If you’re interested in exploring the solar system, you’ll need a powerful spacecraft propulsion system. While most of the technologies on the market are for robotic missions, NASA has been eyeing high-powered electric propulsion systems for human exploration of the solar system.
For example, the Ad Astra Rocket Company’s Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) could power a spacecraft to Mars in 39 days. Another innovative propulsion technology, called the Alcubierre warp drive, was developed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre. The warp drive would transport a football-shaped starship from Earth to another planet. Its thrust decreases as the sail moves away from the Sun, allowing the craft to reach incredible speeds without fuel.
Other space propulsion options include super-heated plasma engines. These are used in Russian satellites, and are extremely efficient. They rely on electrical energy to accelerate ions and electrons simultaneously.
Another type of advanced propulsion is the ion drive. These systems ionize unreactive fuels to accelerate them using an electric field. Because they use hardly any fuel, they can be very efficient. However, they can also be limited by maximum power limits. Some ion drives have never made it to space, but they are attracting significant research.
An alternative to chemical rocketry is nuclear fusion. In this scenario, the energy density of a fusion fuel is much larger than the chemical propellants used in conventional chemical rockets. This fuel provides a powerful source of kinetic energy, which allows rapid travel throughout the solar system. However, the energy density is still not enough to sustain a launch vehicle. Fortunately, a new project aims to develop a fusion reactor that will allow the power generated by a fusion reaction to be tapped into to fuel a rocket.
A team from the University of Michigan is leveraging its expertise in diagnostics, uncertainty quantification, plasma theory, and pressure effects. It will study how pressure affects electrical effects and how they affect thrusters. And, in addition to developing the necessary models for plasma thrusters, it will determine how the wear of thrusters in space affects the performance of the thrusters.
Electric propulsion systems are currently used in satellites, but they are extraordinarily efficient. They can carry more weight and use 90% less fuel than chemical propulsion systems. Yet, they don’t need a neutralizer, and they can accelerate ions and electrons simultaneously. Therefore, they have the potential to revolutionize the spaceflight industry.
Plasma engines are similar to the ion drive. The difference is that they fire through a supersonic nozzle, rather than through a conventional nozzle. Instead of using hydrazine as the fuel, they use helium. As with ion drives, the resulting thrust has not been proven yet.
Other concepts include electrothermal and microwave propulsion systems. These systems use ions and electrons to accelerate the propellants. Unlike ion drives, these systems can accelerate a payload to an orbital altitude with zero mass.
Another type of space propulsion technology is known as beamed. These engines are designed to be simpler and more cost-effective than traditional launch vehicles. One of the advantages of beamed systems is that they could be launched from a planet with a moon or atmosphere. Parachutes could be used to land the probe on the moon or on an atmospheric planet.