back to article Space boffins fire up plasma engine

Costa Rica-based scientists from the Ad Astra Rocket Company have run a Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine continuously for over four hours, thereby setting a new record for the tech. The company, headed by Costa Rica-born former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, told Reuters yesterday it hopes the …


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  1. Steven

    I'm just wondering

    How these guys would do at that Physics GCSE I was readnig about yesterday and/or whether they'll be taking on any British students who've passed said challenge. It's not all about numbers and equations remember...

  2. Andrew Barratt

    I wonder if?

    What would happen if you attached a flux capacitor and reversed the polarity?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    We'd be to the outer planets, and perhaps on the way to a real 'warp' drive, if the money spent so far on an utterly useless war had been invested in research like this. (To say nothing of the benefit if it had been spent on education or health care)

  4. John Donovan

    I wonder if?

    It's a well known fact to those that know it well, you'd need to attach an interossitor to control the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter. Or something.

  5. Mike Campbell

    RE: I wonder if?

    Probably the same thing that would happen if you crossed the streams, forgetting for a moment that "that's bad" of course.

  6. Will


    A warp drive, you say? Go back to your Star Trek: TNG DVD boxed sets and let real scientists work on the technology.

  7. Paul

    Re: I wonder if?

    Are you mad man! The inertal dampers would never take the extra load!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What's the potential? I hate it when they miss out the fun stuff.

    If they get this technology working to it's fullest ability, how fast could these engines propel a craft?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I don't know if they have thought of this already, but why not take out the "The RF Booster cell.." that "..acts as an amplifier to further energize the plasma to the desired temperature". Just lower the desired temperature, as opposed to the required temperature, and the cooling issue goes away.

    Excuse me, I'm just off to patent this idea along with the "cool kettle" that boils water at a lower "desired" temperature to avoid painful scalding by lowering the atmospheric pressure within the kettle, instigating a vacuum which (I believe) is la mode in space.

    Anyway, whatever happened to solar sails a mile across?

  10. Arnold Lieberman

    Re: progress...

    Mr/mrs anonymous mentioned "real 'warp' drive". WTF!? I think someone has spent too long whacking off to Star Trek. There has to be some US bashing in here somewhere, and it's comments like this that demonstrate how far down the toilet our education system has gone.

    As for the UK, spending on the NHS has doubled since the last Tory government, and look where that got it. The Iraq war has cost the UK treasury roughly £3bn so far. The NHS sinks £84bn/year. Is another £3bn going to make that much difference when the real problems are management incompetence and expensive drugs?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cooling issues

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but....

    provided they fly in space out of direct sunlight, I don't think cooling would be an issue....

  12. preethi

    I have a patent on this so don't copy

    This is called the Law of Tiddely Winks as proposed by me.

    LTW states that ..............................

    I cannot reveal the rest as the National security if US will be violated.

  13. Karim Bourouba

    Re: I wonder if?

    Its these klingon crystals captain, they just cannae take it....

  14. Martin Poulin

    Re: Cooling issues

    Stu, consider yourself corrected.

    There is no such thing as "cold", only absence of heat, so for an object to cool off, it has to transfer its heat to something else. On Earth, heat can be transferred to the air. That's how most of our cooling systems work. In space, heat has nowhere to go (no atmosphere), so cooling issues become much more complicated.

  15. Phil Bennett

    Re: Cooling issues

    The only methods of heat transfer are convection, conduction and radiation. Conduction - well, there isn't anything cold touching the spacecraft (unless they are really unlucky with a comet!). Convection involves the bulk movement of a fluid, so again not useful, which leaves radiation - which is not that easy to maximise (better call Panorama!)

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "It's a well known fact to those that know it well, you'd need to attach an interossitor to control the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter. Or something."

    You don't want the Ministry of Serendipity on your case. ... or Barry!

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Money Honey

    "Correct me if I'm wrong, but.... provided they fly in space out of direct sunlight, I don't think cooling would be an issue..."

    The problem is that vacuum does not conduct heat very well, and it is a tricky problem to cool a spaceship.

    The obvious solution is to develop some kind of substance that reacts with a vacuum to produce water. Once outer space is filled with water, rocket motor cooling will no longer be an issue. There will be many other benefits as well. We will be able to swim to the moon.

  18. Andy

    You don't have to be a scientist be interested in this.

    So, yes, we know: no warp drive. Also, the poster who asked how fast it would go. Snigger, snigger.

    We're not all physicists, you know.

  19. oliver

    re: cooling?

