tech-plasma-rocket

Engineers at Ad Astra Rocket Co. assemble a prototype plasma rocket engine using Nautel's radio-frequency amplifiers. ((Ad Astra Rocket Co.))

A Nova Scotia company that builds transmitters for radio stations is helping develop a new plasma rocket engine that could cut a trip to Mars down to just 40 days.

Nautel Ltd. of Hacketts Cove has partnered with a Texas rocket company, Ad Astra, to build a radio-frequency amplifier for a new plasma rocket engine.

The radio waves from the amplifier heat gas, such as argon or xenon, into plasma as hot as the surface of the sun. The rocket then uses a series of magnets to propel the plasma out of the rocket at incredible speeds.

Rather than the short, explosive blast seen in chemical rocket engines, plasma rockets provide a continuous, high-speed stream of hot gas that could accelerate a spacecraft to Mars over a period of weeks.

Such a spacecraft would then turn its plasma engines toward its destination and fire them in the opposite direction to slow down.

Plasma rockets aren't suitable for getting a spaceship from Earth into space, but once in space, a spaceship using plasma propulsion could reach Mars in 40 days, a trip that could currently last up to two years.

Other companies have built plasma rockets — the Soviets even experimented with the technology in the 1960s — but Nautel has built a powerful radio-frequency generator the size of a golf bag. Other such devices are typically the size of a truck.

"What [Ad Astra was] looking for was technology which would be practical to be put into space, so something much smaller and much more efficient. For a 50-kilowatt generator, this is certainly the smallest in the world that we know of," said Neutel's head engineer on the project, Tim Hardy.

tech-plasma-rocket-moon

Ad Astra's concept for a lunar cargo ship using solar-powered plasma rockets. ((Ad Astra Rocket Co.))

NASA has expressed interest in the technology for orbital repositioning on the International Space Station. A proposed project would put the plasma rockets on the ISS in 2013.

"I could see in some reasonable period, some number of years, that this technology will be moving ships and people between the Earth and the moon, between Earth and Mars," said Nautel CEO Peter Conlon.

David Williams, a Canadian astronaut who has been to space twice, says plasma technology could make space travel faster and safer.

"For us as astronauts it means that we can get to other destinations in our solar system much faster, so all of a sudden more places to go to become more accessible," said Williams.

Faster space travel also means less time for the astronauts in microgravity, Williams said, meaning a lower incidence of the bone wasting associated with long stints in outer space.