Developed by the University of Michigan and the US Air Force, the new ion engine X3 for the NASA aerospace agency has set a new efficiency record. Against the backdrop of this news, some experts have caught fire, and all of them as one suggest that such technology will one day be used to transport people to Mars.
The X3 engine belongs to the so-called type of Hall accelerators. To create a motor pulse, such a device creates a directed ion flux. The plasma generated inside the special chamber, which is thrown out of the ship, according to NASA, will give the spacecraft a greater level of acceleration compared to more traditional chemical rocket engines.
The most effective chemical rocket engines (HRDs) allow to accelerate the spacecraft to a speed of about 5 kilometers per second, in turn, the Hall accelerator is capable of accelerating up to 40 kilometers per second. Such efficiency will be extremely useful for potentially long space flights, as, for example, to Mars. And according to people involved in the project of the ion engine, thanks to this technology, within the next 20 years, we will be able to open the way to manned flights to the Red Planet.
It is believed that ion engines can be much more efficient than conventional HRDs, and also more economical, since they require the use of a smaller volume of fuel to transport a similar number of crew members and equipment for long distances. As Alec Gallimore, the project manager of the ion-engine design project, commented on Space.com portal, ion acceleration can provide up to 10 times more coverage of the distance when using the same amount of fuel as the HRD.
Of course, in addition to ion engines, there are other types of promising technologies, the further development of which can bring mankind to a new stage of conquered cosmic distances. Perhaps the most important drawback of the same traditional HRD is the need to deliver a huge volume of chemical fuel into space, which, of course, also increases the total mass of the spacecraft. Additional mass requires additional fuel, additional fuel increases the mass, well, and so on. There is a variant of the Bossard direct-flow accelerator, which is inherently a thermonuclear rocket engine that uses the hydrogen of outer space as a fuel. In theory, the engine is able to accelerate to near the speed of light, but its extremely low efficiency due to the design of the spacecraft itself leaves the project under a very big question. And what about the electromagnetic motor that everyone has been hearing about lately? Around him now there are more questions than answers. And while we do not understand how it is able to work at all, and scientists really have no idea how, it is not necessary to hope for the best.
Fans of science fiction would certainly enthusiastically suggest using an idea that will allow space travel faster than the speed of light – warp. However, the general theory of relativity tells us that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. Nevertheless, if we find a way to somehow compress and expand the fabric of space-time in front of and behind us, then in theory we can really move faster than the speed of light. But while modern science is in solidarity with the fact that we have not even got close to such technologies.
Let’s return to ionic engines. Recent tests of the X3 accelerator have shown that the plant is capable of operating at a power of more than 100 kW and generate 5.4 newtonons of force, which at the moment has become the highest performance indicator for any ion plasma engine. He also broke the record output power and the working current. Such success has led some to suggest that technology will be used in the next 20 years to deliver people to Mars. But is it all so wonderful? Perhaps, only partly.
In comparison with the same HRD, ion engines are able to create very low thrust. In other words, to achieve the same rate of speed as a chemical rocket engine demonstrates, the ionic requires much longer to operate. This, in turn, does not allow the use of ion engines, for example, as starting, when launching a rocket from the Earth.
Engineers are trying to solve these problems with the new ion engine X3, where instead of one channel for the release of accelerating plasma, it is proposed to use several. The current task of the project is to develop simultaneously a sufficiently powerful and compact engine. The fact is that the original prototype turned out very bulky. While most of the Hall Accelerators created can be manually transferred to the lab, the X3 has to be moved with a small crane.
In 2018, engineers are going to conduct a new series of tests and eventually look at the work of the engine, which will operate in those