NASA's New Ion Thruster Could Make Space Travel 8 Times Faster
While science fiction has always promised us a world where we can travel fast enough to zip off among the stars, warp speed is still sadly outside our reach. As much fun as it is to watch stuff blow up in faraway galaxies, reality hasn't caught up with fantasy just yet. But as an announcement from NASA today proves, we're making some very tangible progress nonetheless.
NASA has been working for a while on ion thrusters that heat up plasma in order to generate a significant burst of speed without the need for a large power input, and today it announced the new record-breaking X3 thruster that could significantly change space travel as we know it.
According to project lead Alec Gallimore:
5.4 Newtons of thrust on just 100kW of energy is an impressive achievement, especially considering that previously, the most thrust that had been achieved on this amount of power was just 3.3 Newtons.
If NASA can get this new ion thruster to work properly when attached to a rocket, it could be possible for a spaceship to be able to travel as fast as 25 miles (40km) per second. This would be a significant improvement over rockets that rely on puny liquid nitrogen or oxygen for their thrust, which can only achieve 3 miles (5km) a second.
Instead of a traditional fuel-based propulsion system that involves burning highly flammable materials, ion thrusters work by vibrating the atoms within plasma, setting off a chain reaction that builds up into a huge blast of movement that pushes the engine forward at phenomenal speeds.
In theory, if NASA can perfect its ion thruster technology, we'll be able to travel through the universe at speeds we can hardly imagine today - as much as eight times faster, if this new thruster can be optimized.
Such innovative technology has serious implications for the future of space travel. With various commercial entities looking to set up supply lines to planned colonies on the moon, Mars, and hopefully beyond, the ability to get to places that much faster will make the seemingly implausible arrangements of space travel a lot faster.
Using current technology it could take up to three years for humans to reach Mars. If this ion thruster can be used for the journey, the same travel distance could be achieved within less than six months. This technology wouldn't be entirely unlike that which is shown off in The Martian, but the new X3 could well move astronauts even faster than the movie predicts.
Rockets would also require significantly less fuel - ion engines run on a relatively small amount of energy, and the less fuel that needs to be shot free from our planet's gravity means spacefaring missions would instantly become vastly more efficient.
This won't be enough to take humans soaring outside of our galaxy, but it does mean that jetting around our own solar system will be far more achievable. We could actually zip off to the moon for a quick jaunt without too much hassle, and the cost of sending something (or, crucially, someone) into space will significantly drop as well.
With any luck, NASA's new record-breaking achievement could unlock the possibility for humanity to travel further than we've ever been before, and get there more comfortably, stylishly, and without astronauts having to sacrifice years of their lives in order to get to the surface of another planet.