Coauthor Mikkel Haaheim
As mentioned on the Arcjets page, the difference between MPD and thermal thrusters is a very gray area, and, even more than our previous examples, the VASIMR engine shows how gray this area is: the propellant is plasma of various types (although most designing and testing have focused on argon and xenon, other propellants could be used). This propellant is first ionized in what’s typically a separate chamber, and then fed into a magnetically confined chamber, with RF heating. This then is accelerated, and that thrust is then directed out of a magnetic nozzle.
VASIMR is the stuff of clickbait. Between the various space and futurism groups I’m active in on Facebook, I see terribly written, poorly understood, and factually incorrect articles on this design. This has led me to avoid the concept for a long time, and also puts a lot of pressure on me to get the thruster’s design and details right.
VASIMR isn’t that different from many types of electrothermal thrusters; after all, the primary method of accelerating the propellant, imparting thrust, and determining the specific impulse of the thruster is electrically generated RF heating. The fact that the propellant is a plasma also isn’t just an MPD concept, after all: the pulsed plasma thruster, and in fact most arcjets, produce plasma as their propellants as well. This thruster really demonstrates the gray area between thermal and MPD thrusters in ways that are unique in electric propulsion.
Since the characteristics of plasma did not play a vital role in the working principles of the previous thermo-electric thrusters, we should briefly discuss the concept. The energy of plasma is so high that electrons are no longer tied to their atoms, which then become ions. Both electrons and ions are charged particles whizzing around in a shared cloud, the plasma. Despite being neutral to the outward due to containing the same amount of negative as of positive charges, the plasma is interacting with magnetic fields. These interactions present themselves for various magnetohydrodynamic applications, ranging from power generators in terrestrial power plants over magnetic plasma bottles to propulsion.
In VASIMR, these forces push the hot plasma away from the walls, protecting both the walls from damaging heat loads and the plasma from crippling quenching. This allows VASIMR to have a very hot medium for expansion. While this puts VASIMR among MHD thrusters, it would not yet be a genuine “plasma thruster,” if it was not for the magnetic nozzle, which adds electromagnetic components to the forces generating the thrust. Among these components, the most important is the Lorentz-force, which occurs when a charged particle moves through a magnetic field. The Lorentz-force is orthogonal to the local magnetic field line as well as to the particle’s trajectory.
Despite the incredible amount of overblown hype, VASIMR is an incredibly interesting design. Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz, the founder of Ad Astra Rocket Company, became interested in the concept while he was a PhD candidate at MIT for applied plasma physics. Before he was able to pursue this concept, though, his obsession with space led him to become an astronaut, and he flew seven times on the Space Transport System (Space Shuttle), spending a total of over 66 days on orbit. Upon retiring from NASA, he founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company to pursue the idea that had captured his imagination during his doctoral thesis; refined by his understanding of aerospace engineering and propulsion from his time at NASA. Ad Astra continues to develop the VASIMR thruster, and consistently meets its deadlines and budgetary requirements (as well as the modeling expectations of Ad Astra), but the concept is complex in application, and as with everything in aerospace, the development process takes a long time to come to fruition.
After the end of several rounds of funding from NASA, and a series of successful tests of their VX-100 prototype, Ad Astra continued to develop the thruster privately. Their newer VX-200 thruster is designed for higher power, and with better optimization of several of its components. Following additional testing, the engine is currently going through another round of upgrades to prepare for a 100-hour test firing of the thruster. Ad Astra has been criticized for its development schedule, and the problems that they face are indeed significant, but so far they’ve managed to meet every target that they’ve set.
The main advantage of this concept is that it eliminates both friction and erosion between the propellant and the body of the thruster. This also reduces the thermal load on the thruster, because, since there’s no physical contact, conduction can’t occur, and the amount of heat that’s absorbed by the thruster is limited to radiation (which is limited by the surface area of the plasma and the temperature difference between that plasma and the thruster body). This doesn’t mean that there’s not a need to cool the thruster in most cases, it does mean that more heat is kept within the plasma, and in fact, by using regenerative cooling (as most modern chemical engines do) it’s possible to increase the efficiency of the thruster.
Another major advantage, and one that may be unique to VASIMR, is the first part of the acronym: VAriable Specific Impulse. Every staged rocket has variable specific impulse, in a way: most first-stage boosters have very low specific impulse compared to the upper stages (although, in the case of the boosters, this is due to both the atmospheric pressure and the need to impart a large amount of thrust over a limited timespan), and there are designs that use different propulsion systems with different specific impulse and thrust characteristics to optimize their usefulness for particular mission profiles (such as bimodal thermal-electric nuclear rockets, the subject of our next blog series after our look at electric propulsion), but VASIMR offers the ability to vary its’ exhaust velocity by changing the temperature it heats the propellant to. This, in turn, changes the specific impulse, and therefore its’ thrust. This is where the “30 Day Round Trip to Mars” clickbait headlines come into play: by continuously varying its’ thrust and isp depending on where it is in terms of the interplanetary transfer maneuver, VASIMR is able to optimize the trip time in ways that few, if any, other contemporary propulsion types can. However, the trip time is highly dependent on available power, and trip times on the order of 90 days require a power source of 200 MW, and the specific power of the system becomes a major concern. To explain this in detail gets into orbital mechanics far more deeply than I would like in this already very long blog post, so we’ll save that discussion for another time.