    "A plasma state can be achieved when a substance in its gaseous state is heated to very high temperatures - tens of thousands to millions of degrees"


    "The plasmas at the extreme temperatures required of a plasma rocket cannot be contained by any known material. Fortunately, plasmas can be controlled by a magnetic field."

    hence the superconductor magnets - hence the cooling issues.

    So will your kettle work OUT of space - ie on planet EARTH

  20. Simon Westerby

    Re: Cooling issues

    And where (apart from that miniscule area behind every planet) in space would NOT be in direct sunlight?

  21. Douglas Yates

    Cooling Issues Correction

    Stu Reeves, prepare to be corrected.

    Space isn't cold, it's empty. The reason that the temperature of space is often given as being close to absolute zero is that there isn't anything in space to hold any heat. This also means that there isn't anything in space to carry the heat away from a rocket engine. The heat can only escape as fast as the engine housing can radiate it, which is always slower than the exhaust can heat it up.

  22. Sebastien Mongrain

    RE: Cooling issues

    How do you manage to stay out of direct sunlight? It's not like a space station that relies on solar panels to generate electricity can hide in Earth's shadow all the time. Plus, a spacecraft can't hide in a shadow if it expects to go anywhere at all.

    You should also know that cooling in space is a huge problem, what with being a 'hard' vacuum and all. Heat radiates really inefficiently in a vacuum.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Warp drive reality

    NASA's article on Warp Drive and such...

    Whilst a "maybe" if certain breakthroughs in physics were accomplished rather than just being in the loony wacky sci-fi realm of Star Trek, it remains at the moment a likely impossibility. More importantly even if we did redirect the funds used for pointless wars (and I agree they are pointless and better spent on Space research), it's still way beyond our lifetime and the lifetime of our grandchildren, their grandchildren, etc.

    Best hope is to meet an alien who's already worked it out (and the chances of meeting an alien are probably greater than creating warp drive, and still it's extremely slim despite what conspiracy theorists claim).

  24. Robbin Nichol

    Fuel and drive gas

    Sounds to me like an earthbound project. Although I would love to be proved wrong. Plasmas require an external power source which has to be generated by some fuel, they also require vast amounts of gas, to support the plasma discharge which presumably will be the backward momentum to give the space vehicle forward mv. In a laboratory Inductively coupled plasma source you could be using combined flow rates of circa 20 litres per minute for all the different gases. Thats a helluva lot of gas for any given time when scaled up to engine size, an ICP torch is about 3-6" in length. But we'll see!!

  25. Bob Bair

    All very interesting!

    As a person that works with equipment that generates plasma with both inert and non-inert gasses... I feel that I must comment on the psuedo science that is being flung about.

    One poster, or poser, states:

    "A plasma state can be achieved when a substance in its gaseous state is heated to very high temperatures - tens of thousands to millions of degrees"

    Interesting that we can regularly create plasmas for days in arc chambers that are made from Molybdenum, which has a melting point of only 2623c, or Tungsten, which has a melting point of 3422c.

    The observations are correct on the cooling aspect as vacuum cannot effectively conduct heat away from a source. We create our plasma in a vacuum chamber and must cool the body with supplied water. Although, if they are using a compressed cas for transport, one could conceivably decompress the gas into a heat exchanger and cool a low temp liquid before injecting the gas into the plasma chamber.

    Just my $.02 worth...

  26. john mann

    Space is cool, very cool

    If you point towards the black bits, it's got a temperature of 4K, so a nice crinkly black radiator works quite well.

    The trick is to remember that the other side will be pointing at the sun and needs to be covered up with shiny stuff to prevent it getting rather warm.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ion propulsion...

    "Although, if they are using a compressed cas for transport, one could conceivably decompress the gas into a heat exchanger and cool a low temp liquid before injecting the gas into the plasma chamber."

    This is exactly what nasa used in the past for their first try. (it works)

    On the other side, ionizing the gas could be done by an electrical field with high enough voltage. This would result in a 'cold' plasma that is being generated by a high energy electrostatic field. The two parts of the plasma (the electrons and the positive nucleus) could be accelerated with electrostatic or magnetic accelerators (the latter would be better) then pushed out at the end of the accelerator. Making the propulsion into a pulse mode ion driver would save lots of energy, since the accelerator magnets can share the loads and you could run the same impulse through all of the magnets with proper delays and spare the electrostatic accelerator grid. This way the plasma is never touched by any parts of the system and they could only heat up by radiation, but since all the energy that is put into the gas is used up for splitting off the electrons, the gas is cold. Once outside the system the two beams could cross and the gas could get back into it's stable form by recombining with the electrons. (this process would make it hotter, but it's already outside so it doesn't matter if it glows)

  28. oliver

    RE :all very interesting

    Well bob it does say 'can' - and it was quoted direct from the website in question.

