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If VASIMR Is Vapor Ware, Is A Martian Mission Doomed?

7 Sep 2010, 22:10 UTC
If VASIMR Is Vapor Ware, Is A Martian Mission Doomed?
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(Image: A concept of a VASIMR-powered space craft. Credit: Ad Astra Rocket Company)
Seen by many to be the “great red hope,” VASIMR has the potential to shorten a six month journey to the red planet to about 40 days.
Unfortunately it looks like brighter minds have weighed in on the realities of VASIMR, and have concluded that the technology has more in common with Star Trek than reality.
Another concern is that for a Mars mission, VASIMR would have to use a nuclear power system that doesn’t exist yet. Mars Society president Robert Zubrin warned that mission designs that used VASIMR had unrealistic expectations about the mass of such reactors. The largest space nuclear power systems, the Topaz nuclear reactors developed by the former Soviet Union, generated 10 kilowatts and had a specific power, or alpha, of 100 kilograms per kilowatt. NASA had hoped to get alpha down to 65 kg/kW with its now-cancelled Prometheus program, and Zubrin said that if one is “quite optimistic” an alpha of 20 kg/kW was possible. The VASIMR-based Mars mission concepts, he said, assume an alpha of 1 kg/kW. “That’s like steel with the weight of Styrofoam,” Zubrin said. “It has no relationship ...

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