Enhanced ion engines will open the door of the solar system




# Fiction | Enhanced ion engines will open the door of the solar system March 7, 2013


For many, the phrase “comprising ion engine” may seem rather had come out of some sci-fi movie like “Star Wars”, rather than related to the real world. But the ion engines are actually used in a variety of space missions for more than forty years, and they still continue to be the subject of active research from scientists. These engines are incredibly fuel efficient, but their low thrust requires their constant work – from here and all the problems in their application. After continuous work – is a constant wear, and as a result – a serious limitation period of their operation and viability. But a group of scientists from the research laboratory of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have come up with a new engine design, which eliminates wear and opens the door for possible future missions outside our solar system.

Different types of ion engines have begun to apply to space missions in 1964, when NASA launched a program for suborbital flight SERT (Space Electric Rocket Test I). After that, many space missions at some stage used such engines. For example, several communications satellite reached its key geosynchronous orbit just using ion thrust. A device SMART-1 production of the European Space Agency, though used in entering the orbit conventional engines, for a flight to lunar orbit using ion engines.

But at its best ion engines were able to open only when the deep-space missions: missions NASA Deep Space One and Dawn, and the Hayabusa mission from Japan Aerospace Research Agency, where the ion engines were activated at different stages, for several years and created a thrust of several hundred newtons.


Ion engine device Deep Space One


How does the ion engine?

There are many types and many more options proposed ion engines, but the basic principle is the same for everyone. There are two basic types of ion engines – electrostatic and electromagnetic.
Electrostatic ion engine works on the principle of ionization of fuel (usually used in such cases gases xenon and argon). First of electrons is positively charged ion, by providing him with sufficient energy. Then, the positively charged ions are placed between two special charged lattice form an electrostatic field. This accelerates the ions so that they are literally pulled from the engine nozzle and thus provide the necessary traction.

Electromagnetic ion engine also works on the principle of ionization of the fuel. But in this case, the plasma is formed, which forms a bridge (flow) between ionized anode and cathode. This stream converts the magnetic field in an electric field, which accelerates positive ions. They are derived from the engine due to the Lorentz force – roughly similar principle works Railgun.

… And spaceships through the Universe

All of the above requires a large amount of electricity, about 25 kW per newton of thrust. So how much do you need to move the thrust level of the solar system, for example, a 100-ton spaceship? All of course depends on the mission, but the 1000 H will be sufficient to about 10 months to reach the orbit of Jupiter, and Neptune – and a half years.

What will it take? First need to get a power source with the power of about 25 MW (megawatts). What is suitable for this level? Nuclear power, of course! A lot of nuclear energy, which is produced by a nuclear reactor, set in a 100-ton spaceship. Fortunately technology has been very active, and in the direction of creating a compact nuclear reactor work is already underway. In addition, NASA and DOE are working together on a project Fission Surface Power Project, part of which is located on the surface of the Moon and Mars, a small nuclear power plants. The objective is to create in the next 10 years, the reactor power of 40 kW, which fit into a space the size of 3 x 3 x 7 meters and thus will not weigh more than 5000 kg.

The problem of construction

Suppose a miniature nuclear power plant, we have already created. As we make himself an ion engine on 1000 N? Besides the usual technical problems, such as the ionization efficiency of fuel and cooling systems for the development of such an engine, the biggest problem in this regard is the rapid deterioration due to the large ion “exhaust” which is isolated from the engine and eventually just destroy the structure. But interestingly, the problems is not in the material from which this engine is, as in the current design (design). So this problem is partially solved by researchers from NASA and laboratories Jet Propulsion.

In the diagram below you can see the fuel plasma fills the anode and the gas gun. With a low-powered, small amount of plasma is accelerated effect Lorentz by the magnetic and electric fields. For large-drawn plasma density becomes sufficiently strong to bend these fields, as a result accelerates positive ions directly to the anode wall.

новая камера

In the current ion engines produced by high energy ion destroys the walls of the chamber. When you try to increase thrust, thereby reducing fuel consumption, the destruction is even faster. The problem becomes even more complex because the fields and plasma electrodynamics is nonlinear, which makes it difficult to predict the effect of erosion after the change of the design of the camera.

The new approach is to protect the walls of the chamber of ions through the creation of a magnetic shield. NASA managed to make it through the screening wall boron nitride so that the magnetic field of the inner and outer coil runs along the end of the anode channel. In other words, the magnetic field now has no effect on the chamber walls themselves. These fields are now perpendicular or nearly parallel to the walls.

The results of the first experiments of the new magnetically shielded room with a capacity of 6 kW accelerator have shown that erosion dramatically decreased 500-1000 points. It’s just a great result!

Of course, the future path of creating a larger ion engines scientists certainly encounter with a lot of difficulties, but the main problem, which seems to be and was lying on the surface, but did not want to be solved, now all still sealed. In other words, we are one step closer to the missions, and who knows, even commercial travel in deep space.

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Tags: Deep space , ion engines , Technical progress



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