Not since those first space shuttle launches have average Americans shown more than a passing interest in what NASA is doing. As we plan for a trip to Mars, traditional interest in space travel has made a modest comeback in recent years, as proven by the hundreds who signed up for a one way trip to the red planet. And lets not forget Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which has people of means clamoring to get a seat on his space plane.
There is one big question that is nagging at the core of the space program. Just how are we going to efficiently reach these distant worlds in less than a lifetime of travel? That delemma is getting closer to an answer with the NASA Ion Thruster program. While ion technology is nothing new, there have been a multitude of setbacks where it concerns large scale ion engines. However, there have been some victories as well. None bigger than the latest thruster success.
NASA is counting on ion engines to assist in efficient deep space travel. Shown below is a world record setting test of NASAs ion thruster technology.
NASA’s Innovative Ion Space Thruster Sets Endurance World Record
A five-year test of NASA’s latest ion drive for future spacecraft has set a new world record for the longest single space engine test.
The space agency’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project completed a continuous test the ion engine for more than 48,000 hours — over five and a half years — longer than any other space propulsion system ever tested. With low fuel weight and long-running efficiency, ion engines have become strong contenders for deep space missions.
Spacecraft traveling through miles of space require energy to keep moving. Ion propulsion engines can help to minimize the bulkiness of fuel, allowing for increased scientific exploration in smaller packages. Over the course of nearly six years, NEXT consumed only 1,900 pounds (860 kilograms) of fuel, compared to the 22,000 pounds (10,000 kg) a conventional rocket would burn to create the same momentum.
for more on this story, head over to space.com
So, how do ion engines work? Since my advanced knowledge in this area may overwhelm you (and by advanced, I mean rudimentary), here is a rundown from Wikipedia:
An ion thruster is a form of electric propulsion used for spacecraft propulsion that creates thrust by accelerating ions. The term is strictly used to refer to gridded ion thrusters, but may often more loosely be applied to all electric propulsion systems that accelerate plasma, since plasma consists of ions. Ion thrusters are categorized by how they accelerate the ions, using either electrostatic or electromagnetic force. Electrostatic ion thrusters use the Coulomb force and accelerate the ions in the direction of the electric field. Electromagnetic ion thrusters use the Lorentz force to accelerate the ions.
Ion thrusters create very small levels of thrust compared to conventional chemical rockets but achieve very high specific impulse, or propellant mass efficiencies, by accelerating their exhausts to very high speed. However, ion thrusters carry a fundamental price: the power imparted to the exhaust increases with the square of its velocity while the thrust increases only linearly. Normal chemical rockets, on the other hand, can provide very high thrust but are limited in total impulse by the small amount of energy that can be stored chemically in the propellants. Given the practical weight of suitable power sources, the accelerations given by ion thrusters are frequently less than one thousandth of standard gravity. However, since they operate essentially as electric (or electrostatic) motors, a greater fraction of the input power is converted into kinetic exhaust power than in a chemical rocket. Chemical rockets operate as heat engines subject to the Carnot limit that applies to every heat engine.
Due to their relatively high power needs, given the specific power of power supplies, and the requirement of an environment void of other ionized particles, ion thrust propulsion is currently only practical in space.
Imagine if we could figure out a way to utilize this technology for applications here on earth. I’d be the first in line to buy an ion powered car….if I could afford it. Actually, I’d probably be buying a used one 5 years later.
The most amazing aspect of this story is the thought that someday, this will be antiquated technology and frankly, I don’t think it will be more than 20 years before the next big advance is made in this area. It stands to reason that the planned trip to Mars will inject enough interest that more designers and engineers will begin developing things that were never dreamed of before.
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