Tico Scientist Franklin Chang-Díaz’s Plasma Engine at a Historic Test Step in Space

    Costa Rican technological know-how at its best

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    After decades of arduous study and work, the plasma engine called Vasimr and conceived by the Costa Rican scientist Franklin Chang-Díaz, would be ready to carry out the first tests in space starting in 2023. This was confirmed by the also retired astronaut. The engine is developed by Ad Astra Rocket Company, founded by Chang Díaz, which signed a contract with NASA to develop this technology.

    “Technology develops in steps. We are now on the fifth step and we almost finished it. The sixth is the one that allows us to test the technology in space. That requires an expansion of the works. Things are not so difficult anymore, but they are expensive”, he explained.

    Thanks to these advances, the company began, at the beginning of last January, a new round to attract investment, which would be done in two stages for a total of $ 32 million. However, there is still a final step to complete that “fifth step”.


    In March 2015, the company announced the signing of a contract with the United States Space Agency (NASA, for its acronym in English). This agreement established a total of 55 milestones, or approved requirements, that the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Engine (Vasimr) had to meet, before even thinking of surpassing the stratosphere.

    Less than six years later, that moment could be near. The Costa Rican scientist informed that, at the end of December last year, they managed to complete the penultimate milestone, after the results obtained were validated by NASA.

    A great step foward

    “It is a milestone that we had pursued a long time ago. Be able to fire the engine for continuous times, hours, and verify that none of the critical engine components are overheating. We reached a stable state. “We are now in pursuit of the final milestone, which is a long-duration shot. It is 100 kilowatts, 100 continuous hours. Basically a week, 24 hours a day, shooting continuously ”.

    Given all these achievements, Chang-Díaz reasoned that the difficult part no longer lies so much in the operation of the engine, thanks to the 54 previous tests. However, the part of care is in the external elements of the laboratory environment.

    “It is a bigger challenge. The only way to do that is to have redundant systems. If one fails, the other comes into play and that costs money. We have to play a lot with the budget. See that we have enough support, in different areas, but not exaggerate because it would be very expensive,” he added.

    All these tests have been carried out in the laboratory of the Ad Astra Rocket Company, located in the city of Houston, state of Texas, United States. There, the company has a vacuum chamber 10 meters long by five meters in diameter, where it has developed the technology.

    Round Investment

    “The hard part is over. The expensive part is what comes. You have to look for financing. The motor has to be tested in space, so we have to have a device that can take it there and test it robotically”.

    “NASA has agreed to fund 50% of the cost, which is a lot. It is financing without equity ties, they do not acquire ownership of the technology. All they ask is to have the option of using it when it is developed, which interests us because we need a client to use it when it is ready”, he added.

    The scientist explained that the new round of capital raising will follow the guidelines of controls to avoid unnecessarily diluting the investment made by investors who are already within the company.

    The idea of Chang-Díaz is to advance with enough funds so that the value of the company rises and achieve return on value. For that reason, the first stage will be to raise a total of $ 2 million. The second, later, would seek to add an additional $ 30 million.

    “This, together with the money from NASA, would be enough to have the engine that would go into space, ready in the year 2023, already relatively close,” he celebrated.

    Long path

    The construction of the engine began with the founding of the Ad Astra Rocket Company in 2005, when the Costa Rican scientist retired from NASA after a 25-year career. However, efforts to develop it were born decades ago.

    The entrepreneur left for the United States in 1968 to seek a scholarship that would allow him to study at the University of Connecticut. Later, in 1977, he obtained a Ph.D. in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

    “This started in the year 79, over there. I was at the Institute, still doing studies and work in the area of controlled thermonuclear fusion and plasmas in magnetic confinement”, he added. Although he joined NASA in 1980, at the same time he got a laboratory job at MIT.

    That laboratory operated between 1980 and 1992. Between 1993 and 1994, he moved all his equipment to Houston where he founded the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. Chang-Díaz headed this department for a decade until his departure from the Agency.

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