Plasma Rockets & Solar Storms

Join a small team of rocket designers as they open a window into the future of space travel.

Modern science has linked polar light shows, called auroras, to vast waves of electrified gas hurled in our direction by the sun. Today, researchers from a whole new generation see this dynamic substance, plasma, as an energy source that may one day fuel humanity’s expansion into space. What can we learn, and how far can we go, by tapping into the strange and elusive fourth state of matter?

Since the dawn of rocketry, we’ve relied on the same basic technology to get us off the ground. Fill a cylinder with volatile chemicals, then ignite them in a controlled explosion. The force of the blast is what pushes the rocket up. Nowadays, chemical rockets are the only ones with enough thrust to overcome Earth’s gravity and carry a payload into orbit. But they are not very efficient.

The heavier the payload, the more fuel a rocket needs to lift it into space. But the more fuel a rocket carries, the more fuel it needs. For long-range missions, most spacecraft rely on their initial launch speed to essentially coast to their destination. Flight planners often design routes that give the craft a gravity assist by sending it around the moon or another planet. One small cadre of scientists believes it has a quicker and more efficient way to get around in space.

Dr. Ben Longmier and his team from the University of Michigan have traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska to play a small part in a much larger push to revolutionize space travel and exploration.

The team plans to use helium balloons to send components of a new type of rocket engine to an altitude of over 30 kilometers, above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere. The purpose is to test these components within the harsh environment of space. While astronauts train to live and work in zero gravity, or to move around in bulky space suits, these would-be space explorers are preparing to negotiate some of Earth’s harshest environments.

Once they launch their payload, they have to retrieve it wherever it comes down in Alaska’s vast snowy wilderness. The idea they are pursuing is nothing short of revolutionary. It’s a type of rocket that promises far greater gas mileage than other rockets, and enough power to reach distant targets. It runs on the same fuel that nature uses, literally, to power the universe: plasma.