To achieve his much-repeated claim that VASIMR could enable a 39-day one-way transit to Mars, Chang Diaz posits a nuclear reactor system with a power of 200,000 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 1,000 watts per kilogram. In fact, the largest space nuclear reactor ever built, the Soviet Topaz, had a power of 10 kilowatts and a power-to-mass ratio of 10 watts per kilogram.
There is a very near term solar power system which can achieve 1 kg/kw energy density at megawatt levels.
Prospects for a low specific mass multi-megawatt nuclear space power plant were examined assuming closed cycle coupling of a high-temperature fission reactor with magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) energy conversion and utilization of a nonequilibrium helium/xenon frozen inert plasma (FIP). Critical evaluation of performance attributes and specific mass characteristics was based on a comprehensive systems analysis assuming a reactor operating temperature of 1800 K for a range of subsystem mass properties. Total plant efficiency was expected to be 55.2% including plasma pre-ionization power, and the effects of compressor stage number, regenerator efficiency and radiation cooler temperature on plant efficiency were assessed. Optimal specific mass characteristics were found to be dependent on overall power plant scale with 3 kg/kWe being potentially achievable at a net electrical power output of 1-MWe. This figure drops to less than 2 kg/kWe when power output exceeds 3 MWe
An actual working ground based non-nuclear 10 MW MHD generator using a superconducting magnet