March 27, 2018
Our inter-stellar war is one step closer, boys.
I don’t know whether to be excited that we have a new, more efficient propulsion system for our spaceships, or embarrassed that the euro-poors have beat us to the punch.
I mean, it’s not surprising. While Trump wisely put a White man in charge of NASA, Robert Lightfoot Jr., the agency had previously been headed by a straight-up monkey for the previous 8 years.
We gon get all up in dis space bidness.
Presumably, Obama thought Bolden would be bringing his advanced vibranium tech knowledge to NASA. Alas, the only Wakandan knowledge he brought to the agency was that of shootin’ up da hood wit his hi-point.
So yeah, not much progress on the space department.
Thankfully, the Euros picked up the slack.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully tested a prototype ion engine powered by air that could provide propulsion for orbiting satellites almost indefinitely, and could even help power future missions to Mars.
Satellites in orbit traditionally use an onboard propellant — usually xenon — to adjust their orientation and keep their orbit from decaying. Their life is limited by how much propellant they can carry, however. The new “air breathing” design skims molecules from the upper atmosphere and converts them into useable fuel.
In conjunction with the space agency Sitael, the test was conducted in a vacuum chamber in Italy to simulate an altitude of approximately 125 miles. “This project began with a novel design to scoop up air molecules as propellant from the top of Earth’s atmosphere,” said Louis Walpot of the ESA in the announcement.
There are no moving parts on the thruster — all it needs is electricity for the coils and electrodes. Although electricity is plentiful in space, either from solar panels or nuclear decay, it can’t provide thrust.
The electric field is used to compress the air and then accelerate the stream of plasma created. “Providing atmospheric drag compensation without the use of carry-on propellant, this kind of electric propulsion would let satellites orbit at very low altitudes around Earth for very long operational time,” Walpot told Space.com. “Normally their orbit would decay rapidly and they’d reenter the atmosphere.”
Okay, but when do we get warp drives, tho?
A new collector intake created by QuinteScience in Poland gathers air molecules as the engine travels through space at nearly five miles per second, and Sitael designed a dual-stage thruster to charge and accelerate the incoming air. “The collector-plus-thruster design is entirely passive in nature — the air enters the collector due to the spacecraft’s velocity as it orbits around Earth,” Walpot explained. “All it needs is electric power to ionize the compressed air.”
This is basically a refinement over the existing ion thrusters, used to power unmanned spacecraft going on very long-range missions with as much fuel efficiency as possible.
The issue with going to Mars or other, even more distant planets (never mind different stars) is that getting there in a reasonable time requires a very lengthy period of acceleration (and later, deceleration), which can burn enormous amounts of fuel. So any improvements to fuel efficiency can dramatically increase the range of a spacecraft.
While this is primarily designed to work in low earth atmosphere, a similar system could absorb the particles which exist in space and use them as a propellant (space isn’t actually completely empty – there’s some stuff, just at a very low density).
Imagine what kind of developments we could be seeing if we were spending money on space tech instead of brown people. We’d already be on Mars by now.