NASA has notified Ad Astra Rocket Co. that the agency is picking up the final year of a three-year contract under which the Webster-based startup is developing next-generation space propulsion.
“We met all of the second-year requirements on schedule and on budget,” Ad Astra founder and Chief Executive Franklin Ramón Chang-Díaz said Aug. 8. “Yesterday, we got the notice from NASA to proceed with the third year.
“Now they’re talking to us about years four and five.”
The current contract — funded by NASA’s NextSTEP initiative, shorthand for Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships — is a three-year, $9.1 million deal. Ad Astra also has raised roughly $33 million from private investors since the company was launched in 2005 after being incubated at the Johnson Space Center.
NASA’s notification of its continued participation came two weeks after Ad Astra’s top executives met at the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to update the company’s progress.
Under terms of the contract, Ad Astra must demonstrate that the plasma rocket can operate for 100 consecutive hours.
The company is incrementally working to achieve that goal.
“We recently completed a 10-hour test at 100 kilowatts,” Jared Squire, Ad Astra’s senior vice president of research, said. “The next significant step is 100 accumulated hours of operation. We’ll do that in repeated pulses over the next two months if everything goes well, and we should complete it in October. Then it’s on to the 100 consecutive-hour demonstration.
“Right now, we have a fairly clear path; it’s just a lot of hard work.”
Chang-Díaz and Squire said they expect the company to successfully complete the 100-hour continuous run early next year.
The company’s proprietary technology is known as VASIMR, an acronym for variable-specific-impulse magnetoplasma rocket.
It employs plasma, a superheated gas that produces thrust through the emission of electrons, which carry a negative charge, and positively charged ions.
Ad Astra has so far developed and tested two prototypes of the roughly 6-foot-long rocket core, which sits inside an electromagnet and is attached to a radio-frequency amplifier that, at 3 million degrees, converts the argon into plasma, which is expelled as thrust.
Should everything go as planned — Ad Astra to date has met all of its contractual obligations — a test of the rocket in Earth’s orbit is possible within five years.
“It could be in early 2022 if we continue to develop,” said Chang-Díaz, a former astronaut with seven space shuttle missions on his resume. The native of Costa Rica arrived in the United States in 1968 as an 18-year-old with a singular vision: to become an astronaut.
Having accomplished that goal and having earned a doctorate in plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Squire’s alma mater as well, he has worked ever since to develop the electric rocket and admits to looking forward to its ultimate test — in space.
“When we fire it in space, I think we’ll light up the whole sky,” Chang-Díaz said. “With plasma discharges, you’re almost generating artificial auroras.”
For now, however, the company is working to complete its interim steps.
“We look at what is ahead of us, and we still see a large mountain, but I say, ‘Let’s look back at where we’ve been,’” Chang-Díaz said. “There is no insurmountable mountain.
“We’ve dedicated the best parts of our lives to the development of this technology, and we’ve had to fight through many battles and against many detractors.”
Now, the company is facing an additional challenge: foreign competition.
“The Japanese and the Chinese and, we just learned, the Indians are working on this type of technology,” Chang-Díaz said. “So we’re going to make sure we go fast and stay ahead of the pack. Competition is what makes things interesting.”