I will look at two near term space systems the Vasimr and the solar electric sail. Both could provide a significant increase in the performance of various space missions. Both have their advantages and would be welcome improvements in the capabilities of space systems. Vasimr can go up to higher power levels that are limited by the Vasimr system and the power system. The Solar electric sail uses no propellant while the Vasimr is ten times or more efficient than current chemical systems. Both could be in space flight tests in the next year or three.
The 200 kilowatt VX200 Vasimr system is almost ready for flight tests and the type of missions impacts it would have are discussed. The solar electric sail system which I reviewed last week is discussed again. Comparison is made to dandelion seeds and how the multiple parachute configuration could be used to combine the propulsion of several solar electric sails to move larger objects.
The 200 kilowatt Vasimr plasma engine is expected to reach NASA’s technology readiness level 6 in 2008 An initial test firing of the full engine
prototype has been postponed until the 2nd quarter of 2008 in order to give Scientific Magnetics of Culham, UK. the needed time to complete its certification of the superconducting subsystem.
A 12 MW Vasimr system could send a ship to Mars in less than 120 days one way. A 200 MW Vasimr could go to Mars in 39 days.
The 6 page study of a Vasimr powered lunar cargo vehicle. Five of the 200 kilowatt Vasimr engines could make up a 1 MW plasma powered vehicle.
March 17, Alliant Techsystems (NYSE: ATK) [$4.1 billion company] and the Ad Astra Rocket Company of Houston, Texas signed and executed a Technology
Development Alliance to explore future in-space propulsion systems for lunar and planetary missions.
VASIMR versus the Solar electric Sail
A VASIMR system can get up to 300 kilometers/second and faster while the solar electric sail goes 100 kilometers/second. Both systems could be improved beyond those performance levels. The variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) uses radio waves and magnetic fields to accelerate a propellant. Current VASIMR designs should be capable of producing specific impulses ranging from 10,000-300,000 m/s (1,000-30,000 seconds) – the low end of this range is comparable to some ion thruster designs.
Technology Readiness levels [6-9]
6. System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment: Representative model or prototype system, which is well beyond the breadboard tested for TRL 5, is tested in a relevant environment. Represents a major step up in a technology’s demonstrated readiness. Examples include testing a prototype in a high fidelity laboratory environment or in simulated operational environment.
7. System prototype demonstration in an operational environment Prototype near or at planned operational system. Examples include testing the prototype in a test bed aircraft.
8. Actual system completed and ‘flight qualified’ through test and demonstration.
9. Actual system ‘flight proven’ through successful mission operations.
They are expecting to get to a flight test in 2010.