Focus on Technology
2:00 pm
Wed April 30, 2014

Making a fast track to Mars

Right now traveling to Mars would be a full-time commitment. Astronauts would be cooped up in a rocket for seven months and if they were able to take enough fuel to get back to earth, they would have to wait another two years before the planets would be close enough again. During this time their bone densities would greatly decrease and crumble once back on earth.

But what if there was another way? Former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz is developing a rocket to get astronauts to Mars in 39 days. Then, because they wouldn't miss the window, they could travel back to earth without waiting the two years. It's called The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®) engine.

It works like this:

  • Gas such as argon, xenon, or hydrogen is injected into a tube surrounded by a magnet
  • a series of two radio wave (RF) couplers turn cold gas into superheated plasma
  • the rocket’s magnetic nozzle converts the plasma thermal motion into a directed jet.

Scientific journalist Steve Nadis interviewed Diaz for this Discover Magazine article. (It will go live to non-subscribers in mid-May)

The VASIMR engine, still in development.
Credit Ad Astra Rocket Company

Diaz says the engine will need a very powerful nuclear reactor to propel this rocket. Such a reactor has not been developed.

Nadis says, "The key to this approach is that the high temperatures of a couple million degrees lead to much greater efficiency... chemical rockets typically operate at temperatures of thousands of degrees rather than millions, so there's the potential for much greater efficiency."

Early rocket testing is underway in Costa Rica and in Houston, Texas.

Cincinnatian still in running for Mars One

Scott Stoll, originally from Wisconsin, is no stranger to adventure. He says, "The joke kind of is, after I rode my bike around the world, everybody said well, now what are you going to do? Are you going to ride your bike on the moon? And now ironically, maybe I get to bring a bike on Mars."

Stoll has made it to the next round of Mars One. Thousands of people applied for the trip to Mars. WVXU reported on the project in July, 2013.

Here's his audition video: