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.
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