A new plasma gas engine could cut the Earth-Mars transit time for future spacecraft from roughly six months to just 39 days. In pursuit of this goal, NASA has just awarded a contract to Ad Astra Rocket Company for continued testing of their latest futuristic plasma engine technology.

The three-year agreement, worth just over $9 million, is for long duration, high power testing of Ad Astra’s next generation VX-200SS plasma engine, with work expected to take place at the company’s advanced vacuum chamber facility in Texas. The testing will run for at least 100 hours while continuously producing 100 kW of energy.

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Ad Astra’s VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) engine technology works by heating electrically-charged plasma gas to extreme temperatures using radio waves, while guiding the superheated reaction with magnetic fields. The resulting very high temperatures create very high exhaust velocities as well as very high fuel efficiency, especially when compared to traditional chemical rockets.

The VX-200SS (“SS” stands for “steady state”) plasma engine is an upgraded version of the company’s VX-200 VASIMR prototype engine, featuring a new core design and thermal controls. VASIMR is the most powerful rocket engine in existence, operating at temperatures of 1,800,000ºF while almost entirely eliminating the need for enormous amounts of rocket fuel.

If testing proves successful, NASA could decide to include a plasma engine on a future Mars-bound spacecraft. The technology is also being considered for asteroid rendezvous and recovery missions, which would be a precursor to asteroid mining operations. Ad Astra is also developing an “Orbital Sweeper” spacecraft powered by the VASIMR engine that is designed to intercept large pieces of debris in space before they collide with others, a dangerous situation which could cause an uncontrollable chain of subsequent collisions.

NASA previously intended to test a VX-200 engine at the International Space Station in 2015, although that plan was scrapped earlier this year. The new agreement to continue research and development efforts with Ad Astra’s VASIMR plasma engine shows that confidence in the emerging technology remains strong.

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While it is very important to note that VASIMR is still a long way off from being rated for human spaceflight, its continued development is nonetheless a very positive sign that the future may hold more options for faster and more efficient space travel.

Photo credit: Ad Astra Rocket Company

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