Costa Rica: A revolutionary plasma rocket engine has undergone endurance tests for a record time of more than four hours at a test facility in Costa Rica. According to scientists from the Ad Astra Rocket Company, if everything works out fine then the engine will eventually be cheaper to operate than conventional rocket models and will also reduce travel time for space missions.
It is expected that the plasma rocket engines will boost commercial spacecraft into higher orbits, stabilise space stations, and then to power a trip to Mars within two decades, cutting down travel time by about a third to around three months.
Costa Rican-born, former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, heads Ad Astra Rocket Company.
The plasma engine works on the principle of stripping electrons from hydrogen atoms and accelerating the resulting plasma in an electric field. When plasma is expelled from the back, the engine generates thrust. The technique is known as Variable Specific-Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) technology, and was conceived of in the 1970s.
Plasma (VASIMR) engines differ from conventional rockets by accelerating continuously. A conventional rocket engine generates all it's thrust in the first few minutes of a mission, and then coasts to the destination.
Plasma engines will reduce travel time, and could also provide a low level of artificial gravity for astronauts. It has been suggested that hydrogen fuel, which is common throughout the universe, could also be harvested on the passage.
Meanwhile Ad Astra is taking it a step at a time. The first objective, said company officials, is to move small spacecraft into low orbit by 2010.
Wile scientists at Ad Astra's Houston laboratory are conducting tests aimed at boosting the engine's overall power, they are focusing on endurance tests in Costa Rica.