If you want to test an aircraft, a race car, a motorcycle, or just about anything that’s going to be slicing its way through the fluid that is air, you put it through wind tunnel trials. But how do you test a spacecraft? If you’re the German Aerospace Center (which goes by its German acronym DLR), you build a “space tunnel”: an 8,344 cubic foot vacuum chamber capable of space-like temperatures hovering just above absolute zero.
NASA has a fine track record when it comes to winning space races, so it should come as no surprise that the space agency's Dawn spacecraft has set a new record for velocity change produced by spacecraft propulsion somewhere out in the middle of the asteroid belt. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported yesterday that the ion-propelled Dawn has accumulated 9,600 miles per hour of velocity since separating from its final rocket stage, setting a record for engine-powered spacecraft.
Charles Darwin's theories of evolution have revolutionized the way mankind understands its origin. Now, engineers suggest that the process of natural selection may have surprising implications for spacecraft as well. An ion engine designed to power future spacecraft has achieved its optimal design via software that simulates Darwinian evolution.