Anyone who’s looked into high-voltage experiments is likely familiar with ion lifters — spindly contraptions made of wire and aluminum foil that are able to float above the workbench on a column of ionized air. It’s an impressive trick that’s been around since the 1950s, but the concept has yet to show any practical application as the thrust generated isn’t nearly enough to lift a more substantial vehicle.
It’s a bit early to suggest that [Jay Bowles] of Plasma Channel has finally found the solution to this fundamental shortcoming of electrostatic propulsion, but his recently completed multi-stage ion thruster certainly represents something of a generational leap for the technology. By combining multiple pairs of electrodes and experimentally determining the optimal values for their spacing and operational voltage, he’s been able to achieve a sustained exhaust velocity of 2.3 meters per second.
While most ion thrusters are lucky to get a piece of paper fluttering for their trouble, [Jay] demonstrates his creation blowing out candles at a distance of a meter or more. But perhaps the most impressive quality of this build is the sound — unlike most of the experimental ion thrusters we’ve seen, the air flowing through this contraption actually makes an audible roaring sound. When the 45 kilovolt supply voltage kicks in it sounds like a hair drier, except here there’s no moving parts involved.
In addition to providing graphs that show how air velocity was impacted by input voltage and the number and spacing of the electrode pairs, [Jay] also pops the thruster on a scale to show that there is indeed a measurable thrust being produced. Admittedly the 22 grams of thrust being generated isn’t much compared to the contraption’s own mass of 490 grams, but in the world of electrostatic propulsion, those are pretty impressive numbers.
[Jay] says he has some improvements in mind that he believes will significantly improve the device’s performance as he works towards his ultimate goal of actually flying an ion-propelled aircraft. We saw MIT do it back in 2018, and it would be great to see an individual experimenter pull off a similar feat. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go before this thing takes to the skies, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s [Jay Bowles].
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.
An unfortunate property of science-fiction is that it is, tragically, fiction. Instead of soaring between the stars and countless galaxies out there, we find ourselves hitherto confined to this planet we call Earth. Only a handful of human beings have ever made it as far as the Earth’s solitary moon, and just two of our unmanned probes have made it out of the Earth’s solar system after many decades of travel. It’s enough to make one despair that we’ll never get anywhere near the fantastic future that was seemingly promised to us by science-fiction.
Yet perhaps not all hope is lost. Over the past decades, we have improved our chemical rockets, are experimenting with various types of nuclear rockets, and ion thrusters are a common feature on modern satellites as well as for missions within the solar system. And even if the hype around the EMDrive vanished as quickly as it had appeared, the Alcubierre faster-than-light drive is still a tantalizing possibility after many years of refinements.
Even as physics conspires against our desire for a life among the stars, what do our current chances look like? Let’s have a look at the propulsion methods which we have today, and what we can look forward to with varying degrees of certainty.
It seems as though every week we see something that clearly shows we’re living in the future. The components we routinely incorporate into our projects would have seemed like science fiction only a few short years ago, but now we buy them online and have them shipped to us for pennies. And what can say we’ve arrived in the future more than off-the-shelf plasma thrusters for the DIY microsatellite market?
Although [Michael Bretti] does tell us that he plans to sell these thrusters eventually, they’re not quite ready for the market yet. The AIS-gPPT3-1C series that’s currently under testing is designed for the micro-est of satellites, the PocketQube, a format with a unit size only 5 cm on a side – an eighth the size of a 1U CubeSat. The thrusters are solid-fueled, with blocks of Teflon, PEEK, or Ultem that are ablated by a stream of plasma. The gaseous exhaust is accelerated and shaped by a magnetic nozzle that’s integrated right into the thruster. The thruster is mounted directly to a PCB containing the high-voltage supplies and control electronics to interface with the PocketQube’s systems. The 34-gram thrusters have enough fuel for perhaps 500 firings, although that and the specifics of performance are yet to be tested.