LIBERIA, Guanacaste – A bus-size hunk of steel and magnets in a bare warehouse hidden away on rolling green farmland in northwest Costa Rica is the stuff that dreams are made of these days.
The test model for an innovative space rocket technology is being developed just outside of Guanacaste’s capital at the Costa Rican laboratory of the Ad Astra Rocket Company, founded by U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang.
During a heady time for private space exploration, the project’s possibilities seem as endless as the universe itself – with great prospects for scientific progress, as well as Guanacaste’s development.
The plasma technology being developed here could be used to propel the space equivalent of tugboats that would fix broken satellites, or for cost-efficient rockets for the earth-orbiting International Space Station, or in cutting a two-year trip to Mars down to a month-long ride. Here on Earth, the technology could be used to eliminate toxic waste, according to Chang.
The lab’s efforts and Chang’s enthusiasm have seized the nation’s imagination.
“I love space. It’s a place of wonder,” the beaming 57-year-old rocket scientist recently told The Tico Times.
Like a magnet, the lab is attracting the attention of academics, engineers and entrepreneurs suddenly interested in a region Chang hopes will become the next Silicon Valley.
As the lab approaches its first anniversary, the crew is celebrating its success in having run a plasma engine for a record three hours last week – a major gain on the previous record of two minutes.
Chang, who shares the world record for the most space missions with U.S. astronaut Jerry Ross at seven, explained that the model plasma generator designs will be used to build a complete plasma rocket engine prototype in the company’s sister lab in Houston, Texas, by the beginning of next year.
Chang hopes to put his plasma rockets into space by 2010.
The successful engine test was a small victory for the tiny $3.5 million start-up that is trying to take flight in a fiercely competitive industry.
The company is entering an industry still largely dominated by government-run projects – an intimidating prospect considering the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a $17 billion annual budget that rivals Costa Rica’s gross domestic product, Chang said.
But the space industry has also opened up to a new generation of space entrepreneurs bent on space travel and tourism, who, unlike the mostly Tico-funded Ad Astra, have very deep pockets.
In April,Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace announced plans to send a series of inflatable space stations into orbit during the next decade. The rocket company SpaceX, founded by Pay Pal billionaire Elon Musk, had its most successful test launch to date in March. And voters in the U.S. state of New Mexico passed a referendum in April to raise taxes to help build a spaceport for Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that is already selling $200,000 tickets on the Internet for suborbital flights to space in the future.
Inside the 600-square-meter Liberia lab, lab technicians Daniel Castillo, 25, and Sergio Cortés, 23, hunch over the model rocket to replace a magnet at its neck, like fixing the label on the neck of a half-ton shiny silver bottle turned on its side.
One day, a rocket that looks a lot like this thing may be in orbit, but for now, the crew is happy with its recent test in which the engine was illuminated inside with the fluorescent purple argon gas for three hours.
The crew is a baker’s dozen of mostly Ticos – with the exception of a Nicaraguan and Colombian.
“I’d like to be an astronaut, though we’re obviously in a country where there’s not a lot of opportunity for that,” said Castillo, adding, “We have to work real hard.”
Director of Operations Jorge Oguilve, 29, explained that part of the idea behind the lab is to “involve Costa Rica with what’s happening in space.” The lab is already working with local suppliers and developers in the region.
“This has been an adventure and an experience in which a lot of Costa Ricans have been involved,”Oguilve said. The lab’s first floor has a room full of cubicles where students come and log research for classes and thesis papers.
Half a dozen students might be found in the lab at any given time, from the Technology Institute of Costa Rica (TEC) as well as the University of Costa Rica (UCR). At least a couple have based their theses on lab experience.
In October, two Irish doctoral students will come to develop their theses here.
Last month, the lab signed an agreement with the Technology Institute to settle intellectual property issues as more and more university students to the lab to come study.
