Monday, July 09, 2018

VASIMR Around the Corner

          By Brian Orlotti

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has announced the signing of an agreement with a Halifax, NS based company to fund development of a vital component for a futuristic plasma rocket engine.

The move highlights a new Canadian interest in technologies for long-term access beyond-low Earth orbit (LEO) and deep space. 

As outlined in the July 1st, 2018 Costa Rica Star post, "Canadian Space Agency Provided $1.5 Million Funding for Ad Astra Rocket Costa Rica," the agreement, provided under the CSA’s Space Technology Development Program (STDP), calls for approximately $1.5Mln CDN to be granted to Halifax, NS based Aethera Technologies Ltd.

As outlined in the June 1st, 2018 CSA website document "Disclosure of grants and contributions awards for Q4 2017-2018," the award was for:
Future exploration of our solar system (which) will require continuous innovation and improvements to in-space propulsion. 
Located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Aethera Technologies is developing critical technology for advanced in-space electric propulsion. Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®) technology has extremely low fuel consumption and much higher performance when compared with conventional chemical propulsion or other electric rockets. 
The technology offers economic and operational advantages in space commerce, including satellite deployment, re-boost services, refurbishment, and end-of-life disposal.  
This technology advances humanity's evolution beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and significantly contributes to the world's technology base for the exploration of space. 
Leveraging Aethera's expertise in the field of High-Power Radio Frequency systems, the project focuses on the development of Radio Frequency Power Processing Units with extremely high electrical energy conversion efficiencies and mass density.
Aethera is a provider of technology and services in the fields of radio frequency power, communications, and dielectric heating. Aethera will use the funds to develop advanced high-power radio frequency power processing units (RF-PPUs) for Webster, TX based Ad Astra Rocket Company’s variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) plasma engine.

The VASIMR, in contrast to chemical rocket engines, uses plasma (an extremely hot, electrically charged gas) accelerated by magnetic fields to generate thrust. Plasma rockets such as VASIMR offer extremely low fuel consumption and greater performance compared to chemical rockets.

Plasma rockets’ disadvantages include a low thrust-to-weight ratio and an inability to operate outside a vacuum, making them unsuitable for launching payloads from Earth’s surface.

Oddly enough, the award passed mostly unnoticed in Canada, although there was much coverage in Costa Rica, possibly because Ad Astra CEO and retired NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz was born there.

Ad Astra is marketing the VASIMR as a key enabler for space commerce in areas such as:
  • Satellite deployment/maintenance/disposal
  • Orbital reboosting of space stations
  • Space junk cleanup
  • Lunar cargo delivery
  • Cargo and passenger transport to Mars
  • Deep-space human/robotic missions (if paired with a nuclear power source)
Ad Astra Rocket Company was founded in 2005 by former NASA space shuttle astronaut Chang-Diaz to develop and commercialize plasma propulsion technology.

The VASIMR engine builds on years of development work by Chang-Diaz at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and NASA.

In 2013, as outlined on the Kickstarter campaign "Animating VASIMR®: The Future of Spaceflight," Ad Astra ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for developing a documentary about VASIMR, with 603 backers pledging over $76,746 USD (over $100K CDN).

Aethera isn’t the only Canadian connection to VASIMR.

As outlined originally in the November 7th, 2009 post, "Our Next Real Canadian Rocket Scientists," Hackets Cove NS based Nautel Ltd., these days a Canadian manufacturer of AM and FM radio broadcast transmitters, navigational radio beacons, differential global positioning system (DGPS) transmitters, and other radio applications, built the solid-state radio emitters used in VASIMR to heat the onboard xenon gas, turning it into plasma.

The Aethera-built RF- PPUs will support an upcoming (Q4 2018) 100-hour continuous high-power firing test of the VX-200SSTM prototype engine.

After completion of this test, the VASIMR will be at or above NASA’s Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 5, the stage just prior to space flight testing.

The VASIMR promises to open the realm beyond Earth orbit to greater human activity. The CSA’s investment in VASIMR marks the beginning of a Canadian willingness to think in such terms as well.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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