39-Day Mission to Mars
New plasma rocket makes mission to Mars six times faster.
By: Chelsi Robichaud, Staff Writer
The trip to Mars originally would have taken approximately 300 days. Now with the new technology of plasma rockets, it will take six times less time. That’s right: only 39 days to Mars.
This is made possible by the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), an advanced space propulsion system that uses argon gas and radio waves in the form of light—a renewable source of energy that is found in space.
The project, led by Frank Chang-Díaz , a former NASA astronaut who has he been to space seven times andspent more than 1 600 hours in space, is being developed by Ad Astra Rocket Co. Ad Astra Rocket Co. has currently invested $30 million in the project so far, but Chang-Díaz says it will take $100 million to have the rocket ready to go.
“These kinds of rockets are such that they keep accelerating all the time,” says Chang-Díaz. “In other words, it’s like stepping on the gas and never letting go.”
The sun, lightning and plasma televisions are all things that possess plasma, one of the most important parts of the VASIMR. There is one major problem with the use of plasma, though: it gets extremely hot. In fact, it can go up to over 1 million degrees. To combat this heating effect, the plasma is guided along a magnetic duct that eventually ejects it out of the rocket, keeping it cool enough to function.
“The hotter the rocket, the better the rocket is,” says Chang-Díaz. “The problem is that you cannot have any material structure near this hot plasma. Fortunately, we can hold plasma with a magnetic field.”
The plasma rocket introduces more than the ability to get to Mars more quickly. It is more fuel-efficient when compared to the chemical rocket and instead of burning a high amount of fuel at one time, the plasma rocket uses a little bit of fuel expelled at high velocities over a long period of time. In addition, the plasma rocket may be able to clean up the space junk that orbits the Earth, repair satellites, do maintenance for space stations, launch resources to the outer reaches of the solar system more quickly than chemical rockets and deflect asteroids headed to Earth.
Chemical rockets are known to travel at a speed of 40 000 miles an hour, but Chang-Díaz says this new rocket will break 120 000 miles an hour.
Like many new technologies, there are those who oppose this idea, including Robert Zubrin, head of the Mars Society. In an article titled “The VASIMR Hoax,” Zubrin writes that there is “no basis whatsoever for believing in the feasibility of Chang Diaz’s fantasy power system.”
Zubrin claims that the resources and technology needed to finalize the VASMIR are both nonexistent and inefficient.
“No electric propulsion system—neither the inferior VASIMR nor its superior ion-drive competitors—can achieve a quick transit to Mars,” Zubrin writes. “The thrust-to-weight ratio of any realistic power system (even without a payload) is much too low.”
Chang-Díaz’s vision of the future, however, doesn’t just include plasma rockets. He envisions a future of space travel and humans inhabiting the moon.
“A colony of humans on the moon is going to require fuel, food, water and all the necessary things that are going to be keeping that habitat operating,” says Chang-Díaz.
“We can have almost the equivalent of UPS. We can deliver cargo to your door on the moon.”
But if we move to the moon, how will we see the Earth? Chang-Díaz speaks to this question.
“The Earth will maybe some day become a national park. A place where humanity will always come back to search for its roots.”
Chelsi Robichaud is a Bachelor of Humanities student at Carleton University in Ottawa. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing and playing the harp and piano.