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Thursday, January 19, 2006

New Ion Engine

DS4G being tested at the ESTEC Electric Propulsion facility (CORONA vacuum chamber)
DS4G being tested at the ESTEC Electric Propulsion facility (CORONA vacuum chamber)
Credit: ESA
The ESA and Australian National University (ANU) have tested a new design for an ion engine. This design is more than 10 times more efficient than current ion drives, like the ESA's 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. The engine is called a Dual-Stage 4-Grid (DS4G) ion thruster. It was designed and built by the ESA at ANU in only 4 months.

Previous designs of ion engines used 3 grids to accelerate ions (the first to hold them back and the second and third to accelerate them). Since the voltage difference is proportional to efficiency, the bigger the difference, the better the engine. However, as the difference became greater, the grids would erode because of collisions with the ions. The new design, proposed in 2001 by David Fearn, uses 4 grids. This feature allows each set to operate at lower differences between them, but at a higher difference between the 2 sets of grids. The DS4G produces 4 times the velocity of current engines (10,000 m/s) and 6 times the upper practical limit of traditional engines as well (30kV).

Before the engine can be used in space, it must be tested thoroughly, a process that can take a long time. Also, "[w]orking with our industrial partners, the next challenge is to transition this promising new engine design from laboratory experiment to spacecraft flight model and properly define the new missions that it will enable", says Josť Gonzalez del Amo, Head of Electric Propulsion at ESA. "This is an ultra-ion engine. It has exceeded the current crop by many times and opens up a whole new frontier of exploration possibilities," says Dr Walker.

Thanks, again, to snelson5871 for submitting to us this news.

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- posted by Jim @ 8:38 EST