At this meeting, Dr. Matthew Giambusso from The Ad Astra Rocket Company shared the story of how his team engineers ambitiously.
Ad Astra Rocket Company was founded in 2005 by retired astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, co-holder of the world record for number of spaceflights (seven). With a team of eight people located at the corner of Highway 3 and Bay Area Boulevard, Ad Astra is the developer of the VASIMR® space propulsion technology. VASIMR® (VAriable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket) is an electric thruster designed to operate at hundreds of kilowatts of input power, efficiently producing a jet of argon plasma at up to 5,000 seconds of specific impulse.[i] Krypton, neon, and deuterium propellants have also been tested, and many others are possible. The initial application of VASIMR® will be solar-powered transportation in cislunar space. The engine’s thrust-to-weight ratio improves with increasing power,[ii] and Ad Astra anticipates a future of nuclear-electric powered, interplanetary missions. Such a mission was described in Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian,” in which the 110-ton Hermes spacecraft is propelled by VASIMR® thrusters.[iii]
The current VASIMR® prototype is controlled via an in-vacuum cRIO running several loops in the producer/consumer design pattern. LabVIEW FPGA is used to implement some deterministic interlocks and peripheral communications. The VASIMR® testing facility is controlled via a separate cRIO and a PXI chassis. Despite being developed mostly by physicists, the control software can safely run the experiment in a semi-unattended fashion.
Figure 1- The VASIMR® VX-200SS prototype and testing facility at Ad Astra’s laboratory in Webster, Texas. This photo was taken just prior to an experimental campaign in July 2020. The in-vacuum cRIO lives in the enclosure on the bottom-right side of the hexagon.
Ad Astra Rocket Company also operates a branch in Franklin’s native Costa Rica, where the company has helped introduce hydrogen energy storage to Latin America. Since 2017, Ad Astra has operated a cRIO-controlled, 350 bar (5,000 psi) hydrogen generation and dispensing plant for fuel cell vehicles. The plant is now being upgraded to enable 700 bar-operation (10,000 psi), which will take full advantage of the refueling capability of the Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity, and Hyundai Nexo.[iv]
In 2020, Ad Astra began partnering with LeoLabs to construct a low-earth-orbit tracking radar in Costa Rica.[v] LeoLabs, founded by former astronaut Ed Lu, currently operates tracking stations in Alaska, Texas, and New Zealand. The New Zealand and Costa Rica sites will be capable of tracking objects as small as two centimeters in diameter. The low latitude of the Costa Rican site will also enable LeoLabs to track a greater portion of low-earth-orbit, thereby helping to protect satellites and the International Space Station from orbital debris.