Electric ion based propulsion systems for space craft are getting more and more attention and press these days. Ion engines are the “tortoise” option of the space propulsion world, slow and steady, whereas, traditional combustion rocket engines are the “hare” option, incredible bursts of energy but only for a short time. Longer usage times from the ion engines on Miles will give us more precise control over our spacecraft and will increase our options/avenues to achieve our NASA Cube Quest Challenge goals.
Ion engines function by charging and expelling very small particles(ions) at a consistent rate over long periods of time. Since only a few particles are expelled at a time, the engine takes much longer to expend its fuels supply. This results in a much smaller amount of fuel being needed as opposed to traditional combustion rocket boosters. It is because Hall thrusters (ion based engines) have such a long operation time, that they are used to make minute attitude corrections and for station keeping functions in geosynchronous satellites. The article that our friends at Space Daily published, discusses the possibilities of using Hall Thrusters for the main source of space craft propulsion. The main constraint to that use case, thus far, has been the operating time of traditional walled Hall thrusters need to be 5 times longer for spacecraft missions (10,000hrs to 50,000hrs operating time). A French team of researchers recently announced an improved, wall-less Hall Thruster that shows promising preliminary test results. The new design seems to be capable of longer operating times and higher efficiencies, thus making it a candidate for long-duration, deep space missions.
We here at Team Miles cheer on the new development of new, horizon-expanding technologies for space exploration. It looks like we chose wisely in selecting electric ion propulsion as our engine of choice.
Check out the Space Daily article on Hall thrusters here: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Wall_less_Hall_thruster_may_power_future_deep_space_missions_999.html