Additional Space Shuttle Flight Could Include VASIMR Test

Space Shuttle has details of an additional space shuttle mission that could be flown next June by Atlantis. A four-member crew would fly the ship to the International Space Station with additional supplies and equipment, possibly including a prototype plasma engine.

The website reports:

Those payloads will be decided over the coming weeks, likely as part of the approval decision – although the late June 2011 flight may allow for launching the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine - providing it can support its original scheduled – which is questionable. VASIMR would be tested by aiding the ISS altitude control – such as reboosts.

The engine – otherwise know as an Electro-thermal Plasma Thruster or Electro-thermal Magnetoplasma engine – uses radio waves to ionize and to heat propellant and magnetic fields to accelerate the resulting plasma to generate thrust.

However, due to the power requirements at the ISS, the engine will only be put through minimal testing. Several other working assumptions are also pre-empted for the notional mission, which will undergo evaluation during Monday’s meeting.

There will be no backup shuttle available for a rescue mission, so the assumption is that the four-member crew will be able to find safe haven at ISS until they can be returned to Earth via Russian transports.

It was also noted – as expected – that STS-135 would fly with a minimum of four crew, allowing for a dual-Soyuz LON [launch on notice] plan to be utilized in the highly unlikely event Atlantis received damage to the level she would not be able to bring the crew home.

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