The European Space Agency and the Australian National University have successfully tested a new design of spacecraft ion engine that dramatically improves performance over present thrusters and marks a major step forward in space propulsion capability.
Ion engines are a form of electric propulsion and work by accelerating a beam of positively charged particles (or ions) away from the spacecraft using an electric field. ESA is currently using electric propulsion on its Moon mission, SMART-1. The new engine is over ten times more fuel efficient than the one used on SMART-1. “Using a similar amount of propellant as SMART-1, with the right power supply, a future spacecraft using our new engine design wouldn’t just reach the Moon, it would be able to leave the Solar System entirely,” says Dr Roger Walker of ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team, Research Fellow in Advanced Propulsion and Technical Manager of the project.
The new experimental engine, called the Dual-Stage 4-Grid (DS4G) ion thruster, was designed and built under a contract with ESA in the extremely short time of four months by a dedicated team at the Australian National University. “The success of the DS4G prototype shows what can be achieved with the passion and drive of a capable and committed team. It was an incredible experience to work with ESA to transform such an elegant idea into a record-breaking reality”, says Dr. Orson Sutherland, the engine’s designer and head of the development team at the ANU. During November 2005, the DS4G engine was tested for the first time in ESA’s Electric Propulsion Laboratory at ESTEC in the Netherlands, with support from Dr Sutherland and ESA test engineers.
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