Monday, June 27, 2011
Australia's Plasma Thruster Could Get a Space Trial as Soon as 2013
There is a real rush on to get hardware into space and we are seeing quick progress on a lot of systems that just needed the boost. This is another entrant in plasma thrusters that enable us to operate fairly conveniently in space at short ranges particularly. And as stated, it lasts a long time which makes it ideal for long haul runs.
All we need to do now is to get a great power source and then crank up a system that operates at one G continuously for days.
Such a system will allow us to easily explore the solar system quickly.
Helicon Double Layer Thruster,
Artistified via Next
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
physicists a lift that should help them see their plasma engine all the way
to orbitaboard a European satellite within two years. Australian
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.