Studies will be conducted to evaluate a Lunar Tug concept utilizing Variable Specific Impulse Magneto-plasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine capabilities from Low Earth Orbit to Lunar Orbit and libration points. NASA/JSC intends to purchase these services from Ad Astra Rocket Company. Adequate relevant cooling of the High Temperature Superconducting(HTSC) magnets require the conversion ofthe original HTSC magnet facility to utilize space-relevant cryo-cooler technology that has not yet been utilized under conditions that are relevant to VASIMR operation inspace.
VASIMR has advantages over other competing plasma rockets due to its electrode-less design and its use of inexpensive and abundant propellants such as argon, neon and hydrogen. Other systems tend to suffer from wear and erosion of electrodes immersed in the hot plasma; also, the use of Xenon propellant in these systems tends to make them much more expensive to operate. The current price of commercial Xenon is about $2000/kg vs. Argon at about $40/kg.
In 2009, Ad Astra demonstrated the full power operation of the 200kW VX-200, the first VASIMR flight-like prototype. This test will pave the way for the design and construction of the VF-200, the first flight unit, expected to be launched into space in late 2013.
Major milestones in this testing program have been achieved, including:
1. First plasma May 2008
2. Full (30kW) first stage power demo Oct. 2008
3. Second stage integration Jan. 2009
4. VX-200 full (2Tesla) magnetic field July 2009
5. VX-200 at full (200kW) rated power Oct. 2009
For robotic resupply missions to future human lunar outposts, Ad Astra is designing a 2MW solar powered VASIMR lunar tug capable of delivering more than twice the payload to the Moon (~34MT,) as compared to the all-chemical stage presently envisioned (~16MT.) Such enhancements in payload capability could result in savings of up to $400M/year over the present lunar resupply architecture.
VASIMR Lunar Tug
Conceptual Mission Using Three VASIMR Rockets to go to Mars