NASA considering ion engines for next Mars orbiter


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Rather than using conventional chemical thrusters for a Mars orbiter planned for the 2020s, NASA managers are considering using ion engines instead.

Worried its fleet of Mars orbiter is aging, NASA intends to dispatch the spacecraft to the red planet in September 2022 to link ground controllers with rovers and extend mapping capabilities expected to be lost when the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter stops functioning.

Engineers also want to add ion engines to the orbiter and fly the efficient electrically-powered thruster system to Mars for the first time, testing out a solar-electric propulsion package that officials say will be needed when astronauts visit the red planet. Ion engines produce just a whisper of thrust, using electric power to ionize atoms of a neutral gas and spit out the particles at high speed. While the drive given by the thrusters is barely noticeable in one instant, they can operate for months or years, burning scant fuel compared to traditional chemical rockets.

That this decision requires long-winded and extended high level negotiations at NASA illustrates the slow and lumbering nature of government. Private enterprise is embracing ion engines now, and NASA itself is seeing its own spectacular ion engine success with Dawn. The decision should be a no-brainer, especially because the benefits of ion engines (low weight, more power, greater flexibility) are so obvious.

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3 comments

  • pzatchok

    I do believe that we were actually buying our ION drives off or Russia. Probably still will be.

    We pioneered the technology and then NASA abandoned it. Russia pushed on and used them on their satellites from almost the beginning.

    I would like to see them use a more common gas for thrust fuel though.

  • PeterF

    The way I understand how any ion engine works, you can design one around ANY element that can be ionized. The MOST efficient design for use within the inner solar system would be to collect the solar wind to use as fuel and ionize it with electrical power generated by solar cells. this would not provide enough thrust for a primary drive but could be used for fine tuning a course when used in conjunction with the mass collector and the solar array configured as a solar sail. It would necessarily be used only for robotic missions as it would be a very slow boat indeed because of the tenuousness of the solar wind.

  • PeterF

    Ion thrust works because the atoms in the exhaust are accelerated to near light speed through repulsion of like charges. To use ion thrust for manned missions you would need vastly more power to accelerate more fuel to a higher percentage of c. Unlikely to be obtained with solar arrays but very realistic if you can transcend the soviet era propaganda against all things radioactive and incorporate a nuclear powered electric generator…

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