Artist concept of a VASIMR. Credit: Ad Astra

Plasma Rocket Could Help Pick Up Space Trash

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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Franklin Chang Diaz’s proposed VASIMR rocket engine could create very versatile spacecraft. Not only does the plasma-fueled rocket have the potential to make a trip to Mars in just over a month, it could also help clean up space trash in Earth orbit. “Our goal is to be able to have a garbage truck that will be picking up all of these objects at various orbits,” astronaut Chang Diaz said in an article in the Global Post. The debris could put into an “orbital graveyard,” he added, “or we could actually launch them to the sun and drive them to the sun, which is kind of the ultimate, cosmic dump.”

Image plot of space junk. Image credit: NASA

Image plot of space junk. Image credit: NASA

Space debris is becoming a growing problem. The number of non-operating satellites in orbit has increased, as well as debris from spacecraft explosions and, as happened earlier this year, collisions between satellites.

“The Earth has become virtually a beehive,” Chang Diaz said. “The number of satellites orbiting the Earth, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of these objects. Some of them are just junk that’s floating there simply because these satellites have run out of fuel and they just remain in orbit dead.”

The rocket, called the VASIMR for “variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket,” uses a high-power technology initially studied by NASA that turns argon into plasma. Propelled by an exhaust gas at temperatures close to that of the sun, the VASIMR VX-200 engine would have the ability to change orbits and accelerate and decelerate in order to pick up space debris.

In September, Chang Diaz’s company, Ad Astra, tested the rocket and achieved a milestone. During the a test on in a vacuum chamber on Earth, the engine cranked at just over 200 kilowatts, becoming the world’s most powerful electric rocket.

Possible uses for the VASIMR rocket. Credit: Ad Astra

Possible uses for the VASIMR rocket. Credit: Ad Astra

VASIMR is not suitable to launch payloads from the surface of the Earth due to its low thrust to weight ratio and its need of a vacuum to operate. It would, however be ideal to function as an upper stage for cargo, drastically reducing the fuel requirements for in-space transportation.

Ad Astra has also signed an agreement with NASA to test a 200-kilowatt VASIMR engine on the International Space Station in 2013 to help keep it in orbit. ISS boosts are currently provided by conventional thrusters, which consume about 7.5 tons of propellant per year. By cutting this amount down to 0.3 tons, Chang-Diaz estimates that VASIMR could save NASA millions of dollars per year.

Other uses of the plasma rocket engine would be lunar cargo transport, human missions to Mars or other destinations, and in-space refueling.

Sources: Global Post, Ad Astra

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Jorge
Member
Jorge
November 19, 2009 5:09 PM

Do you know what would be great? In case they go the orbital graveyard way (not so sure it’s a good idea; these things will have a tendency to drift away and it’d just postpone the problem… better than nothing, though)?

To build the thing in such a way that it could be refuellable, and then either sending up a new fuel load when it’s needed, or using the ISS as a refuelling station.

In fact, sooner or later, we’ll need purely orbital transfer ships, and to have them we’ll need to refuel them up there. This looks like a great candidate for that.

Catsceo
Member
Catsceo
November 19, 2009 6:39 PM

Sounds like Planetes for real, awesome grin

ESA Exile
Member
ESA Exile
November 20, 2009 1:03 AM
As far as ‘dropping rubbish into the Sun’ is concerned it’s important to remember that it is a long way ‘down hill’ gravitationally and so the delta v that is required is huge (reaching Pluto is a walk in the park by comparison). For LEO junk it makes much more energetic sense to drop it back into our atmosphere where it will burn up harmlessly. Only really huge or dense material would reach the surface. For other orbits it would probably make sense to put together a parcel’ of junk that can be steered harmlessly past the lower orbits and back to the atmosphere. I love the idea of making this a refuelable system, so long as the… Read more »
qraal
Member
November 20, 2009 1:13 AM

If we’re constructing stuff in orbit then all those dead satellites are potential resources!

Paul Eaton-Jones
Member
November 20, 2009 1:57 AM

As Hawkwind sang in 1994:- “They call me Sputnik Stan / Space-ways maintenance man / I see a satellite about to fade / Got to collect / Weigh it in, and get paid…. ” ;-0

Olaf
Member
Olaf
November 20, 2009 10:29 AM

We could send the junk to the Moon.
In this case we could collect them and reuse the materials for moon bases.

Vanamonde
Guest
Vanamonde
November 21, 2009 5:58 AM

You guys are awesome! YES, let us not waste anything in orbit but collect it and save until we can use it! Even nuclear waste could be too valuable to throw into the sun. I mean I would all for getting out of this biosphere if there was a foolproof method but once in space, then I would say reprocess it and use it.

Still, if there was something you really need to get rid of (some isotope with no hope of beginning usable) then using the VASIMAR to setup some gravity-assist with Venus and Mercury might help shed all that delta-V.

35,000 miles an hour is a lot to lose!

Anaconda
Member
Anaconda
November 21, 2009 7:47 AM
Plasma propulsion actually has engineering and laboratory confirmation and prototypes have actually been built and tested. Plasma propulsion works. This is the future of space propulsion systems. On the other hand, so-called “black hole” propulsion is pure fantasy. Interesting to note the fantasy propulsion system has many more comments in the comment section than the real propulsion system. (Universe Today deserves credit for putting the two posts in juxtaposition.) I suggest that is symptomatic of many in conventional astronomy — fantasy is more interesting and apparently important than reality. And explains why fanciful concepts like “black holes” get so much traction. There is a persistent strain in the human psyche that prefers the reification of fantasy as opposed… Read more »
Mr. Man
Member
Mr. Man
November 21, 2009 1:29 PM

I agree, This propulsion system has a bright future

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
November 22, 2009 9:44 AM
There is a range of propulsion systems which exist or might exist. A little bit of physics is in order to understand how these are categorized. Newton’s third law tells us that d(mv)/dt = 0. If we break this into bits in time increments we have mdv + Vdm = 0 for an object throwing matter out the back. This is then Vdm/m = dv, for V the velocity of the stuff thrown out the back (exhaust plume), and dv an increment in the larger body (rocket). Integrating this gives a log v = V*log(m_i/m_f) for m_ i the initial mass of rocket plus fuel, and m_f the final mass when the fuel is used up. This is… Read more »
Astrofiend
Member
Astrofiend
November 22, 2009 8:36 PM

Anaconda Says:
November 21st, 2009 at 7:47 am

*Yawn*. Boring and trivial as always.

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