June 06, 2012
The success of the SpaceX/Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station has not been lost on Ad Astra Rocket Co., a seven-year-old venture focused on the development of advanced electric plasma propulsion systems for commercial in-space transportation.
“That is the proof in the pudding,” says Jared Squire, Ad Astra’s senior vice president for research, of the nine-day SpaceX pathfinder mission nurtured by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. “That type of relationship works.”
Ad Astra envisions a similar NASA initiative to foster the next step beyond orbital cargo missions — the private sector delivery of supplies to the Moon’s L-1 and L-2 Lagrange points, asteroids and to Mars orbit powered by the company’s Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (Vasimr) in support of future human deep-space exploration.
Squire is not prepared to suggest a figure, but COTS will channel $396 million to SpaceX as a development partner. Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, expects to begin regular cargo delivery missions to the station later this year under a $1.6 billion, 12-flight NASA contract signed in late 2008.
“We are thinking of something similar,” Squire says. “If you have the surface-to-orbit capability in a reliable way, now you need an orbital transfer vehicle — a vehicle that can take large payloads and deliver them wherever in space efficiently. Electric propulsion in general has a capability to do that, and in the near term solar-electric has a lot of potential.”
In addition to deep-space deliveries, Ad Astra is looking at a Vasimr-powered spacecraft for the removal of menacing orbital debris.
The technology is the brainchild of Franklin Chang-Diaz, Ad Astra CEO, who nurtured the project while a grad student in physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then as an astronaut at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
In late May, Ad Astra and NASA expanded a five-year-old Space Act Agreement (SAA) focused on further Vasimr development to begin the safety, reliability and mission assurance phase of the project. The amendment commits the equivalent of one full-time NASA expert to the safety process in exchange for an agency knowledge gain in the technology.
The long-running SAA, which does not involve an exchange of funds, is leading toward the launch of a 200-kw Vasimr prototype to the space station or an independent orbiting free-flyer in the 2015 timeframe for a three-year checkout of performance and reliability, Squire says.