The field of space vehicle design is obsessed with efficiency by necessity. The cost to do anything in space is astronomical, and also heavily tied to launch weight. Thus, any technology or technique that can bring those figures down is prime for exploitation.
In recent years, mercury thrusters promised to be one such technology. The only catch was the potentially-ruinous environmental cost. Today, we’ll look at the benefits of mercury thrusters, and how they came to be outlawed in short order.
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.
Star Trek — as much as we love it — was guilty sometimes of a bit of hyperbole and more than its share of inconsistency. In some episodes, ion drives were advanced technology and in others they were obsolete. Make up your mind!
The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo probe is on its way to Mercury riding on four ion thrusters developed by a company called QinetiQ. But unlike the ion drive featured in the infamous “Spock’s Brain” episode, BepiColombo will take over seven years to get to Mercury. That’s because these ion drives are real.
The craft is actually two spacecraft in one with two different Mercury missions. The Mercury planetary orbiter will study the surface while the magnetosphere orbiter will study the little planet’s magnetic field. Check out a video about the mission, below. The second video shows [Neil Wallace] talking about how the ion propulsion — also known as solar electric engines — differ from traditional chemical thrusters.
Small pinwheel type ion motors fall into the category of a fun science experiment or something neat to do with high voltage, but Hackaday’s own [Manuel Rodriguez-Achach] added a neat twist that incorporates neon lamps.
Normally you’d take a straight wire and make 90 degree bends at either end but pointing in opposite directions, balance it on a pole, and apply a high voltage with a moderate amount of current. The wire starts spinning around at the top of the pole, provided the ends of the wire are sharp enough or the wire has a small enough diameter. If your power supply has ample current available then in the dark you’ll even see a purplish glow, called a corona, at the tips of the wire.
[Manuel] made just such an ion motor but his power supply didn’t have the necessary current to produce a strong enough corona to be visible to his camera. So he very cleverly soldered neon lamps on the two ends of the wires. One leg of each lamp goes to the wire and the other end of the lamp acts as the sharp point left out in the air for emitting the ions.
The voltage needed across each lamp in order to ignite it is that between the high voltage power supply’s output and the potential of the surrounding air. That air may be initially at ground potential but he also bends the other output terminal of the power supply such that its tip is also up in the air. This way it sprays ions of the opposite polarity into the surrounding air.
Either way, the neon lamps light up and the wire spins around on the pole. Now, even without a visible corona, his ion motor makes an awesome display. Check it out in the video below.
It’s 2100 AD, and hackers and normals live together in mile-long habitats in the Earth-Moon system. The habitat is spun up so that the gravity inside is that of Earth, and for exercise, the normals cycle around on bike paths. But the hackers do their cycling outside, in the vacuum of space.
How so? With ion thrusters, rocketing out xenon gas as the propellant. And the source of power? Ultimately that’s the hackers’ legs, pedaling away at a drive system that turns two large Wimshurst machines.
Those Wimshurst machines then produce the high voltage needed for the thruster’s ionization as well as the charge flow. They’re also what gives the space bike it’s distinctly bicycle-like appearance. And based on the calculations below, this may someday work!
Like many people, going through university followed an intense career building period was a dry spell in terms of making things. Of course things settled down and I finally broke that dry spell to work on what I called “non-conventional propulsion”.
I wanted to stay away from the term “anti-gravity” because I was enough of a science nut to know that such a thing was dubious. But I also suspected that there might be science principles yet to be discovered. I was willing to give it a try anyway, and did for a few years. It was also my introduction to the world of high voltage… DC. Everything came out null though, meaning that any effects could be accounted for by some form of ionization or Coulomb force. At no time did I get anything to actually fly, though there was a lot of spinning things on rotors or weight changes on scales and balances due to ion propulsion.
So when a video appeared in 2001 from a small company called Transdimensional Technologies of a triangle shaped, aluminum foil and wire thing called a lifter that actually propelled itself off the table, I immediately had to make one. I’d had enough background by then to be confident that it was flying using ion propulsion. And in fact, given my background I was able to put an enhancement in my first version that others came up with only later.
For those who’ve never seen a lifter, it’s extremely simple. Think of it as a very leaky capacitor. One electrode is an aluminum foil skirt, in the shape of a triangle. Spaced apart from that around an inch or so away, usually using 1/6″ balsa wood sticks, is a very thin bare wire (think 30AWG) also shaped as a triangle. High voltage is applied between the foil skirt and the wire. The result is that a downward jet of air is created around and through the middle of the triangle and the lifter flies up off the table. But that is just the barest explanation of how it works. We must go deeper!
[Paddy Neumann] is an Australian physicist and founder of Neumann Space, a space start-up with a record-breaking ion drive.
The team at Neumann Space built an ion engine that broke the previous specific impulse (bounce per ounce) record. NASA’s HIPEP thruster previously held this record with a specific impulse of ~9600 seconds (+/- 200 seconds). The Neumann Drive’s specific impulse as recorded by the University of Sydney was ~14,690 seconds (+/- 2,000 seconds). This all equates to better efficiency by the Neumann Drive, however its acceleration does not match that of the HIPEP.
The Neumann Drive has another unique advantage in its range of usable fuels. In comparison to the HIPEP which uses Xenon gas as fuel the Neumann Drive accepts a variety of metals including: Molybdenum, Magnesium, Aluminum, Carbon, Titanium, Vanadium, Tin, last and also least according to Neumann Space is Bismuth.
Interestingly, Neumann offered his intellectual property (IP) to the University of Sydney, since the research was done at the University but they passed on the offer. This allowed the IP to be returned to Paddy and he subsequently applied for a patent and began the search for funding for continued research.