NASA has signed an agreement with Houston-based Ad Astra Rocket Co. that paves the way for commercialization of a promising advanced plasma rocket system that has evolved over the past 25 years.

The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) is a type of propulsion system that produces a plasma exhaust at temperatures similar to those in the interior of the sun. The system may generate rocket thrust with performance hundreds of times higher than that of present chemical rockets. The increased performance could mean dramatic reductions in fuel requirements. While conventional rocket nozzles would melt under the extreme temperatures, VASIMR uses magnetic force fields to control and direct the plasma exhaust jet.

Potential commercial applications for the technology could include the re-boost of large orbiting platforms, satellite delivery and repositioning, as well as cargo delivery to the Moon. The technology also may provide a capability for high-power plasma propulsion for future interplanetary human and robotic missions.

"This is a propulsion system that is vastly different from the conventional chemical rockets of today, with the potential for vastly better results," said Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz, a former astronaut who spearheaded the development of the technology while with NASA. "The promise this system holds could dramatically reduce the travel time for interplanetary missions, cutting trip times to Mars by one half or better."

The technology also may have applications on Earth in the microelectronics and environmental industries. High power plasma devices are being studied to process large amounts of radioactive nuclear waste and to destroy highly toxic chemical and biological waste. Development of superconducting magnets for VASIMR also could lead to applications in space radiation shielding, transportation, medicine and energy generation.

"The transfer of this innovative technology to the private sector will accelerate its development, benefiting everyone," said Helen Lane, JSC acting manager of technology transfer. "The future exploration of space depends on cooperative research between private industry and NASA to advance technology." NASA will collaborate with Ad Astra, continuing some funding of the project for the next two years, to ensure a smooth transition.

A NASA astronaut and scientist for 25 years and a veteran of a record seven Space Shuttle flights, Chang-Díaz retired from NASA in July 2005 to continue work with the development of the VASIMR engine with Ad Astra Rocket.

Chang-Díaz conceived VASIMR in 1979 while at The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.

For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit:

For more information on Chang-Diaz on the Web, visit: