Plasma rocket engine set to begin 100-hour test run in Houston

A U.S. Astronaut Hall of Famer is working on a revolutionary rocket engine, powered by plasma and aimed at sending the first people to Mars. The project is underway at Ad Astra Rocket Company in Houston.

Physicist and former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz peeks inside his large rocket chamber while giving FOX 26 a tour of the facility. When finished, he says the plasma-powered rocket contained in the chamber will be capable of sending humans to Mars--and quickly. We're talking a mission to Mars in a matter of weeks.

"This idea started as a simple sketch on a napkin," said Franklin Chang Diaz, president and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company.

It's an idea, 40 years in the making -- the concept of heating argon gas to such a high temperature that it takes the form of plasma, then using that plasma to power a rocket.

"Plasma is what the sun is made out of and the stars are made out of," said Chang Diaz. "These are gases that are millions of degrees."

The hotter the gas, the faster the rocket moves, but how do you heat plasma to millions of degrees without melting its canister? That's where Chang Diaz' invention comes into play.

Rather than anything physical, he uses a tube-shaped magnetic field to house the plasma.

"[These are] invisible ducts that can control and guide this very hot plasma out to escape," said Diaz.

The Ad Astra Rocket Company is in its third of a three-year contract with NASA, building and testing the VASIMR rocket engine.

"This year we are reaching a very important milestone which NASA wants to see, which is to run this engine for 100 hours nonstop," said Chang Diaz.

Chang Diaz says the test run will start in the next few days, and it will determine whether the rocket engine can run for days on end without overheating or eroding.

If everything works according to plan, they'll do a demo flight, testing the engine in space around the year 2022, said Chang Diaz.

The private rocket company will likely first make revenue with missions closer to earth--things like space debris removal, said Chang Diaz.

"Our engine could be used to drive a garbage truck," said Chang Diaz. "It's not very glamorous, but it's a good business."

He also wants to use the rocket to re-boost the International space station more efficiently and as an asteroid deflector.

"In doing so, we will be developing the technology that will enable us to go to Mars," said Chang Diaz.

The missing technology that's still needed is a nuclear reactor that can attach to the rocket and heat the plasma throughout its mission in space.

Altogether it's a rocket powerful enough to shorten a human mission to Mars from eight months to a 39-day trip. 

"Thirty-nine days is a reasonable thing to do if you have the right reactor, but we don't have the right reactor right now," said Chang Diaz.

Chang Diaz says creating that reactor and finishing the Mars-bound plasma-propulsion rocket is something that can and should be done in the next decade.

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