It’s an exciting time for space exploration, as everyone from NASA to SpaceX is cooking up plans to eventually get us to Mars. One option on the table? The same stuff that powered Darth Vader’s TIE fighter.
Ion propulsion, possibly best know to sci-fi fans as the technology utilized in Star Wars to power the Empire’s TIE fighters, has been kicking around in real-life since 1979 when it was first used to power some commercial satellites. It’s also the tech behind NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is set to enter the orbit of dwarf planet Ceres in March.
As Popular Science notes, the extremely efficient propulsion method utilizes xenon atoms that are bombarded with electrons to form ions. Metal grids at the back of each engine are charged to about 1,000 volts and shoot out the ions at up to 90,000 miles per hour. It only creates a small amount of thrust, but in zero-gravity, that’s all you need.
At max speed, the Dawn spacecraft can travel at an astounding 24,000 miles per hour — using a propellant 10 times more efficient than conventional fuel. That’s impressive. John Brophy, who developed Dawn’s engine, noted the kit is on the rise and “taking over the industry” of space exploration.
The only problem? It takes approximately four days to accelerate to just 60 miles per hour. It seems all that efficiency comes with a tradeoff in acceleration speed. Sadly, that issue could be a problem for human space travel, though NASA’s upcoming asteroid redirect mission will use ion propulsion, which could be a major proving ground for the viability of the tech. If nothing else, researchers believe ion propulsion holds a ton of promise to mount resupply missions to future space bases on Mars.
So, maybe George Lucas was onto something after all. Now, where's my Death Star?
(Via Popular Science)