NASA's New Ion Thruster Breaks Testing Records Paving the Way to Mars
Exploring Mars just got a whole lot easier.
One does not simply fly to Mars using borrowed tech from other space missions. Before mankind can achieve Elon Musk's dream of colonizing Mars, we need a more efficient and safer means of travel, which is why engineers at NASA and the University of Michigan have been developing new engine prototypes.
In recent tests, the X3 Hall Thruster prototype didn't just impress researchers with its potential - it smashed previous records in several of the categories that are crucial to the success of the coming missions.
Hall thrusters ionize gases using magnetic and electric fields and turn them into thrust. The amount of thrust is small in comparison to chemical rockets, but with Hall thrusters, the process is cleaner and safer.
During tests conducted at NASA's Glenn Research Center this past summer, the X3 generated 5.4 newtons of thrust, setting a new record for all plasma thrusters tested to date and breaking the old record by 2.1 newtons.
The X3 also set a new record for maximum power output.
"We have shown that X3 can operate at over 100 kW of power," University of Michigan's Alec Gallimore told Space.com, adding that the thruster has a wide operating range from 5 kilowatts to 102 kilowatts.
So what do those numbers mean in terms of what NASA needs to get to Mars?
According to Gallimore, a system for human exploration to the red planet would have to process between 500,000 and 1 million-plus watts. "That's something like 20, 30 or even 40 times the power of conventional electric propulsion systems."
The key to making a more powerful thruster is to go bigger, but the team at Michigan is working on a design change that could keep the scale down.
"We figured out that instead of having one channel of plasma, where the plasma generated is exhausted from the thruster and produces thrust, we would have multiple channels in the same thruster," said Gallimore.
The X3 is significantly heavier than its siblings at around 500 pounds, but the three-channel design makes it much smaller than a single-channel thruster with the same impressive performance.
The next step, of course, is to go bigger.
Gallimore and his team are developing a magnetic shielding system to prevent plasma from damaging the thruster walls during longer operating times. If all goes according to plan, we'll see the X3 tested at full power for 100 hours.
The Martians better make room, because we're as good as there.