Tuesday, 17 January 2006

Space : The Long Haul

To do anything useful when swanning round the solar system rather than just the local area, conventional rockets just don't cut the mustard. You need an Ion drive.
From Space Daily :
The European Space Agency and the Australian National University have successfully tested a new design of spacecraft ion engine that dramatically improves performance over present thrusters and marks a major step forward in space propulsion capability.

Ion engines are a form of electric propulsion and work by accelerating a beam of positively charged particles (or ions) away from the spacecraft using an electric field. ESA is currently using electric propulsion on its Moon mission, SMART-1.

The new engine is over ten times more fuel efficient than the one used on SMART-1. "Using a similar amount of propellant as SMART-1, with the right power supply, a future spacecraft using our new engine design wouldn't just reach the Moon, it would be able to leave the Solar System entirely," says Dr Roger Walker of ESA's Advanced Concepts Team, Research Fellow in Advanced Propulsion and Technical Manager of the project.

The new experimental engine, called the Dual-Stage 4-Grid (DS4G) ion thruster, was designed and built under a contract with ESA in the extremely short time of four months by a dedicated team at the Australian National University.

"The success of the DS4G prototype shows what can be achieved with the passion and drive of a capable and committed team. It was an incredible experience to work with ESA to transform such an elegant idea into a record-breaking reality", says Dr. Orson Sutherland, the engine's designer and head of the development team at the ANU.

Any bets that the team will be broken up and dispersed before the year's out? But perhaps I'm too cynical.
Then again, no. That's what the historical record of space technology in Australia has shown, consistently.
Once ready, these engines will be able to propel spacecraft to the outermost planets, the newly discovered planetoids beyond Pluto and even further, into the unknown realm of interstellar space beyond the Solar System.

Closer to home, these supercharged ion engines could figure prominently in the human exploration of space. With an adequate supply of electrical power, a small cluster of larger, high power versions of the new engine design would provide enough thrust to propel a crewed spacecraft to Mars and back.

"This is an ultra-ion engine. It has exceeded the current crop by many times and opens up a whole new frontier of exploration possibilities," says Dr Walker.

What the heck. Maybe this will be an exception. I'm going to go to Dr Walker's team at the ANU when I start there and give them my congratulations, anyway. To let them know that someone actually cares, and appreciates their outstanding achievement. Something that will help a lot in the long haul to explore the Solar System, and beyond.

1 comment:

Andrew Parle said...


While you're dropping into ANU, find out if anyone is working on a "reactionless" electro-magnetic drive based on momentum stored in static crossed EM fields.

I came across the idea during my PhD about 20 years back, and it seemed so obvious I never wrote it up (being only barely connected with my work), but I never heard of any application.