Nuclear-powered plasma drives carrying men to Mars - the fact we can say that as a future instead of fiction makes us so happy! Tests on a new kind of ion drive establish that's already applicable to orbital operations, and could be the breakthrough that blasts us to the next planet.
We've already covered first stage tests of the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), but now - as electro-rocket scientists at Ad Astra power through second stage testing - people are already looking much further afield. VASIMR's upgrade over previous plasma engines mean it could have a permanent place in orbit, moving satellites and stations around for free by making use of solar power (tests on the International Space Station are scheduled for 2013).
But never mind being a parking assistant for a crowded orbit - it's time to adventure! Forward-thinkers say that VASIMR's continuous thrust could be what we need to get to Mars. The technology to maybe bang a bucket of bolts together and half-land it on Mars has been around for a while - the real race is against time, with the inconvenient fact that most of space is trying to kill us. You have to get there before the radiation that soaks interplanetary space becomes too much, and the superconducting plasma rocket could cut the trip down to 39 days - within what we're able to do with our soft flesh. Which means that those guys who just finished 105 days of isolation experiment are officially 2.7 times as prepared as they need to be.
This ambitious objective would mean making a few changes to craft design. Strapping in a nuclear reactor, for one thing, as the energy requirments of crossing interplanetary space is a little beyond what we can get from solar power without panels the size of cities. But really, if you're landing on a new planet, doesn't being strapped to a nuclear reaction just make it MORE awesome?
Pushing the ion-based technology forward, space agencies may one day have Charles Darwin to thank for the longevity of their spacecraft, according to a report in New Scientist. The life expectancy of an ion engine has been almost doubled using software that replicates natural selection. Electrostatic ion engines are becoming popular in space missions because Instead of relying on burning large amounts of heavy liquid propellant for thrust, they use solar power to ionise a small supply of xenon gas.
A high voltage applied across a pair of gridded electrodes sends the positively charged ions rushing at high speed towards the negative electrode adds New Scientist. Most ions pass through the grid, generating thrust. However, some ions collide with the grid itself, causing it to gradually wear out, says Cody Farnell, a space flight engineer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Simulations suggest grids in a typical NASA engine will last 2.8 years - but Farnell suggests that changing the grid's design could extend its lifespan.