Enlarge / With 200 kW of solar power, the VASIMR engine could be used as a lunar tug. (credit: Ad Astra Rocket Company)
Almost everyone recognizes that if humans are truly to go deeper into the Solar System, we need faster and more efficient propulsion systems than conventional chemical rockets. Rocket engines powered by chemical propellants are great for breaking the chains of Earth’s gravity, but they consume way too much fuel when used in space and don’t offer optimal control of a spacecraft’s thrust.
NASA recognizes this, too.
So in 2015, the space agency awarded three different contracts for development of advanced propulsion systems. Of these, perhaps the most intriguing is a plasma-based rocket—which runs on Argon fuel, generates a plasma, excites it, and then pushes it out a nozzle at high speed.

This solution has the potential to shorten the travel time between Earth and Mars to weeks, rather than months.

But to realize that potential, Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Company must first demonstrate that its plasma rocket, VASIMR, can fire continuously for a long period of time.

The three year, $9 million contract from NASA required the company to fire its plasma rocket for 100 hours, at a power level of 100 kilowatts, by 2018.
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