Costa Rica's first rocket technologies laboratory has been built and masterminded by 57 year-old former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, launching a private venture to build a plasma-powered rocket engine capable of sending a shuttle into space cheaper and quicker than conventional models.

The $3.5m lab, funded mostly by Costa Rican investors, has been built in Guanacaste and Chang-Diaz hopes to put hydrogen or argon fueled plasma-powered rockets into space by 2010 and see them fly to Mars by 2025. It is hoped that the lab will form the basis of a high-tech research centre and the Silicon Valley of Costa Rica, bringing jobs and an improved financial position to the area.

Chang-Diaz clearly sees his country as a land of opportunity as he comments, $quot;I think this is a country small enough that it can be changed. It's not as difficult as changing the United States or the Soviet Union.$quot;

Rocket technology

The proposed plasma-powered engine relies on heat generated by a nuclear reactor and this heat expands a gas, likely to be hydrogen or argon, into plasma which is essentially a hot cloud of subatomic particles, protons and electrons. An electrical field and magnets would accelerate the chemical reaction and direct the plasma, just as thrust is directed from a conventional rocket engine.

The craft would launch from the earth with conventional rockets, activating and using its innovative engines for interplanetary travel.

The technology could also be put to many uses in space and on Earth, including breaking toxic waste down into harmless molecules.

NASA successfully flight-tested a solar-powered version of a plasma propulsion engine almost 10 years ago in 1998, using xenon rather than hydrogen fuel. NASA's Dawn mission, scheduled for launch in September, will also rely on a similar propulsion technology, though the much more capable Vasimr plasma engine proposed by Chang-Diaz could reduce the travel time for a human mission to Mars to just 4 months. Traditional chemical rockets can take between 6-10 months in comparison.

Kelly Humphries, a spokesperson for NASA's exploration systems directorate, commented, $quot;Anything we could do to cut the travel time to a distant destination like Mars would be very important.$quot;

Science education and technology in Costa Rica is far behind that of the US, but at the new lab the team are fine-tuning a plasma-powered model that will undergo testing at Houston's Johnson Space Centre by the end of 2007.