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Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory


The Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory is developing a new type of rocket technology, the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. This plasma rocket drive is not powered by conventional chemical reactions as today’s rockets are, but by electrical energy that heats the propellant. The propellant is a plasma that reaches extreme temperatures — 50,000º and above. Some scientists call this the fourth state of matter.

This new type of technology could dramatically shorten human transit times between planets (about 3 months to Mars). Not only will planetary missions be fast, but the plasma drive will propel robotic cargo missions with very large payloads (more than 100 tons to Mars). Trip times and payloads are major concerns when using conventional rockets.

The laboratory was founded at NASA Johnson Space Center in December 1993. The lab director is NASA astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz. He has been working on the development of a plasma rocket since 1979. Work began at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory then continued at the Massuchusetts Institute of Technology Plasma Fusion Center before moving to JSC.

The laboratory has research progressing on several key fronts. Plasma production and heating is a primary focus. Specialized plasma diagnostics are critical for determining the behavior of the system. Computer simulations are used to guide and understand the experimental effort. Design of the first flight experiment plasma drive is another primary lab activity.

Vehicle Concept
IMAGE: Vehicle concept
New Rocket Technology Could Cut Mars Travel Time
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Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory
IMAGE: Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 07/01/2003
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