Costa Rican creates plasma rocket to pick up space trash

LIBERIA, Costa Rica — Franklin Chang Diaz has great aspirations for his rocket: a mail-carrier for outer space, a garbage truck for orbital debris and, the ultimate goal, a shuttle to Mars.

The Costa Rica-born physicist speaks nonchalantly about the day humankind will have moved entirely to outer space, while our precious Earth becomes “a protected park.”

“Our great grandchildren will always be able to come back [to Earth] from wherever they happen to live and see where their ancestors and culture came from,” said the former NASA astronaut who is now president and CEO of the Ad Astra Rocket Company.

To many, it might sound a bit too Wall-E-esque to chew. But Chang Diaz is already polishing off his space helmet. And if he has his druthers, in this lifetime humans will start using his company’s revolutionary rocket to scoot around the galaxy.

In the meantime, he says there are plenty of other practical uses for his plasma rocket.

The rocket, called the VASIMR for "variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket," uses a high-power technology initially studied by NASA. Propelled by an exhaust gas at temperatures close to that of the sun, the VASIMR would dramatically reduce the time it takes to travel from Earth to Mars, from about eight months to just 39 days.

The rocket could also cut the cost of space travel by more than half, transforming the aerospace business and clearing the way to exploration for more countries, such as his native Costa Rica.

This plasma-propelled VX-200 is set to evolve into a rocket that could be used on the International Space Station.
(Alex Leff/GlobalPost)

In September, the rocket hit a milestone on Earth. During a test, the engine cranked at just over 200 kilowatts, becoming the world's most powerful electric rocket.

Following testing on Earth, Ad Astra is working with NASA on a space test date for a VASIMR aboard the International Space Station in 2013. Chang Diaz said his technology could eventually be used to help keep the space station in orbit. The company plans to launch for commercial use in 2014.

It sounds stranger than science fiction, but the aerospace field has taken note of this Costa Rican-American’s work. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics recently named VASIMR among the top 10 emerging aerospace technologies of 2009.

Before launching speedier Mars missions, Chang Diaz proposes some practical uses of the rocket closer to Earth. It could, for example, act like a DHL in outer space, in which plasma-thrust crafts would transport packages, mainly fuel, to satellites or spaceships on the cheap — well, cheaper. Shipments that today run to the tune of a billion dollars, according to the CEO, would cost half a billion on Ad Astra spacecrafts.

He mentioned another use that flies closer to the heart of his eco-friendly homeland. These ships could start to clean up the clutter left by disused satellites.

“The Earth has become virtually a beehive,” Chang Diaz said. “The number of satellites orbiting the Earth, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of these objects. Some of them are just junk that’s floating there simply because these satellites have run out of fuel and they just remain in orbit dead.”

Dead space objects are crashing into each other, and our planet. “You think you’re seeing these beautiful shooting stars, but they’re just a piece of orbital debris that comes to Earth and burns up in the atmosphere,” he said.

“Our goal is to be able to have a garbage truck that will be picking up all of these objects at various orbits, obviously for a price,” he said. Ad Astra could toss the debris into an “orbital graveyard,” he added, “or we could actually launch them to the sun and drive them to the sun, which is kind of the ultimate, cosmic dump.”

Unlike conventional chemical rockets, this one turns argon into plasma, the fourth state of matter, found in such everyday occurrences as lightning, extremely hot flames, nebulas, the sun and other stars. Naturally, it’s too hot to handle — almost.

“For those temperatures there are no known materials that can withstand those temperatures. So we don’t use materials,” the former astronaut explained. “We use very exotic forces, which are created with very advanced magnetic generators, and create these invisible tubes, or ducts, in which we can put plasmas at those temperatures.”
The man behind the machine

The name Franklin Chang Diaz may not ring a bell to most Americans, but back home, in Costa Rica, it carries star power. No other Tico has visited space.

After joining NASA in 1980, Chang Diaz flew on a space shuttle seven times. He also served as director of NASA’s Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory before launching Ad Astra in 2005.

Franklin Chang Diaz in front of his Ad Astra Co.'s VX-200 rocket.
(Alex Leff/GlobalPost)

His success didn’t come easily. Immigrating at 18, in 1968, Chang Diaz arrived in the United States at the height of a failing war in Vietnam and bitter race battles at home. Although his part-Chinese ancestry provoked occasional teasing as a child in Costa Rica, he says it didn’t prepare him for the discrimination he witnessed later in the U.S.

But he also encountered a great American paradox.

“While there was so much unrest, discrimination and social struggle in the United States, I also saw a country that had an innate ability to heal its own wounds, which is something that I don’t see in other countries in Latin America,” he said. Chang Diaz said some of his opportunities for success came about thanks to the gains made by the civil rights movement.

After completing high school in Hartford, Conn., he earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Connecticut and went to graduate school at MIT. He received his Ph.D. in applied plasma physics in 1977 and become an American citizen that same year.

He travels back and forth between Ad Astra’s labs in Texas and Costa Rica, but has a particular soft spot for the facility he set up in his home country. “It’s a coming home; it’s a sense of having returned from a very long journey,” he said of being able to build a rocket in the woods of Guanacaste.

With the help of his team of Tico scientists and engineers, the native son intends to put Costa Rica on the intergalactic map. Costa Rica is poised to petition to become a member of the International Space Station, which is currently the province of wealthy nations.

Asked if his country will get the honor of hoisting the first developing country’s flag in space, Chang Diaz said yes. “Part of the reason we have a chance is because we’re developing a piece of technology that is going to be attached to the International Space Station, and it is going to be homegrown, here.”

A clip of plasma diagnostics glowing red hot after measuring the plasma exhaust from the VX-200 operating at full power inside of a vacuum chamber: