The Ultimate Space Gadget: NASA's Ion Drive Live!
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July 07, 2009

The Ultimate Space Gadget: NASA's Ion Drive Live!

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We're one step closer to Star Trek, with NASA successfully testing an experimental Ion Drive in Earth orbit.  In fact, since the Enterprise only had thrusters for low-speed maneuvers, this means we've got something even the guys with Warp Drive didn't think of. 

It turns out that carrying tanks of volatile chemicals on your space ship and setting fire to them every time you want to move has a few problems.  Just ask Apollo 13.  And once you run out, that's it.  The Ion Drive instead operates electrically, carrying tanks of utterly inert Xenon gas - a "noble gas", so called because you could poke its mother in the face with matches and it won't catch fire.

You'll still run out awful fast if you just squirt gas to move like some kind of interstellar balloon, which is why the Ion Drive uses electrical acceleration.  An electric field is used to strip the Xenon of electrons, rendering it positively charged, then accelerate them out of the engine.  This gives a tiny amount of gas a much larger momentum, and by Newton's laws, an equal but opposite change in momentum is imparted to the spacecraft.

The resulting acceleration is tiny, but constant, and can be maintained entirely under solar power - in other words, running the engines is now free.  The first probe to use this system is the GOCE satellite, the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer.  GOCE must fly in a dangerously low orbit to gather data with its fantastically accurate gravity sensors.  So low that friction with the outer atmosphere will drag it down into an early, and remarkably fiery, grave - unless it's equipped with a revolutionary new engine.

The Ion Drive will operate to cancel out the Earth's effects on the satellite, keeping it in a constant balance between electrically powering out and plunging in.  The Ion Drive isn't limited to station-keeping, however - small but solar-powered accelerations are perfect for interplanetary, or even interstellar missions.  The GOCE engines can provide 20 milliNewtons of thrust - for a one-ton satellite, that's an acceleration of less than the width of a human hair per second squared, which is less than impressive.  Unless you keep it on for a month, say, and end up moving at four kilometers a second - and with a little work, you can refuel anywhere there's an atmosphere.

Ion Drive http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090406132821.htm

Comments

Thats cool, thats the kind of new energy the world needs, i bet thers more,that the NASA guys still havent showed.

Ion Plasma drive is a joke for future travel !

Another NASA or ex-NASITE scientist failed concept.

I wouldn't want to see anymore NASA ideas because they
are NOT innovative or outside the box. Dump NASA !

Any drive utilizing non- volatile fuel sounds promising, very promising, not to mention MCH safer than carrying around containers of volatile fuel sources.

It would be really nice if the ion drive could be ramped up to move a spacecraft faster, like somewhere close to the speed of light.

thank you


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What I don't like is the picture of a Star Wars ship when discussing Star Trek. Can't you at least match the two?

I think the future of space travel and exploration will be greatly affected by the development of new space propulsion. As technology in space propulsion advances so will the capability for longer missions. We will be able to probe deeper into space, quicker than ever before. According to NASA we will be able to reach mars in “39 days instead of 8 to 11 months”. Unfortunately the advances in ion and plasma thrusters will not improve our ability for manned flight. The amount of thrust they provide currently can not support the mission requirements of a manned space craft. Though every time I think of ion thrusters I think of TIE fighters from Star Wars which use ion engines, how cool would that be.

come on peeps, any kind of progrees in this direction is clearly a good thing, we need to stop confusing fiction with fact and focus on what is the now.

Cool, if we keep up enough research and development for the next several hundred years we just MIGHT make it to the nearest star!

Currently, ion propulsion can reach the speed of light in appox. 156 hours, however, special spacesuits will need to be developed to prevent the implosion of the human body at that velocity....

We are much further along than this story lets on. On Nov. 21, 2008 I witness a craft that had 6 of these engines flying over the desert near Kingman AZ at around 9pm, about 15 mile east of the Kingman airport. It was in some kind of trouble from the sparks I saw coming from the bottom of the craft. It was heading north west at a slow rate. As I said it had 6 plasma engines, two rows of 3. The blue haze stood out about 50 to 100 feet behind the engines.
This was the biggest craft I've ever seen and I'm sure its one of our.


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