Costa Rica has recently become host to one of NASA’s most important and most intriguing aerospace research projects. Headed by Franklin Chang Díaz, Ph.D., Costa Rica’s famous NASA astronaut, the project could revolutionize space travel and exploration, greatly reducing costs for astronomical missions. Franklin Chang and his team of scientists conduct their research in Guanacaste, at the headquarters of Ad Astra Rocket Company Costa Rica, the Costa Rican branch of Franklin Chang’s aerospace research company. Ronald Chang Díaz, Franklin Chang’s brother, serves as General Director of the Costa Rican laboratory; he supervises all day-to-day operations.

Franklin Chang worked for NASA for 25 years and took part in seven space flights with NASA. He is the inventor and patent-holder of several important aerospace inventions, one of which is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR, U.S. patent 2002). He received his Ph.D. from MIT, where he conducted research in applied plasma physics and fusion technology, two subjects unfamiliar to most laypersons but integrally related to the work of the Ad Astra researchers.

The beauty of a plasma rocket, like the one Franklin Chang has patented, is that it uses cheap and abundant fuel sources—hydrogen, argon and neon gases that are plentiful in the air we breathe. The plasma rocket converts these various gases into plasma, which is the rocket’s revolutionary secret. Sometimes considered a fourth state of matter (along with the usual three—solid, liquid and gas), plasma is made when scientists heat a gas to an incredibly high temperature—sometimes up to a million degrees. Interestingly, the layperson is familiar with matter in a plasma state, because lightning, the sun and some very hot flames are in the plasma state.

Once the plasma rocket converts a gas into plasma, the rocket energizes the plasma so that it reaches an ideal temperature for use as a rocket fuel. Then, using magnetized fields, the rocket converts the energy of the plasma into forward thrust. Ad Astra’s use of plasma as a cheap rocket fuel source could change aerospace travel and transport forever.

Because plasma rockets generate a great deal of heat, researchers have noted the importance of a thermal cover that will protect the rocket parts from intense heat. The Costa Rican branch of Ad Astra has the specific duty of creating a thermal cover for the rocket. Once its thermal-cover research is complete, Ad Astra Costa Rica hopes to send the plasma rocket up to the space station for the kinds of propulsion tests researchers can only conduct in outer space. Ultimately, Ad Astra Costa Rica plans to move into space transportation, delivering machinery and supplies to the space station and other outer space destinations.

As its Latin name suggests, Ad Astra’s dreams reach to the heavens. If Ad Astra’s research continues as successfully as it has so far, Costa Rica could play a major role in outer space.

Read more about Franklin Chang.
Read about the advantages of a plasma rocket.
Read more about plasma.
See The SJO Post, “Costa Rica Points to the Stars,” by Ivette Sojo, Edition No. 6, April 20-26, 2009

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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