Modified Plasma Engine Could Get Humans to Mars on 100 Million Times Less Fuel

Thursday, 29 October 2015 - 11:04AM
Technology
Astrophysics
Mars
Thursday, 29 October 2015 - 11:04AM
Modified Plasma Engine Could Get Humans to Mars on 100 Million Times Less Fuel
Although conventional chemical rocket thrusters could technically get us all the way to Mars, they need to burn fuel in order to run, which means the monetary and resource cost would be astronomical. Now, scientists in France believe they have discovered a way to optimize an electric rocket thruster to get humans to Mars- on 100 million times less fuel than a chemical rocket engine.

These electric rockets, called "Hall thrusters," have been in use for decades, usually employed to maintain the orbit of geosynchronous satellites. Like other ion thrusters, they function by shooting ions from an anode to a cathode, at which point they're neutralized by a stream of electrons. But unlike a traditional ion engine, the Hall thruster doesn't use a physical cathode, but rather a "virtual" cathode created by a magnetic field and propelled by a small amount of gas, usually xenon. This process discharges a stream of plasma, which produces thrust in the opposite direction from the stream of ions.

This technology is efficient enough to get us to Mars, as ion thrusters use 100 million times less fuel than traditional engines. But since the walls of the virtual cathode are constantly being blasted by the stream of plasma, they are eventually worn down, necessitating the replacement of the entire engine. As a result, the Hall thruster only survives for 10,000 hours at a time, while traveling to the Red Planet would take approximately 50,000 hours (and we'd probably want to go further than that at some point).

But now, in a new paper published in Applied Physics Letters, the French researchers suggest that if the degradation of the walls is the problem, then why not get rid of the walls altogether? 

Opening quote
"An effective approach to avoid the interaction between the plasma and the discharge channel wall is to move the ionisation and acceleration regions outside the cavity, which is an unconventional design named a Wall-Less Hall Thruster," lead researcher Julien Vaudolon told American Institute of Physics.
Closing quote

While the first prototype that eliminated the walls was a failure, a small design change made this "wall-less thruster" work, which could lead to a whole new era of space travel. Although the scientists don't yet know how much longer this engine will last, if it can last for 50,000 hours and leave much more room for supplies by eliminating the need for fuel, there's a good chance it could get us to Mars.
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Space
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