Saturday, September 29, 2007

Will Ion Engines Replace Chemical Rockets? Authentic NASA Toys and Replicas

(Image: Ion Propulsion System Hot Fire Test for Deep Space 1, Credit: NASA / JPL)

Probably not, as chemical rockets are the undisputed champions when it comes to launching anything from Earth's surface to beyond the sky. However when it comes to general interplanetary travel, chemical rockets may find themselves taking a back seat towards their "star trek" cousins.

( An ion engine prototype developed at NASA's Glenn Research Center has now accumulated more than 12,000 hours of operation and processed over 245 kilograms of xenon, setting a record for most propellant throughput ever demonstrated by an ion engine.

The engine is the critical component of NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) system, which uses xenon gas and solar electric power to drive future robotic science spacecraft to distant asteroids, comets, planets and their moons. [...]

Today's chemical propulsion systems get their big boost and then coast at constant speed until the next boost. An ion engine can produce its small thrust continually and thereby provide near constant acceleration and shorter travel times. Ion propulsion is also ten times more fuel efficient than chemical onboard propulsion systems. This greater efficiency means less propellant is needed for a mission. Spacecraft can then be smaller and lighter, with lower launch costs.

For human missions, future space craft may have to employ both chemical and ion rockets, the former to get off world and the latter to travel in between the planets.

Note: The ion engine is currently being used by the Dawn Spacecraft which was recently launched in order to provide more information about the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.

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You can either visit the stars or watch them from afar.

But if you choose the former, you'll definitely get a better view.

~Darnell Clayton, 2007

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