Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


ESA develops a smarter way to travel through space


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:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA
27.10.2016 | University of Oklahoma

nachricht First results of NSTX-U research operations
26.10.2016 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

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: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>