Ad Astra Rocket Company Reaches Milestones on VX-200 VASIMR Plasma Rocket


In an internal report to its investors, presented in February of this year, Ad Astra Rocket Company reported the achievement of all its stated milestones in 2007 and presented a revised schedule of testing for the VX-200 VASIMRâ„¢ prototype under development at its Houston facility.

Short for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, VASIMR™ is a new high-power plasma-based space propulsion technology, initially studied by NASA and now being developed privately by Ad Astra. A VASIMR™ engine could allow space operations far more efficiently and with much less propellant than today’s chemical rockets. Ultimately, VASIMR™ engines could also greatly speed up robotic and human transit times for missions to Mars and beyond.

Major 2007 milestones achieved included key results from a newly operational VASIMRâ„¢ 100kW test bed, the VX-100 and initiation of manufacturing and subsystem integration for the first flight-like engine prototype, the 200kW VX-200. In addition, the company signed important agreements with NASA and NAUTEL Ltd of Canada.

On December 17, 2007, Ad Astra also took formal occupancy of its new 25,000 square foot Houston research facility at 141 W. Bay Area Blvd, Webster TX, a much larger and capable laboratory located two miles from its former home at the Johnson Space Center. Major upgrades were also achieved in Ad Astra’s 7,000 square foot Costa Rica laboratory. These include a precision manufacturing facility and a new 13kW RF system, which constitutes a 10-fold increase over its previous capability. In addition to manufacturing support of VX-200 elements, Ad Astra Costa Rica is addressing the challenging thermal management aspects of the VASIMR™ engine.

Integrated tests for the VX-200 prototype are presently ongoing in Houston and will continue throughout most of 2008. Successful tests have been completed on the vacuum integrity of the engine’s first stage, as well as the operation of the control and propellant feed subsystems. The RF subsystem has passed its certification tests at its manufacturer, Nautel Ltd. of Halifax, NS. Canada, and is being readied for shipment to Houston for integration. The high power solid-state RF subsystem is a key VASIMR™ component and generates the needed radio frequency power to create and accelerate the plasma.

An initial test firing of the full engine prototype has been postponed until the 2nd quarter of 2008 in order to give Scientific Magnetics of Culham, UK, the needed time to complete its certification of the superconducting subsystem. This is a critical component of the engine, which the British company is building under contract with Ad Astra.

In the process of design, integration and test of the VX-100 and VX-200 systems, Ad Astra has generated new patents in the efficient production of high speed plasma jets and associated thermal management technologies. These are necessary in order to achieve the overall performance of which these engines are capable. These patents have now been formally submitted to the US Patent Office.

“The Costa Rica team has matured, spirits are high. Nothing can top this adventure” said Ing. Ronald Chang Díaz, Ad Astra’s Director of Operations in Costa Rica. “The Company’s methodical and reliable record of meeting its milestones and achieving its goals continues to inspire confidence from both within and without” said Mr. Robert Singer, Ad Astra’s chief counsel and a member of its board of directors. “We’ve come a long way. At this pace, VASIMR™ will reach Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6 this year. The next level will be space flight, our ultimate goal” said Franklin R. Chang-Díaz, Ad Astra’s Chairman and CEO.

About Ad Astra

Ad Astra Rocket Company is a privately-owned corporation established January 14, 2005 to commercialize the technology of the VASIMRâ„¢ engine, a plasma propulsion system originally studied by NASA with potential to support an emerging in-space transportation market. The company has its main laboratory and corporate headquarters at 141 W. Bay Area Boulevard in Webster, Texas, USA. Ad Astra also owns and operates Ad Astra Rocket Company, Costa Rica, a supporting research and development subsidiary in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

The Technology

The VASIMRâ„¢ engine works with plasma, a very hot gas at temperatures close to the interior of the Sun. Plasmas are electrically charged fluids that can be heated to extreme temperatures by radio waves and controlled and guided by strong magnetic fields. The magnetic field also insulates any nearby structure; so temperatures well beyond the melting point of materials can be achieved and the resulting plasma can be harnessed to produce propulsion. In rocket propulsion, the higher the temperature of the exhaust gases, the higher their velocity and hence the higher their fuel efficiency.

Plasma rockets feature exhaust velocities far above those achievable by their chemical cousins, so their fuel consumption is extremely low and their fuel-related costs substantially reduced.