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Costa Rican creates plasma rocket to pick up space trash

Franklin Chang Diaz wants to fuel the International Space Station and transport people to Mars with his plasma rocket.

An illustration of a solar-powered rocket using four VASIMR engines. The sun's energy could be used in Earth-Moon missions. (Courtesy Ad Astra)

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.”