Costa Rica’s Intergalactic Wrecker Service
By Adam Williams
If you were to make a list of world nations on the cutting edge of intergalactic space technology, Costa Rica probably doesn’t make the cut. And why would it? Costa Rica is known more for its stance on environmental sustainability and pristine beaches than its aerospace innovation.
Fortunately for local star gazers, there is a team of engineers in Liberia that has taken it upon themselves to change that.
Just a stone’s throw from the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, Guanacaste, stands a small, isolated, two-story plant that houses a branch of the Ad Astra Rocket Company. Founded by the first Costa Rican NASA astronaut and national hero Franklin Chang Diaz, the Ad Astra Rocket Company has set its sights on becoming the world’s first intergalactic garbage service. However, instead of picking up bags of trash at the end of neighborhood driveways, Ad Astra aims to rid the atmosphere of inactive satellites, known as “space junk”.
“Most people don’t know that there are tens of thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth right now that are completely dead or inactive. Those are the ones we refer to as ‘space junk’,” Chang said. “There are also many perfectly good satellites orbiting the Earth that can be restored to life by refueling them or by moving them to more useful orbits. We hope to both reduce space junk and refuel still useful satellites.”
At the plant in Liberia, Franklin’s brother Ronald, who runs the Costa Rican operation, pulls up a diagram on his computer that shows thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth. He says most of the satellites were put into orbit by weather service organizations, television stations and companies that use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. After several years, Ronald says, the majority of the satellites become inactive yet continue to orbit. Currently, no technology has been developed to bring them back to Earth or remove them from the atmosphere.
“We like to compare it to a highway,” Franklin said. “Imagine if everyone that drove a car just left it on the highway when it ran out of gas. After a while, the highway becomes full of inactive cars and people have to find a way around them. Eventually someone has to clean them up. That’s where we want to come in. We want to be the atmosphere’s wrecker service.”
To accomplish such a Star Trek-ian mission, Chang and a team of engineers stationed in Houston and Liberia have been at work since 2005 on a rocket known as the VASIMR, or "variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket.” The VASIMR, which is a concept Chang developed while earning his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aims to be the first plasma-powered rocket to travel into outer space.
The plasma used in the VASIMR is formed by heating an argon gas at temperatures as hot as the sun’s. According to Chang, the energy created by the plasma is so strong that the VASIMR is expected to be able to travel to Mars in less than 40 days – an impressive figure considering missions to Mars currently take about 240 days.
“The idea of getting the VASIMR to Mars is the romantic part of the project,” Chang said. “But this is a business idea first and foremost. Companies are going to want to have their satellites disposed of or recharged. Hopefully they’ll contract us to do it.”
Though Ad Astra is based in Houston, Chang opened the Costa Rican branch at the EARTH University’s La Flor campus in late 2005. When hiring a staff for the Costa Rican plant, he turned to the nation’s youth. Of the team of 12 engineers, scientists and mechanics that are employed at the plant, their most glaring common physical characteristic (aside from matching goggles) is their baby faces. Ranging from early 20s to early 30s, the engineers in charge of the Costa Rican plant look more like a group of high school chemistry students than rocket scientists.
“The idea was to create a new generation of young engineers educated by our team to develop new professionals and experimentalists that would allow us to guide them in engineering and research,” Ronald Chang said. “And now after five years, they are experts in experiments and engineering of this kind. They are no longer students, they are graduates.”
Despite their youth, the Costa Rican engineers are relishing the opportunity to work on a technology that could possibly alter the future of space exploration. While most had lifelong aspirations to work on an advanced science, prior to the creation of the plant in Liberia, “rocket science” wasn’t a career path offered in Costa Rica.
Now the plant’s engineers have set their sights on the stars.
“I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,” said Oguilve, Director of Operations at the Liberia plant. “It’s always been my number one dream. I didn’t think I’d get the chance to accomplish it until I started working here. Now, with my work at Ad Astra, it seems much more possible than it ever did before.”
Perhaps Oguilve and his co-workers in Liberia will one day become Costa Rica’s second batch of astronauts - and the galaxy’s first garbage men.
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