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NASA’s ion thruster breaks propulsion records

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Ion Thruster Prototype Breaks Records in Tests, Could Send Humans to Mars

 A thruster that's being developed for a future NASA mission to Mars broke several records during recent tests, suggesting that the technology is on track to take humans to the Red Planet within the next 20 years, project team members said.

The X3 thruster, which was designed by researchers at the University of Michigan in cooperation with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, is a Hall thruster — a system that propels spacecraft by accelerating a stream of electrically charged atoms, known as ions. In the recent demonstration conducted at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio, the X3 broke records for the maximum power output, thrust and operating current achieved by a Hall thruster to date, according to the research team at the University of Michigan and representatives from NASA.

https://www.space.com/38444-mars-thruster-design-breaks-records.html

 

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Fantastic stuff; still needs a propellant though I believe Xenon is the favourite choice. When we can perfect a drive that needs no onboard fuel, then we can explore the solar system properly.

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Well, lets not get TOO carried away. The test engine requires 260 Amperes to produce a thrust of around 5 Newtons of thrust. Producing 260 Amps for an extended period is not a trivial exercise. It requires "fuel" of some sort. 

In comparison, the space shuttles engines - in a vacuum - produced about 26,000 Newtons. 

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Posted (edited)

For at least intersolar, the "fuel" is already there, weakly permeating the solar system environment.

On-board nuclear options can provide for the electricity neccessary to perform this phenom.

Edited by pallidin
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They need impulse engines in addition to warp drive. Duh to everyone except millenials

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4 hours ago, pallidin said:

For at least intersolar, the "fuel" is already there, weakly permeating the solar system environment.

On-board nuclear options can provide for the electricity neccessary to perform this phenom.

 The amount of uranium to produce the heat probably wouldn't weigh all that much, but then you need the water,to boil into steam,to turn the turbines,to generate the electricity,to be used to power the ion thruster.  

People tend to think of (((((Nuclear Energy))))) as some almost magical source of new power, when in reality it is good old fashioned outdated Steam power.

   But ion propulsion seems worth exploring?

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1 minute ago, lightly said:

 The amount of uranium to produce the heat probably wouldn't weigh all that much, but then you need the water,to boil into steam,to turn the turbines,to generate the electricity,to be used to power the ion thruster.  

People tend to think of (((((Nuclear Energy))))) as some almost magical source of new power, when in reality it is good old fashioned outdated Steam power.

   But ion propulsion seems worth exploring?

Steam is not necessary.

https://www.rdmag.com/article/2017/02/nuclear-reactors-power-space-exploration

For the past five decades—from the Apollo-era lunar science experiments to the Mars Curiosity and the New Horizons missions—Pu-238 Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTG) have served as a power source.

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https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator

 

A radioisotope thermoelectric generator(RTG, RITEG) is an electrical generator that uses an array of thermocouples to convert the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material into electricity by the Seebeck effect. This generator has no moving parts.

RTGs have been used as power sources in satellites, space probes, and unmanned remote facilities such as a series of lighthouses built by the former Soviet Unioninside the Arctic Circle. RTGs are usually the most desirable power source for unmaintained situations that need a few hundred watts (or less) of power for durations too long for fuel cells, batteries, or generators to provide economically, and in places where solar cells are not practical. Safe use of RTGs requires containment of the radioisotopeslong after the productive life of the unit.

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17 hours ago, pallidin said:

Steam is not necessary.

https://www.rdmag.com/article/2017/02/nuclear-reactors-power-space-exploration

For the past five decades—from the Apollo-era lunar science experiments to the Mars Curiosity and the New Horizons missions—Pu-238 Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTG) have served as a power source.

Oh.   I guess I'm the one that's  .antiquated.  Thanks for the link pallidin, I learned something!

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13 hours ago, lightly said:

Oh.   I guess I'm the one that's  .antiquated.  Thanks for the link pallidin, I learned something!

Actually you're not. I was too quick to reference RTG's. The power they can produce is far less than the power required for the purposes of the OP article. My bad...

