Next Generation Magnetoplasma Rocket Could be Tested on Space Station

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has announced his intentions to send an advanced spaceship propulsion prototype to the International Space Station for advanced testing. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (Vasimir) is currently in an experimental phase, but Griffin hopes that a scale model will be ready for one of the remaining Shuttle-ISS missions before 2010. The Vasimir concept bridges the gap between conventional (fuel hungry, high thrust) rockets and economical (fuel efficient, low-thrust) ion engines. Vasimir achieves this by using an ingenious method of ionizing and heating a neutral gas fuel…

It sounds like an idea from the “let’s do something useful with the Space Station” department in response to recent criticism about the quality of science that is being carried out on the $100 billion orbiting outpost. Michael Griffin, attended the July 29th AirVenture show in Oshkosh and was asked about the status of NASA’s advanced space propulsion research. In response he outlined plans to begin testing the Vasimir on board the ISS within the coming years. This possibly means that Vasimir will undergo vacuum testing on the outside of the station. (NOTE: This is not a propulsion device for the Space Station itself, it will remain in Earth orbit for the rest of its years, regardless of the optimistic idea that it could become an interplanetary space vehicle.)

Vasimir on the test-bed (Ad Astra Rocket Corporation)

Vasimir on the test-bed (Ad Astra Rocket Corporation)

The Vasimir uses a gas, like hydrogen, as a fuel. When injected, the engine turns the hydrogen into a plasma (a highly ionized state of matter). Through the use of intense radio signals emitted from powerful superconducting magnets, the engine is able to produce this plasma and energize it. The hot plasma is then focused and directed by a magnetic nozzle which creates thrust. The Vasimir turns out to be a very efficient way to get optimal thrust from minimal fuel (a quantity in rocket science known as “specific impulse”) through ionizing a fuel and accelerating it with a magnetic field. Such a technology is far more efficient than conventional rockets (as it uses less fuel) and provides more thrust than ion engines.

At the moment, the Vasimir looks as if it is in a “test-bed” phase of development, resembling something too large and unwieldy to be put into space, but Griffin is hoping a scale model may me taken to the ISS, possibly by one of the remaining Shuttle flights before 2010.

The engine itself is being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket Corporation and NASA signed a co-operation agreement with the company in 2006 in the hope of working on large-scale testing of rocket products. Naturally, Vasimir testing on board the Space Station would be of tremendous value in the research of this technology (but there is no mention that the Vasimir could be used as an ISS propulsion device, shame really).

Source: Flight Global

12 Responses

  1. Hi Maxwell. No, this engine isn’t being proposed as a propulsion device for the station, it will simply undergo “tests” up there. You can’t beat testing rockets in the vacuum of space at zero-G. I can only guess that the engine could be attached to one of the modules so outdoor test firing can be carried out.

    I’ve updated the article to make this fact a bit clearer. When I first read the original story, I was thinking the same thing!

    Oh well,

    Cheers, Ian

  2. Maxwell says:

    So… about how much thrust are we talking about?

    Throwing the ISS into deep space would become a very bad idea if this thruster could make for efficient earth-moon or earth-mars missions. You’d need an orbital outpost simply for transferring crews from orbital trucks to exploration craft.

    More over, the ISS will be reaching retirement age by the time upgrades for deep space travel could have been carried out.
    It would make more sense just to design a new deep space ship from the start.

  3. marcellus says:

    This is the kind of thing that the ISS is built for- a place in space that we can test things to get us to the Moon, Mars, and beyond!

    What really irks me is the remarks that the ISS will be obsolete in 2016. Spend 100 billion and then junk the thing six years after its built!???

    The ISS should be there as long as we have a space program. The Shuttle should be extended as well. Until the space elevator concept becomes a reality, mankind needs a truck to haul whatever to Earth orbit.

  4. Joel Raupe says:

    My guess is any flyable test bed would be a small item, indeed, and equal to an RCS thruster in terms of yield, or less. Significant perhaps as a sustained thrust to more efficiently and less dangerously keep ISS out of a swelled upper atmosphere at next solar max.

    US Support for ISS will continue beyond 2016, though budget plans call for it to be scaled back in favor of Constellation and the SPA lunar station’s development.

    Let’s hope they can actually get the thing doing science before then. The $100 Billion was worth it if only to improve our working knowledge of construction in orbit.

    It will have been worth it if it has given international partners a leg up toward greater support for space exploration, which it may indeed have accomplished.

    While American support for ISS will be scaled back, international support is likely to continue for a decade or more longer. The Russians will continue to utilize it.

    Unfortuantely, it was not built to be a waystation, but a destination for a net science
    yield, if the power can be brought up to potential. The sheered Alpha Rotary Joint and failed bathroom pumps could be the first signs of Mir Syndrome, however. Cost of maintenance will eventually overtake better alternatives, including waystations.

  5. Jason says:

    Made in COSTA RICA, yup.

  6. Stephen says:

    What I would like to hear more about is the physical construction of the “magnetic nozzle”, and how the magnetic fields are modulated thru it. this is what I assume is the real break thru here.

  7. young says:

    why not test it ASAP!

  8. Aodhhan says:

    Physicists have been “holding” plasma in magnetic fields for a little bit of time now, so doing so isn’t really the huge challenge.
    I won’t go into great detail about the engine, this isn’t brand new theory, so there should be plenty of resources out in cyber space.

    The big breakthrough with this engine (at least to me) is the fact it is FAR more efficient than what is currently used, and pretty much any of the lighter gas elements will work, so we aren’t limited to H or He.

    Since it is more efficient, we can keep the engine running for much longer times than we currently do, in turn increasing the amount of speed we can propel something at. Uhm… not warp speed mind you.
    The gas used, type of magnets used, how well the magnets are kept cooled etc has a bearing on efficiency and speed. I’m not going to stretch out my neck and give a WAG on speed, but I have to imagine it will be much better than current ion propulsion; definitely a better acceleration rate.

  9. Korjik says:

    Jason, the main work on the VASIMR is done in Houston TX.

  10. SUGARAT says:

    Come on people, who would send an engine up without testing in the environment it is intended to be used in? Ok, G-dub would, but he doesn’t decide these things luckily.

  11. Van says:

    Coolness. Someday, we can replace part 1 and 2 with a fusion reactor and use it’s energy to drive the magentics and provide the plasma. Hey, many even draw power from the plasma stream instead of injecting it. The Russian have tried this, it think.

    Magnetohydrodynamics and fusion were made for each other.

    But I know, one step at a time. Fusion is not ready to send to the ISS, yet.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Great, VASIMR has entered the upper league now! I was rooting for it, but had no frame of reference to judge against.

    this is what I assume is the real break thru here.

    Yes, IMHO (previously cold plasma experimenter here) the schematic and photo pictures a standard vacuum testbed (but as always with its own instabilities and pushed for scale to boot). Helicons and IC techniques are useful for cold plasmas as well. But I too imagine that the nozzle will be the major new component.

    The ISS demo will likely be a conservative smallish prototype, as noted previously.

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