For all their promise for future space propulsion schemes, plasma drives have had a hard time gaining momentum. A $3.1 million grant aims to change that, giving Australian National University physicists a lift that should help them see their plasma engine all the way to orbit aboard a European satellite within two years.
ANU's Plasma Research Lab is turning ten years of research into the Helicon Double Layer Thruster (HDLT), and if they can get it working consistently in the next two years it could head to space in 2013 as part of a collaboration between ANU, Surrey University, and European space/aerospace behemoth EADS-Astrium.
Working plasma drives are sought after for their unparalleled bang-for-buck efficiency. Unlike chemical rockets that require huge amounts of propellant to achieve thrust, plasma engines can produce high exhaust velocities from relatively minuscule amounts of fuel. Researchers think the HDLT could eventually derive a five-hour burn in space from a single gram of propellant--the amount that chemical engines burn in the blink of an eye.
How? Simply put, the HDLT uses a shaped magnetic field to guide and accelerate a superheated gas like Krypton or Xenon (the plasma) to high exhaust velocities, then expel if from a thruster (one of the key challenges here is controlling that plasma without burning up the engine itself). Plasma engines don't generate the kind of explosive acceleration that solid fuel thrusters do, but because of their superior fuel-to-thrust ratios, they can operate for far longer on far less fuel, leaving more room for payloads.
However, plasma drives aren't powerful enough to lift payloads from Earth. So the overarching idea is to place satellites or spacecraft in space on the backs of chemical rockets, then allow plasma drives to take over propulsion once there. Widespread deployment of the technology is still years away, but ANU researchers hope to be using their HDLT to keep a satellite on-station before mid-decade. If they can get that working smoothly, the first deep-space-faring spacecraft propelled by plasma engines may not be too far behind.
This would not be the first deep space fairing spacecraft propelled by "plasma engine". There have been many.
Refer to "Ion Propulsion" on wikipedia. Better yet take a look at the Deep Space 1 probe. It was powered by an xenon ion thruster called NSTAR and it flew in the late 90s.
Get with the times popsci.
@rocketDude Ion and plasma engines are categorized as different propulsion methods, as the ion engine emits electrons for propulsion, whereas a plasma engine emits plasma.
Oh ho-ho you got plasma burned rocketdude!
Oh dont roget get about VASIMIR that is thus far my favorite..... mars in 39 days ;-)
@Gyllivon.... No engine emits electron for propulsion. They do not have sufficient mass to impart any impulse. Ion engines are a broader category of electric propulsion systems. The gridded ion thruster is what is normally referred to as an ion thruster. These use a cathode to emit electrons into the chamber, Through the use of magnetic fields, these elctrons are contained and collided with an inert gas like Xenon or Krypton that is injected from behind the cathode. The electrons ionize the gas, creating a plasma that can be controlled by the elstric and magnetic fields. The positive ions are accelerated across two closely spaced grids at vastly different elctric potentials creating a strong electric field. The positive ions are neutralized by an additional cathode outside the engine that injects electrons into the exhaust plume with the sole intention of neutralizing the positive charge so it doesn't get pulled back to the engine, cancelling out the impulse it initially recieved. Booyakasha!
Also, hall effect thrusters could be considered plasma thrusters, and these have been used for decades as well, originating in the 50s and earlier. They exploit the difference in the electron gyro frequency and the ion gyro freq to circulate electrons in an annular channel, thus ionizing the injected gas and accelerating it with an electric field.
It's not rocket science!
It would be much better if it could be relativistic instead of expelling-mass propulsion. www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgAwyr5Udzw
You feel that gyllivon? That's you're skin being ionized by rocketboy's mumbo jumbo which I'm sure he copy and pasted...and most likely stayed up all night to redeem himself on a comment board...I bet you feel like a loser now...
monsterboy, take a look at your own comments.
You made an account just to say that?
Talk about wasting your time!
Don't speak if you have nothing to say.
You're terrible. Take a lap
Ans if you must know.....
I happen to be a systems engineer for a major american rocket company. I've also studied all sorts of propulsion systems for my masters in aerospace engineering in the middle 2000s. Gas-turbines, solid/hybrid rockets, liquid rockets, as well as electric propulsion systems... resistojets, arcjets, pulsed-plasma jets, magnetohyrodynamic devices(MHDs), hall-effect thrusters, gridded ion thrusters, radio-thermal generators(RTGs). Even advanced systems like the fusion jet or VASIMR.
And I wrote this faster than you can probably read it.
Ion and plasma engines are great but even they still require fuel.
I think there maybe a better solution:
Space already contains ions and lots of charged particles constantly moving around. It maybe possible to create a special electric and/or magnetic field around a space vehicle that applies a force on that charged ions/particles to push them toward rear of the vehicle. If that can be done it would produce a forward force on the vehicle.
That type of drive would require only electricity which can be produced from a nuclear (decay) generator.
@rocketdude: you had to go with the name that is most stereotypical for a rocket engineer. You can figure out rocket science but couldn't find an original name.... great no wonder all our spaceships have such lousy names.
@monsterboy: your name makes you sound like you're from the Pokemon generation.
See what I did there? Yes? Good, I'll say it anyways. I gave you a common enemy so now you can both get along and I snuck in a couple of bad jokes. We all win!
Academic question: While mechanically different, are not ionic and plasma propulsion fudamentally the same?
I ask because I've read that Plasma is a matter state of highly ionized gas.
I have invented also a much more effective propulsion system. It's an electric mechanical engine, which means it converts electricity directly into mechanical force instead of using fuel. It's a novel concept and it's hard to explain how it works and creates thrust because some people (as I expected) told me it violates conservation of momentum. In theory yes but in practice I don't think so. I hope I will have a prototype of it fabricated and put to test soon. You may check it out on my website:
-Hossein Nabipour, inventor of the first practical interstellar propulsion engine