Thinking Outside The "Bubble"

Future spacecraft will soon be powered by new advanced engines that use plasma as a propellant that also wraps around the outside of a ship. THE OUTSIDE. The details still need to be worked out, but the basic idea is an external fusion powered engine.

Space agencies along with universities on both sides of the pond have been working on a system where power would be channeled through a superconducting web arranged around the surface of a spacecraft. Once a field is established using this web plasma would be introduced into it creating an artificial magnetosphere.

The ingenious notion to use miniature magnetospheres as a form of advanced propulsion was first suggested in 2001 by a scientist named Robert Winglee at the University of Washington.  What might happen, he asked, if we created a magnetic bubble around something much smaller than the Earth -- like a spacecraft? Could it ride the solar wind from planet to planet? 

Injecting ionized gases (called plasma) to create a magnetic bubble is what gave his project the name: Mini-Magnetospheric Plasma Propulsion or M2P2 for short. The system would use a plasma chamber, about the size of a large pickle jar, attached to a spacecraft. Solar cells and solenoid coils would power the creation of a dense magnetized plasma, or ionized gas, that would inflate an electromagnetic field 10 to 12 miles in radius around the spacecraft. The field will interact with and be dragged by the solar wind. Creating the field would be akin to raising a giant sail and harnessing the solar wind, which moves at 780,000 to 1.8 million miles an hour--or "here to Washington, D.C., in 10 seconds," says Winglee. 

There is enough power in the solar wind to move a 300-pound spacecraft at speeds of up to 4.3 million miles a day. At such speeds, an M2P2-equipped spacecraft launched today could overtake Voyager I within eight years, despite Voyager's 22-year headstart. A 15 km-wide miniature magnetosphere one astronomical unit from the Sun would feel 1 to 3 Newtons of force from the solar wind," says Gallagher one Winglee's associates, "That's enough to accelerate a 200 kg spacecraft from a dead stop to 80 km/s (180,000 mph) in only 3 months. 

For human travelers the greatest advantage of M2P2 might not be steady acceleration or fuel efficiency, but rather its impressive safety features. Just as the Earth's magnetosphere protects us from solar radiation, an M2P2 bubble could shield spacefarers from cosmic rays and solar flares – the Achilles heel of manned space travel. 

Later an offshoot of the M2P2 engine called The VASIMR, was created and successfully tested in 2009 on the ISS. VASIMR's inventor is former long-time NASA astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang Diaz president and CEO of The Ad Astra Rocket Company in Texas. Although the two ideas are not identical they both use a plasma propulsion approach.

Dr. Chang Diaz has been actively propagandizing an argument combining three claims. First, that cosmic radiation hazards dictate that current day propulsion, which enables six month transits from Earth to Mars, is too slow to enablehuman mission to Mars. Second, that therefore much faster forms of interplanetary propulsion are necessary before we dare undertake human Mars exploration missions. Third, that his VASIMR propulsion system would uniquely enable such quick trips.

Mars here we come. 

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