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Space & Astronomy

NASA's ion thruster breaks propulsion records

By T.K. Randall
October 21, 2017 · Comment icon 12 comments

Iron thrusters are much more energy efficient than chemical rockets. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
The prototype thruster could one day propel the first Mars astronauts all the way to the Red Planet.
Designed through a collaboration between the University of Michigan, NASA and the US Air Force, the X3 thruster works by accelerating a stream of electrically charged atoms to produce thrust.

During a recent demonstration of the X3 at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio, scientists managed to break multiple world records for power output, operating current and thrust.

"We have shown that X3 can operate at over 100 kW of power," said project leader Alec Gallimore.

"It operated at a huge range of power from 5 kW to 102 kW, with electrical current of up to 260 amperes. It generated 5.4 Newtons of thrust, which is the highest level of thrust achieved by any plasma thruster to date."
While ion thrusters are more energy efficient and can achieve much higher speeds than chemical rockets, they have much lower acceleration and therefore take a lot longer to get up to speed.

"You can think of electric propulsion as having 10 times the miles per gallon compared to chemical propulsion," said Gallimore. "Chemical propulsion systems can generate millions of kilowatts of power, while the existing electrical systems only achieve 3 to 4 kilowatts."

"What we would need for human exploration is a system that can process something like 500,000 watts (500 kW), or even a million watts or more."

"That's something like 20, 30 or even 40 times the power of conventional electric propulsion systems."

Source: | Comments (12)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #3 Posted by thelion318 7 years ago
They need impulse engines in addition to warp drive. Duh to everyone except millenials
Comment icon #4 Posted by lightly 7 years ago
 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think of (((((Nuclear Energy))))) as some almost magical source of new power, when in reality it is good old fashioned outdated Steam power.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?
Comment icon #5 Posted by pallidin 7 years ago
Steam is not necessary. 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.
Comment icon #6 Posted by pallidin 7 years ago   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 ... [More]
Comment icon #7 Posted by lightly 7 years ago
Oh.   I guess I'm the one that's  .antiquated.  Thanks for the link pallidin, I learned something!
Comment icon #8 Posted by pallidin 7 years ago
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...
Comment icon #9 Posted by RoofGardener 7 years ago
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 !  
Comment icon #10 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 7 years ago
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 propul... [More]
Comment icon #11 Posted by paperdyer 7 years ago
Does anyone remember Scotty's remark about ion drives?  If my mother....she'd be a ...
Comment icon #12 Posted by schroedingerscat 7 years ago
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 ... [More]

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