Advanced Space Propulsion
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.
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
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.
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