    Wasn't really a case of posing - just bemusment - how about you?

  29. Mike Campbell

    All wrong...

    Personally I think this whole over-heating/lack-of-fuel-and-range who-ha can be solved with a simple application of elementary physics:

    1) Find "capital Y" shaped structure

    2) Find rather large rubber band

    3) Apply aforementioned rubber band to top most peaks of the sizeable "Y"

    4) Snugly seat item to be launched (satellite, probe, star trek fan, rupert murdoch, paris hilton etc...) in the centre most position of the rubber band.

    5) Pull back for desired power.

    6) Release.

    Of course stopping would require so kind of de-launching mechanism, I mean I'm no scientist so I wouldn't be able to work that out. That's what the boys at NASA are paid for.

  30. Tom Steiner

    Where and when .....

    did this 4 hour test take place?

  31. Steve Roper

    Re: Warp drive reality

    "Whilst a "maybe" if certain breakthroughs in physics were accomplished rather than just being in the loony wacky sci-fi realm of Star Trek, it remains at the moment a likely impossibility."

    And a good thing too. The one thing I NEVER want to see is the humanity plague spreading its filthy tentacles across the universe. As long as humans are confined to this solar system, an enlightened alien civilisation could come along, sterilise the Earth (and the Moon, Mars etc if required), and go home in the comforting knowledge that humans are now safely extinct. But once the human vermin get out of the solar system, you can never be sure you've got them all...

  32. NIILL

    Collaboration with Aliens

    Collaborating with Aliens for space travel technology (including artificial gravity drives) will be our fastest route to inter-stellar travel; the probability of Aliens may be in the hundreds of billions to one odds, which given the number of Stars in this Universe means there are likely to be billions of planets orbiting stars in their relative "Goldie-locks" orbits and sustaining life. If a very, very small percentage of those planets were lucky enough to have escaped a life ending meteor strike, then those civilisations could well be hundreds of millions of years ahead of us. The one thing that maths teaches us is that the odds are we are not alone!!!

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    re: re: cooling?

    Oliver, I believe the kettle will work on earth by the clever application of sarcasium.

    PS If heat cannot be dissipated in space because it is (mostly) a vacuum. What will happen to the heat energy from the cooling system? Also, how does the sun heat the Earth? Why the issues with the superconductor magnets if we have already established that space is 4K (kelvin, not 4000 bytes - not 4096, as this would be 4[little]k).

  34. Steve Roper

    Re: cooling?

    There are two kinds of "heat": 1) That caused by the motion and consequent collision of particles in a fluid medium, and 2) Infra-red radiation, which is photonic energy that can travel through a vacuum.

    Infra-red is not, in itself, heat. It is transformed into heat energy when it strikes particles in a fluid medium; that is, an infra-red photon gives up its energy as kinetic energy imparted to a particle. The resulting acceleration of the particles is read by our senses as an increase in temperature.

    Fluid media "conduct" heat by entropy; that is, a fast-moving particle strikes another, losing some of its own energy while the new particle gains what was lost, like a cueball striking another ball in snooker. The cueball slows down, but the coloured ball speeds up. If we had a frictionless snooker table, the balls would continue moving and bouncing until all of them had struck each each other multiple times, so that they were all eventually moving at about the same speed. Physicists call this condition "the state of maximum entropy".

    Even in space, there are particles, but these are too far apart and only rarely collide to conduct heat. This is why heat, in the form of kinetic energy, cannot effectively propagate through a vacuum.

    The sun heats the Earth by emitting infra-red radiation, which strikes the particles in our atmosphere after crossing the vacuum. This radiation gives up its energy as kinetic energy in the atmospheric particles, which accelerate and heat up as a result.

    The opposite of this process occurs when a particle loses kinetic energy to emit a photon of infra-red radiation. Every object does this, because the second law of thermodynamics dictates that entropy always increases over time in a closed system (i.e. the Universe). However, the rate at which energy is radiated by photon emission is far lower than the rate at which it is transmitted by the kinetic interaction of particles. This is the cooling problem that confronts astronauts in space. Hot objects in space DO cool by infra-red emission, but much more slowly than, say, a hot copper plate in a bath of water.

    So the solution, for astronauts, is to find ways of increasing the rate of infra-red emission rather than relying on contact with a fluid medium. Dark objects radiate more efficiently than light objects (which is why a black car on a hot day is hotter than a white car), so a good vacuum-cooling solution here would be to coat an object with photosensitive paint that turns white in the presence of light, but becomes black in darkness. I personally have not heard of such a product, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been or can't be made.

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