Washington, May 5 (ANI): NASA is looking forward to flying a plasma-powered rocket to survey an asteroid that could take astronauts to Mars in a little over a month's time.
The rocket called Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is a twin of one being developed for testing aboard the International Space Station.
VASIMR technology uses radio waves to ionise propellants like argon, xenon or hydrogen, and heat the resulting plasma to temperatures 20 times hotter than that on solar surface. It uses magnetic fields instead of metal nozzles to control the direction of the exhaust.
Equipped with an electric propulsion system, the rocket is being built to transport astronauts to Mars in 39 to 45 days someday - a fraction of the six to nine months the trip would take with conventional chemical rockets.
Shorter travel time for astronauts means reduced exposure to potentially deadly cosmic and solar radiation which currently is a big hurdle for missions to Mars.
"All of a sudden, the future is here," Discovery News quoted VASIMR inventor and physicist Franklin Chang-Diaz as saying. Chang-Diaz is a seven-time shuttle flier who left NASA in 2005 to start his own full time venture dedicated to developing the rocket.
His Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Co., which has raised millions of dollars from private investors, reached a significant milestone last year when it successfully operated a demonstrator VASIMR at full power in a vacuum chamber.
"The engine is actually firing right now," said Chang.
"We have lots of hurdles and challenges; we have lots of work to do. But if you look at what has happened in the last five years since we left NASA, it's been amazing," he added.
Ad Astra plans to launch its flight version VASIMR to the space station in 2014. As a backup, Chang-Diaz intends to manufacture two engines in case of a launch accident or any other major problem. (ANI)