Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

ESA develops a smarter way to travel through space

11.06.2002


As scientists demand more from space missions travelling to other worlds and beyond, traditional rocket technologies are beginning to show shortcomings. In response, ESA are helping to develop a new type of rocket engine, known as solar-electric propulsion, or more commonly, an ion engine, that can mark a whole new era of space exploration.


ESA are helping to develop a new type of rocket engine;; known as solar-electric propulsion;; or more commonly;; an ion engine;; that can open the door to a whole new era of space exploration. photo: ESA



Solar-electric propulsion is ESA`s new spacecraft engine. It does not burn fuel as chemical rockets do; instead the technique converts sunlight into electricity via solar panels and uses it to electrically charge heavy gas atoms, which accelerate from the spacecraft at high velocity. This drives the spacecraft forwards. In a chemical rocket, burning the fuel creates gas that is expelled relatively slowly compared to electric thrusters. However, in an ion engine, the gas is ejected at large velocities, which makes it generally much more efficient, so less fuel is required.

Such engines have long been the subject of science fiction; now ESA has helped turn them into science fact. A small ion engine is currently lifting ESA`s telecommunications satellite, Artemis, to its planned orbit around Earth and, early in 2003, SMART-1 will blast off from Kourou, French Guiana. Once in space, this small craft will use an ion engine to reach the Moon.


Ion engines are truly important because their high efficiency makes previously impossible missions achievable. In fact, SMART-1 will test a manoeuvring technique, using its ion engine and the gravitational pull of the Moon, which will be essential for ESA`s BepiColombo mission to Mercury, lifting off in 2012. Giuseppe Racca, project manager for SMART-1, explains, "With chemical propulsion you can only do a fly-by or go into a very elongated orbit around the planet. If you want to achieve a low Mercury orbit and really observe the planet, then you can only do that with electric propulsion."

As well as BepiColombo, solar-electric propulsion will be used for ESA`s Solar Orbiter mission, to be launched at the same time. This probe will use an ion engine to rise out of the plane of the Solar System and study the Sun at high latitudes.

Since they do not need to carry so much fuel, ion engines release room for more scientific instruments. As technology continues to get smaller, the size of instruments decreases and the overall size and mass of the spacecraft decreases, further increasing efficiency. Racca says, "Solar-electric propulsion opens up the way to explore the inner part of the Solar System because you have the Sun to power you."

Further away, however, where the Sun`s light is weaker, a new electricity source, such as a nuclear generator, would be needed. This is the next logical step for the technology, according to Racca. He says, "They could take us to the Kuiper belt and even farther away." The Kuiper belt extends beyond the planet Pluto and is a dream destination for many scientists because it contains comets that have been undisturbed since the formation of the Solar System. Beyond these comets is a mysterious realm of magnetic fields and rarefied gases known as interstellar space that astronomers would love to explore. Solar-electric propulsion would make such a mission possible because an ion engine can run almost constantly, so that eventually it outperforms any chemical rocket on such long flights.

"Electric propulsion as a whole, including solar and nuclear types, will really allow us to open a new era of Solar System exploration," concludes Racca.

Clovis De Matos | alfa
Further information:
http://sci.esa.int/

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht From rocks in Colorado, evidence of a 'chaotic solar system'
23.02.2017 | University of Wisconsin-Madison

nachricht Prediction: More gas-giants will be found orbiting Sun-like stars
22.02.2017 | Carnegie Institution for Science

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

Im Focus: Three Magnetic States for Each Hole

Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".

Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

From rocks in Colorado, evidence of a 'chaotic solar system'

23.02.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

'Quartz' crystals at the Earth's core power its magnetic field

23.02.2017 | Earth Sciences

Antimicrobial substances identified in Komodo dragon blood

23.02.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>