So how does VASIMR actually work, what are the requirements for efficient operation, and how does it have these highly unusual capabilities? In many ways, this is very similar to a typical RF thruster: a gas, usually argon, is injected into a quartz plenum, and then run through a helicon RF emitter. Because of the shape of the radio waves produced, this causes a cascading ionization effect within the gas, converting it into a plasma, but the electrons aren’t removed, like in the case of more familiar electrostatic thrusters (the focus of our next blog post). This excitation also heats the plasma to about 5800K. The plasma then moves to a second RF emitter, designed to heat the plasma further using an ion cyclotron emitter. This type of RF emitter efficiently heats the plasma to the desired temperature, which is then directed out of the back of the thruster. Because all of this is occurring at very high temperatures, the entire thruster is wrapped in superconducting electromagnets to contain the plasma away from the walls of the thruster, and the nozzle used to direct the thrust is magnetic as well. Because there are no components physically in contact with the plasma after it becomes ionized, there are no erosion wear points within the thruster, which extends the lifetime of the system. By varying the amount of gas that is fed into the system while maintaining the same power level, the gas will become ionized to different levels, and the amount of heating that occurs will be different, meaning that the exhaust velocity will be higher, increasing the specific impulse of the engine while reducing the thrust. This is perhaps the most interesting part of this propulsion concept, and the reason that it gets so much attention. Other systems that use pulsed thrust rather than steady state are able to vary the thrust level without changing the isp (such as the pulsed induction thruster, or PIT) by changing the pulse rate of the system, but these systems have limits as to how much the pulse rate can be varied. We’ll look at these differences more in a later blog post, though.
Many studies have looked at the thrust efficiency of the VASIMR. Like many electric propulsion concepts, it becomes more efficient as more power is applied to the system; in addition, the higher the specific impulse being used, the more efficiently it uses the electrical power available. The current VX-200 prototype is a 212 kW input, 120 kW thrust system, far more powerful than the original VX-10, and as such is more efficient. Most estimates of average efficiency seem to suggest a minimum of 60% thrust efficiency (the amount of efficiency increases with power input), increasing to 90% for higher-isp functioning. However, given the system’s sensitivity to available power level, and the fact that it’s not clear what the final flight thruster’s power availability will be, it’s difficult to guess what a flight system’s thrust efficiency will be.
VASIMR is currently upgrading their VX-200 thruster for extended operations. As of this point, problems with cooling various components (such as the superconducting electromagnets) have led to shorter lifetimes than are theoretically possible, although to be fair the lack of cooling problems come down to cooling systems not being installed. Additionally, more optimization is being done on the magnetic nozzle. One of the challenges with using a magnetic nozzle is that the plasma doesn’t want to “unstick” from the magnetic field lines used to contain the propellant. While this isn’t a major challenge for the thruster the way that the thermal management problems are, it is a source of inefficiency in the system, and so is worth addressing.
There’s a lot more that we could go into on VASIMR, and in the future we will come back to this concept; but, for the purposes of this article, it’s a wonderful example of how gray the area between thermal and MPD thrusters are: the propellant ionization and magnetic confinement of the heated plasma are both virtually identical to the applied field MPD thruster (more on that below), but the heating mechanism and thrust production are virtually identical to an RF thruster.
High Power Electric Propulsion with VASIMR Technology, Chiang-Diaz et al 2016
VX-200 Magnetoplasma Thruter Performance Results Exceeding 50% Thruster Efficiency, Longmier et al 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228977378_VX-200_Magnetoplasma_Thruster_Performance_Results_Exceeding_Fifty-Percent_Thruster_Efficiency
Improved Efficiency and Throttling Range of the VX-200 Magnetoplasma Thruster, Longmier et al 2014 http://www.adastrarocket.com/Ben-JPP-2014.pdf
Low Thrust Trajectory Analysis (A Survey of Missions using VASIMR For Flexible Space Exploration, Ilin et al 2012 http://www.adastrarocket.com/VASIMR_for_flexible_space_exploration-2012.pdf
Nuclear Electric Propulsion Mission Scenarios using VASIMR, Chiang-Diaz et al 2012 https://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/nets2012/pdf/3091.pdf