An ion engine test for Deep Space One (Photo: NASA/JPL)

 

Diagram of a Hall effect ion engine (Image: Wikipedia)

 

Improved ion engines will open up the outer Solar System

By Brian Dodson
March 6, 2013

The phrase “engage the ion drive” still has the ring of a line from Star Wars, but these engines have been used in space missions for more than four decades and remain the subject of ongoing research. Ion engines have incredible fuel efficiency, but their low thrust requires very long operating times … and therein lies the rub. To date, erosion within such an engine seriously limits its operational lifetime. Now a group of researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has developed a new design that largely eliminates this erosion, opening the gates for higher thrust and more efficient drives for manned and unmanned missions to the reaches of the Solar System.

on engines of various types have been used on space missions since at least 1964, when NASA flew the suborbital Space Electric Rocket Test I mission. Many classes of space missions can benefit through using fuel efficient ion engines during some phase of their mission. For example, several communication satellites have been raised into their final geosynchronous orbit using ion thrusters. The European Space Agency’s SMART-1 lunar mission was placed in geosynchronous orbit by conventional means, and then made the transfer into lunar orbit using an ion engine.

Deep space missions, however, is where ion engines could really shine. Three missions, NASA’s Deep Space One and Dawn, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa have partially or entirely obtained their post-Earth-orbit propulsion from ion engines. Their ion engines operated for several years with only an occasional panic attack while providing a few hundredths of a Newton (perhaps 0.4 oz) of thrust.

Read more: Improved ion engines will open up the outer Solar System — gizmag.

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