VASIMR Needs 1,000-Time Increase in Power Source to Reach Mars in Six Weeks

New Rocket Engine Could Reach Mars in 40 Days

A mission trajectory study estimated that a VASIMR-powered spacecraft could reach the red planet within 40 days if it had a 200 megawatt power source. That’s 1,000 times more power than what the current VASIMR prototype will use, although Ad Astra says that VASIMR can scale up to higher power sources.

The real problem rests with current limitations in space power sources. Glover estimates that the Mars mission scenario would need a power source that can produce one kilowatt (kW) of power per kilogram (kg) of mass, or else the spacecraft could never reach the speeds required for a quick trip.

Existing power sources fall woefully short of that ideal. Solar panels have a mass to power ratio of 20 kg/kW. The Pentagon’s DARPA science lab hopes to develop solar panels that can achieve 7 kg/KW, and stretched lens arrays might reach 3 kg/KW, Glover said. That’s good enough for VASIMR to transport cargo around low-Earth orbit and to the moon, but not to fly humans to Mars.

Ad Astra sees nuclear power as the likeliest power source for a VASIMR-powered Mars mission, but the nuclear reactor that could do the job remains just a concept on paper. The U.S. only ever launched one nuclear reactor into space back in 1965, and it achieved just 50 kg/kW.

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  • “if you look at flights to Mars for example, game changing technology enables us to go to Mars in days, not months.” – Administrator Charles Bolden.

    VASIMR is the baby of Dr Franklin Chang-Diaz.

    STS 61A, Jan 1986. On board:

    * Commander Charlie Bolden
    * Mission specialist Franklin Chang-Diaz
    * and future senator Bill Nelson.

    Is this all making sense yet? 🙂

  • Buyck

    “Ad Astra sees nuclear power as the likeliest power source for a VASIMR-powered Mars mission.” Are the Russians not busy with constructing nuclear powered spacecrafts?

    February 24, 2010
    Russia Funds its Nuclear Space Projects.

    Russia will allocate 500 million rubles ($16.7 million) for nuclear space projects this year. Over the next nine years Russia plans to invest at least 17 billion rubles (over $580 million).

    Russia is pondering new applications for yet-to-be-built nuclear-powered spacecraft, including military satellites, nuclear power plants, and space tugs. Energia space corporation will be the prime developer.

    Energia is also ready to design a space-based nuclear power station with a capacity of 150 to 500 KW with a service life of 10-15 years, to be initially placed on the moon or Mars.

    Another prospective project, Lopota said, is a heavy space platform that would replace several telecommunication satellites, complete with a standalone nuclear power plant, rocket engines and advanced communication antennas. Such a platform would have a mass of around 20 tons, a service life of 10-15 years and could be built by 2018.

    Energia is also working on a concept of a nuclear-powered space tug, which could more than halve satellite launching and orbiting costs.

    Federal Space Agency Roscosmos director Anatoly Perminov previously said the development of Megawatt-class nuclear space power systems (MCNSPS) for manned spacecraft was crucial if Russia wanted to maintain a competitive edge in the space race, including the exploration of the moon and Mars.


    Russia is Developing Nuclear Fission Spaceship to Reach the Red Planet.
    other source from Daily Tech:

  • dave s phoenix, ax

    Bolden knows little about such matters, very little. People should realize that even in a room of 100 engineers, typical engineers, only a few really truly understand the physics problems of going to orbit, then reentering. ( not talking about the top engineers at Nasa, or Lockheed Martin, or Boeing. )

  • NASA has been helping out Ad Astra and had plans to fly a prototype aboard ISS long before Bolden became administrator. This seems to be a continuation of that support…

  • Doug, NASA’s support has been off and on since 1977 and the ISS mission has never been funded.

  • Brian Koester

    I am as hyped about VASIMR as anyone else but we need a new level of scrutiny about this promising technology about how realistic it is that we will have a power source of up to 200 MW — That is MEGA-Watts people!

    We have no clear path from here to there at present, with the present level of commitment and funding even with the NASA 2011 FY budget, we wont see this vision of a 40 day mission to Mars for 50 years!

    This article is the first real examination I have seen of this fact.Thank you Doug.

    It would be nice if someone with the knowledge of United States Navy reactors write an article or post some detailed comments here because I believe that if we have to rely on the Russians for Nuclear power for VASIMR – that would be a strategic error of enormous proportions.

    We need a sustained commitment to going beyond Low Earth Orbit with a Nuclear Power X-Power program (Like the X-Planes) that looks at NERVA, VASIMR and new experimental Ion Drives and we likely need a United States Navy Reactor to power these systems.

    The technology exists – the political will and commitment don’t. The one part of the the NASA 2011 FY Budget that they got right was giving more money to Ad Astra and others…..

  • NASA and Ad Astra signed a Space Act Agreement back in December 2008 that covered the possibility of a test aboard ISS:

    The flight is contingent upon Ad Astra meeting a series of milestones along the way:

    “NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier and Ad Astra’s President and Chief Executive Officer Franklin Chang Diaz signed the agreement on Dec. 8. The agreement is structured in a series of “gates,” designed to allow the parties to assess milestones on an incremental basis while proceeding to flight. Upon the achievement of these milestones, NASA and Ad Astra envision that VASIMR will be launched to the station and be tested, for the first time, in the vacuum of space.”

    I don’t think there’s much new here. NASA is continuing to support a legal agreement they made with a private company.