Spacecraft rocket engines come in a variety of forms and use a variety of fuels, but most rely on chemical reactions to blast propellants out of a nozzle, with the reaction force driving the spacecraft in the opposite direction. These rockets offer high thrust, but they are relatively fuel inefficient and thus, if you want a large change in velocity, you need to carry a lot of heavy fuel. Getting that fuel into orbit is costly, too!
Ion thrusters, in their various forms, offer an alternative solution – miniscule thrust, but high fuel efficiency. This tiny push won’t get you off the ground on Earth. However, when applied over a great deal of time in the vacuum of space, it can lead to a huge change in velocity, or delta V.
This manner of operation means that an ion thruster and a small mass of fuel can theoretically create a much larger delta-V than chemical rockets, perfect for long-range space missions to Mars and other applications, too. Let’s take a look at how ion thrusters work, and some of their interesting applications in the world of spacecraft!
Since NASA’s Mariner spacecraft made the first up-close observations of Mars in 1964, humanity has lobbed a long line of orbiters, landers, and rovers towards the Red Planet. Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. History, to say nothing of the planet’s surface, is littered with Martian missions that didn’t quite make the grade. But we’ve steadily been getting better, and have even started to push the envelope of what’s possible with interplanetary robotics through ambitious craft like the Ingenuity helicopter.
Yet, after nearly 60 years of studying our frigid neighbor, all we have to show for our work boils down to so many 1s and 0s. That’s not to say the data we’ve collected, both from orbit and on the surface, hasn’t been extremely valuable. But scientists on Earth could do more with a single Martian rock than any robotic rover could ever hope to accomplish. Even still, not so much as a grain of sand has ever been returned from the planet’s dusty surface.
But if everything goes according to plan, that’s about to change. Within the next decade, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) hope to bring the first samples of Martian rocks, soil, and atmospheric gases back to Earth using a series of robotic vehicles. While it’s still unclear when terrestrial scientists should expect delivery of this interplanetary bounty, the first stage of the program is already well underway. The Perseverance rover has started collecting samples and storing them in special tubes for their eventual trip back to Earth. By 2028, another rover will be deployed to collect these samples and load them into a miniature rocket for their trip to space.
Just last week NASA decided to award the nearly $200 million contract to build that rocket, known officially as the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. The MAV will not only make history as the first rocket to lift off from a celestial body other than the Earth, but it’s arguably the most critical component of the sample return mission; as any failure during launch will mean the irrevocable loss of all the samples painstakingly recovered by Perseverance over the previous seven years.
To say this mission constitutes a considerable technical challenge would be an understatement. Not only has humanity never flown a rocket on another planet, but we’ve never even attempted it. No matter what the outcome, once the MAV points its nose to the sky and lights its engines, history is going to be made. But while it will be the first vehicle to make the attempt, engineers and scientists have been floating plans for a potential Martian sample return mission for decades. Continue reading “NASA Taps Lockheed To Bring Back A Piece Of Mars”→
As much as we love Star Trek, we have to admit there are some continuity problems. For example, in Spock’s Brain, the alien-of-the-week’s ion drive gave Scotty engineering envy. However, in The Menagerie, the computer identifies a Starfleet shuttlecraft as having ion propulsion. Either way, ion propulsion is real and NASA has toyed with it for ages and many satellites use it for maintaining orbit. Now researchers from MIT and the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies 3D printed tiny ion engines.
The engine is about the size of a dime and, like all ion engines, produces tiny amounts of thrust. In fact, the researchers liken it to half the weight of one sesame seed from a hamburger bun. However, in space, these tiny thrusts add up and over time can produce significant acceleration.