Every since Galileo gazed at the stars and celestial bodies, humanity has been fascinated with space. Fast forward hundreds of years later, in 1969, NASA lands the first man on the moon. An achievement that marks the beginning of space exploration. However, we ran into one problem: fuel. Space is massive, much more massive than humans can comprehend. It is extremely difficult to travel to other planets.
Liquid and Solid Fuel Rockets
Currently there are two main methods of propulsion; liquid and solid fuel rockets. Liquid rocket engines have propellant in liquid form, and can be turned on and off. They can finely adjust the amount of thrust. On the other hand, solid fuel rockets use solid fuel. These rockets are single use and offer no thrust control. They fire until all fuel is burnt.
These rockets provide a huge amount of thrust. However, they cannot run for long periods of time. A space exploration vehicle may need to run for years at a time.
Ion thrusters are the solution to long space exploration. These engines work on a very simple principle.
A gas, usually xenon, is ionized ion the chamber. A oppositely charged grid is at the end of the chamber. Finally, the grid attracts the ionized gas and shoots it out the end of the engine, generating a tiny amount of thrust. The electricity to ionize gas is provided by solar panels or a nuclear reactor.
Ion thrusters generate a minuscule amount of force. However, they excel in endurance. These engines can run for years without stopping. In space, this thrust accumulates over time. Space craft equipped with this device can reach thousands upon thousands of kilometers per hour (eventually).
With NASA’s success with ion propulsion and SpaceX budding success, we may soon be able to traverse the stars. A slow and steady journey into outer space.