatures using radio waves. Strong magnetic fields then funnel this plasma out the back of the engine, creating thrust.
The most advanced VASIMR engine is Ad Astra's 200-kilowatt VX-200. The pathway to the VX-200 was discussed at the 33rd International Electric Propulsion Conference, held at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., last month. Company officials gave details about a plan to flight-validate another VASIMR variant, the VF-200, on the International Space Station (ISS) in the next few years.
The major purpose of Aurora is to flight-qualify and test the performance of the 200-kilowatt VF-200 VASIMR engine in the space environment. A battery storage module on the platform stores the energy needed to fire VASIMR at 200 kilowatts for about 15 minutes before needing to be recharged.
Chang-Díaz also outlined a range of applications envisioned for the VF-200-class engine, including the following:
- A commercial low-Earth orbit, high-powered, solar-electric space tug for space-junk cleanup;
- Service and support to satellites — such as refueling, repair and repositioning operations — could be enabled by a high-powered VASIMR solar-electric tug;
- Reboost/orbit maintenance for orbiting space stations could be provided by Ad Astra's autonomous commercial solar-electric power and propulsion module, at a fraction of the cost of present-day chemical rockets;
- A reusable, high-powered, commercial deep-space catapult that could send fast robotic packages to the outer reaches of the solar system more economically than conventional rockets can; and
- VASIMR engine-enabled deflection of potentially dangerous asteroids, as well as capture and repositioning of space rocks for mining and resource recovery.