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On 21/10/2017 at 6:58 PM, RoofGardener said:

Well, lets not get TOO carried away. The test engine requires 260 Amperes to produce a thrust of around 5 Newtons of thrust. Producing 260 Amps for an extended period is not a trivial exercise. It requires "fuel" of some sort. 

In comparison, the space shuttles engines - in a vacuum - produced about 26,000 Newtons. 

It doesn't sound much, but continuous acceleration even with that small amount of energy would soon add up to very high speeds.

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True... eventually. But it would take a LONG time, and would we be able to produce sufficient electricity over that time period ? 

Personally, I like Lightly's idea of the steam-powered spaceship. 

Steampunk to the Stars ! :P 

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11 minutes ago, RoofGardener said:

But it would take a LONG time,

Not that long.

What you don't seem to be factoring in is that a conventional rocket uses up all it's fuel in minutes. Once that fuel is gone that is the acceleration over and done with,

A vehicle with ion propulsion can continue accelerating for months, reaching far higher velocities than a feasible with a conventional chemical rocket. For interplanetary missions, which take months anyway, ion propulsion is far quicker than chemical rockets.

It is for precisely this reason that both of JAXA's Hayabusa sample return missions to asteroids and NASA's Dawn asteroid mission have all used ion propulsion (solar electric to be precise) as it greatly reduced mission time.

There is also the added benefit that an ion propelled vehicle requires a much lower mass of fuel, meaning that either a smaller, cheaper launch vehicle can be utilised or a greater payload mass can be carried. As a result of this benefit more and more telecommunications satellites are using ion thrusters for station keeping. Since the same mass of propellent will last much longer the working life of the satellite is increased, reducing costs for the operators.

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32 minutes ago, RoofGardener said:

True... eventually. But it would take a LONG time, and would we be able to produce sufficient electricity over that time period ? 

Personally, I like Lightly's idea of the steam-powered spaceship. 

Steampunk to the Stars ! :P 

Not as long as you'd think. Say it accelerates a ship at  0.5 m/s (walking pace is around 1.5 m/s) in one minute you are travelling at 30 m/s, in one hour you are travelling at 1800 m/s that's 4000 odd MPH...8000 odd after two hours...

 

Erm, I'm not vouching for my maths, I did this on the fly...

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Does anyone remember Scotty's remark about ion drives?  If my mother....she'd be a ...

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17 hours ago, paperdyer said:

Does anyone remember Scotty's remark about ion drives?  If my mother....she'd be a ...

This is in use technology I believe, all they are doing is making it better.

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Ion engines might have their uses, but I don't think manned spaceflight is one of them; let's take an example.  The Mercury space capsule had a mass of 1400 kg, and its successor, the Gemini, had a mass of 3800 kg.  The astronauts were confined to their couches for the duration of the mission, ate baby food from toothpaste tubes, and crapped in diapers.  Let's assume we could provide room for a crapper and a microwave for a vehicle mass of 5000 kg; Isaac Newton told us that F=ma, and since we know the force of this motor (5 n), and the mass of our vehicle (5000 kg), we can rearrange to get a = F/m, or a = 5 n / 5000 kg = 0.001m/s2.  This vehicle isn't going anywhere fast, and we still haven't alloted mass for food, water, and oxygen.  After that, we need a power plant; RTG's and photovoltaics both have low power densities, and photovoltaics become useless at about Jupiter's distance from the sun, leaving our only current option to be an actual nuclear reactor, which adds even more mass.

Better alternatives for manned flight would be solid, liquid, and gas core nuclear thermal systems, with Isp's from 1500 s to 8,000 s across their temperature ranges, corresponding to exhaust velocities of 15,000 m/s to 80,000 m/s, and thrust values comparable to chemical rockets.  Another alternative might be the magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) system, first developed about the same time as the ion motor in the late 1950's and early 1960's. MPD's have theoretical thrust values in excess of 200 n, and theoretical Isp of 100,000 s, with roughly the same input power as ion motors.

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