“We could have engineers working in control centers here instead of working for online gambling companies,” Ronald Chang, director of the lab and Franklin’s brother, said to a room full of visiting UCR science and engineering professors. The university’s Dean of Industrial Engineering, Ismael Mason, said the group came because it is interested in a partnership with the lab, and expanding UCR’s Liberia campus.
“We want to bring all the engineers here because we see Guanacaste as an area of great human potential – with intelligent people, and a nice work environment,” Mason told The Tico Times.
“That’s the goal,” Franklin Chang said, “to have technical development for the tourism industry, but also to have another level of high-tech growth.”
Chang said high-tech development is key to the development of one of the fastest-growing regions in Latin America that still remains one of Costa Rica’s poorest.
“It’s a region with a tremendous influx of money.Yet you see poverty still remains here.
So the gap between the rich and the poor is more pronounced,” he said.
Pitching Rocket Science
The rocket engine Ad Astra is developing would help crafts travel through space, but isn’t the kind that could launch them there.
That’s why the company is in talks with other aerospace companies that could be its ticket out of this world.
“We have to find a company to take us into space – from France, the United States, Russia – whoever charges less,” Ronald Chang said.
Ronald Chang, who is 15 years younger than Franklin, sees potential in the expanding global telecommunications industry, which relies on a growing number of satellites.
There is now more space debris orbiting Earth than there are functioning satellites, many which have become defunct because of a lack of fuel or other problems.
That’s where Ad Astra sees an opportunity.
The company’s cost-efficient space rockets could be used on “space tugs,” the space equivalent of tugboats, that would travel through space propelled by plasma rockets, fixing and refueling downed satellites.
One of the biggest costs for space exploration at this point is refueling – having to shoot fuel into space so satellites and other orbiting objects can stay in space.
Basically any object in orbit, be it a satellite or the International Space Station, needs rockets to be able to resist atmospheric drag that slowly pulls it back to the Earth, Franklin Chang explained.
The International Space Station needs 7,000 kilograms of chemical fuel a year to maintain its orbit. With plasma rockets, it would need 98% less – about 120 kg. At $20,000 per kg for space travel, that’s no small price tag – it’s the difference between $140 million and $2.4 million.
Satellites could also use plasma rockets for cheaper orbit transfers, and in 15-20 years, Ad Astra hopes plasma rockets could be used to propel humans to Mars.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Every single day you learn something new. You feel like a part of something that is contributing to human advancement,” Oguilve said.
How it Works
Plasma, considered the fourth state of matter, is achieved when gas is heated to very high temperatures – up to millions of degrees. The gas becomes so hot that the electrons are stripped from the neutral atoms. Electrons mix with ionized atoms in an electrically neutral “soup” of charged particles.
This is exactly what happens in lightning, very hot flames, nebulas, the Sun and other stars.
The difference between chemical gas now used in space and plasma, is that plasma can be controlled by a magnetic field – which allows Ad Astra to trap the plasma and heat it to extremely high temperatures without it touching any physical substance, which would melt on contact.
Plasma can be made from just about any gas, but Ad Astra uses argon because it is neither toxic nor flammable, says astronaut and rocket scientist Franklin Chang. Plus, it’s cheap and accessible – Ad Astra buys its argon at a gas distributor behind the local gas station in Liberia.
Like heating food in a microwave, the model plasma engine or Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) heats up the argon with radio frequencies, while the plasma is channeled by the magnetic field.
The argon gas is shot into the VASIMR magnetic nozzle and led into the vacuum meant to simulate space.
For space explorers, plasma’s main advantage is that it requires less chemical gas, because it relies on solar energy for electricity to heat the plasma, instead of chemical energy, which has to be transported. The rockets function only under conditions of a vacuum, like in space, where scientists can control the chemistry.
The bottom line is plasma technology would mean lighter loads shot into space, which ultimately means cheaper and faster space travel, Chang explained.
The lab’s director of operations, 29-year-old Jorge Oguilve, jokes that he aspires to be an astronaut, but his chances are dwindling since he’s become heavier, and thus more expensive, to propel into space.
Find out more at www.adastrarocket.com.