The following are a short description of different plasma engines and the links to where you can find out much more about them. As I am not a scientist I will not try to say that I understand everything being said in these articles, but I am will to read them and hope that they are describing the beginning of those things that we will need to propel us to our nearest planets and later further into space.
The 123,000 MPH Plasma Engine That Could Finally Take Astronauts To Mars
Helicon Double Layer Thruster
A Helicon Double Layer Thruster uses radio waves to create a plasma and a magnetic nozzle to focus and accelerate the plasma away from the rocket engine.
Magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters (MPD) uses the Lorentz force (a force resulting from the interaction between a magnetic field and an electric current) to generate thrust – The electric charge flowing through the plasma exists in a magnetic field causing the plasma to accelerate due to the generated magnetic force.
Hall Effect thrusters
Hall effect thruster combine a strong localized static magnetic field perpendicular to the electric field created between an upstream anode and a downstream cathode called neutralizer, to create a “virtual cathode” (area of high electron density) at the exit of the device. This virtual cathode then attract the ion formed inside the thruster closer to the anode. Finally the accelerated ion beam is neutralized by some of the electrons emitted by the neutralizer.
Electrodeless Plasma Thrusters
Electrodeless plasma thrusters use the ponderomotive force which acts on any plasma or charged particle when under performance of a strong electromagnetic energygradient to accelerate the plasma.
Serial production started in Soviet Union in 1970s. One of the early variants, SPT-100 is now produced under license by European Snecma Moteurs under the name PPS-1350. SPT-290 has 1.5H thrust, 5-30kW power and specific impulse 30km/s, efficiency 65% and weight 23kg.
Main article: Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket
VASIMR, or Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, works by using radio waves to ionize a propellant into a plasma and then a magnetic field to accelerate the plasma out of the back of the rocket engine to generate thrust. The VASIMR is being developed by the private company Ad Astra Rocket Company, headquartered in Houston, TX with some help from a NS Canada based company Nautel, producing the 200Kw RF generators for ionizing propellant. Some of the components and “Plasma Shoots” experiments are tested in a laboratory settled in Liberia, Costa Rica. This project is led by former NASA astronaut Dr. Franklin Chang-Díaz (CRC-USA). Recently the Costa Rican Aerospace Alliance announced the cooperation to this project by developing an exterior support device for the VASIMR to be fitted in the exterior of the International Space Station, as part of the plan to test the VASIMR in space, this test phase is expected to be conducted in 2012. The engine VF-200 could reduce the duration of flight from Earth to e.g. Jupiter or Saturn from six years to fourteen months.
Plasma engine passes initial test
- VASIMR VX-200 plasma rocket achieves full power efficiency milestone (nextbigfuture.com)
- Plasma space-drive aces efficiency numbers: Set for ISS in 2014 (go.theregister.com)
- Configurations to scale Solar electric sails hundreds of times more power without using propellant (nextbigfuture.com)
- Flying to the Moon From the International Space Station (spacefellowship.com)