Ion Engines Could Make Mars Trips Routine

vx200_phasea_nozzle

Ion engine could one day power 39-day trips to Mars
New Scientist

Several space missions have already used ion engines, including NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is en route to the asteroids Vesta and CeresMovie Camera, and Japan’s spacecraft Hayabusa, which rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

But a new engine, called VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), will have much more “oomph” than previous ones. That’s because it uses a radio frequency generator, similar to transmitters used to broadcast radio shows, to heat the charged particles, or plasma.

The engine is being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket Company, which was founded in 2005 by plasma physicist and former space shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz.

VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam. The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma. This stage was tested for the first time on 2 July at Ad Astra’s headquarters in Webster, Texas.

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