In a fascinating development, NASA scientists have announced a breakthrough ion thruster that will one day be able to take humans to Mars.
“We have shown that X3 can operate at over 100 kW of power,” Alec Gallimore, the project’s lead and the dean of engineering at the University of Michigan, told Space.com. “It generated 5.4 Newtons of thrust, which is the highest level of thrust achieved by any plasma thruster to date.” The previous record was 3.3 Newtons.
Ion thrusters can theoretically operate for much longer than conventional thrusters, achieving much higher speeds.
Ion thrusters require significantly less propellant
According to NASA, ion thrusters are being designed for a wide variety of missions — from keeping communications satellites in the proper position to propelling spacecraft throughout our solar system.
The thrusters have high specific impulses — ratio of thrust to the rate of propellant consumption, so they require significantly less propellant for a given mission than would be needed with chemical propulsion.
Ion propulsion is even considered to be mission enabling for some cases where sufficient chemical propellant cannot be carried on the spacecraft to accomplish the desired mission.
They involve accelerating plasma at extremely high speeds. Electrons bump into atoms, which knocks off more electrons to produce positive ions and thrust. Over time, this increases the speed of the spacecraft.
It’s hugely promising for spaceflight. If used on manned missions to Mars, the spacecraft would require less propellant and could be launched into orbit.