a plasma engine to reach Mars in three months

a plasma engine to reach Mars in three months
a plasma engine to reach Mars in three months

The company Howe Industries recently signed a partnership with NASA to work on a particularly ambitious objective: to make a round trip to Mars in approximately three months thanks to a new concept of rocket propelled by a pulsed plasma reactor. A very ambitious project which, if it comes to fruition, could profoundly transform astronautics.

With our current technology, a round trip to Mars would take between one and two years depending on the propulsion system used. With a chemical propellant which exploits the combustion of liquid propellants, it would be necessary about 8 months for the outward journey and about the same for the return journeywith an interval of a few months in between to wait for an optimal return window where the two planets are relatively close to each other (just under 60 million kilometers).

Interplanetary travel, a propulsion puzzle

This last delay being more or less incompressible, we can only play on the duration of the journey and return. This time is directly linked to the vehicle’s ability to produce thrust. Even current vehicles would theoretically be able to reach Mars much faster, provided they accelerate continuously throughout the journey; the main problem is actually at arrival. For the craft to enter the destination orbit, it must be able to slow down by providing the same acceleration in the opposite direction in a relatively short time interval. Otherwise, it risks missing its target and drifting to the edge of the solar system.

This obviously requires a very powerful propellant, capable of producing very significant thrust in relation to its mass; We are talking about thrust/mass ratio (or TWR, for thrust-to-weight ratio). But that’s not all ; it must also be very efficient. More specifically, it must present a very high specific impulse, or ISP. This term describes the ability of a thruster to produce thrust as a function of the amount of fuel used per unit time; in other words, the higher the ISP, the more efficient the engine. If it is too low, the vehicle will not be able to carry enough fuel to carry out such a maneuver.

A relatively powerful and ultra-efficient plasma engine

And it is precisely on these two points that the Howe Industries concept stands out. As the name suggests, it is an engine that starts with ionize a gas to produce plasma discharges brief but intense. It is a state of matter characterized by the presence of a large quantity of charged particles torn from the atoms. Therefore, it can be accelerated using an electromagnetic field in a specialized nozzle to produce thrust very efficiently.

© Howe Industries

Firstly, the Pulsed Plasma Rocket (PPR) displays a Absolutely insane ISP of 5000 seconds. For reference, this is an order of magnitude that is generally attributed to ion engines. The latter are used to propel very small probes with remarkable efficiency, but a thrust far too weak to be compatible with large machines. The ISP of these ion engines is typically between 1000 and 10,000 seconds. Chemical engines, which offer much greater thrust, are far from being able to compete in this area. For example, the Raptor engines used on SpaceX’s Starship have an ISP of approximately 380 seconds in the void. In other words, PPR is theoretically quite exceptional when it comes to making even the smallest gram of fuel profitable.

And yet, it is also capable of providing a relatively large thrust of approximately 100,000 Newtons. This is very far from what the three Raptors on the top floor of the Starship offer, which could deliver more than N5,500,000 ; but this is immensely higher than an ion thruster, whose thrust typically varies between 0.1 and 0.25 N!

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The ideal intermediary for trips to Mars?

Therefore, on paper it is a very interesting intermediate. It would not be capable of taking off from Earth alone, but remarkably effective once deployed outside the atmosphere. In theory, such a machine could reach speeds of several hundred kilometers/hour to significantly shorten journeys between Earth and Marswhile remaining efficient enough to keep enough to slow down once close to the destination.

Obviously, this is only a concept at the moment, and there is no guarantee that a manned space vehicle will ever be powered by this technology. But the laboratory Innovative Advanced Concepts of NASA (NIAC) seems convinced that the idea is worth exploring. It will therefore be interesting to look at the conclusions of Howe and NASA at the end of the first phase of testing. If it proves conclusive, the two partners will then be able to try to optimize the engine as much as possible, hoping to be able to use it to conquer Mars over the next decade. See you towards the end of the year for the first answers.

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