London, July 23 (ANI): Scientists are testing a powerful new ion engine that could one day power spacecrafts to reach Mars in just 39 days, instead of the grueling six months to reach the Red Planet.
Traditional rockets burn chemical fuel to produce thrust. Most of that fuel is used up in the initial push off the Earth's surface, so the rockets tend to coast most of the time they are in space.
Ion engines, on the other hand, accelerate electrically charged atoms, or ions, through an electric field, thereby pushing the spacecraft in the opposite direction.
They provide much less thrust at a given moment than do chemical rockets, which means they can't break free of the Earth's gravity on their own.
But once in space, they can give a continuous push for years, like a steady breeze at the back of a sailboat, accelerating gradually until they're moving faster than chemical rockets.
Several space missions have already used ion engines, including NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which is en route to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and Japan's spacecraft Hayabusa, which rendezvoused with the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.
But, according to a report in New Scientist, a new engine, called VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), will have much more "oomph" than previous ones.
That's because it uses a radio frequency generator, similar to transmitters used to broadcast radio shows, to heat the charged particles, or plasma.
The engine is being developed by the Ad Astra Rocket Company.
VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam.
The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons "boil" off, creating plasma.
The plasma could produce thrust on its own if it were shot out of the rocket, but not very efficiently.
To optimize efficiency, the rocket's second stage then heats the ions to about a million degrees, a temperature comparable to that at the centre of the sun.
Thanks to the radio frequency generator, VASIMR can reach power levels a hundred times as high as other engines
At its current power level, VASIMR could be run entirely on solar energy.
It could also shuttle cargo to a lunar base, and because it could travel relatively quickly, it could be deployed to dangerous asteroids to gravitationally nudge them off course years before they would reach Earth.
To travel to Mars in 39 days, however, the engine would need 1000 times more power than solar energy could provide.
For that, VASIMR would need an onboard nuclear reactor. (ANI)