Plasma engine for hot air satellites

Traveling longer, faster, and safer in space? Australian physicists, with French company ThrustMe, want to propel plasma on water, nitrogen or carbon dioxide2 Develop.

If you want to go into space, you can choose between unsteady power with a fuel-wasting engine running on hydrazine, for example, or speeding up economically but slowly with ion propulsion that spits out charged particles at lightning speed. To put a third option on the table (and into orbit), the French satellite propulsion company hits Trust me and physicists from Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra are now collaborating to propel super-hot gas.

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economical or powerful

As a rocket maker, you have no choice but to use a chemical-fueled rocket to break free from Earth: it saves a lot of energy at once, but overburdens the rocket mass budget. As a result, the 549-ton Falcon 9 could launch only 22.8 tons of payload into low Earth orbit; The rest is mainly fuel.

Once in space, economic but weak ion thrust is the way to slowly accelerate unmanned probes. Such motivation ionize atoms such as the noble gas argon by tapping the electron so that the charged ions remain. These ions are launched into space with an electric accelerator at tens of kilometers per second; Recoil pushes the spacecraft slightly forward.

Hot air

ThrustMe and the physicists at ANU want to develop a powerful, fuel-efficient thrust suitable for regularly making rapid lane changes — useful for avoiding collisions with space debris, for example. This is done through the plasma approach: with a large electrical discharge they heat a harmless gas such as water, CO.2 or nitrogen. With a modest weight, it should provide more thrust than ionic thrust, and is easier to handle than hydrazine or a hydrogen-oxygen mixture.

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“The current surge breaks up the atoms into plasma, a hot mass of charged ions and electrons emitted from the exhaust,” ANU Professor Cormac Corr explains in a statement. news item. “We can heat such plasma to 10,000 degrees Celsius, which is much hotter than what you get with chemical fuels.”

Tests using the VASIMR plasma engine. © Ad Astra Rocket Company.

Due to this higher temperature, the propellant travels away faster than the chemical propellant, thus providing more thrust per kilo. Because the engine is not fuel, but carbon dioxide2Or water or nitrogen, the power needed would have to come from outside: from solar panels or from a miniature nuclear reactor for potentially long interplanetary missions that would require a powerful engine.

Making fuel on Mars

By the way, ANU and ThrustMe are not the first to come up with the idea of ​​u200bu200bthe plasma engine. For example, former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz in 1977 devised how you can generate plasma by heating gas with microwaves, then spraying it from your rocket with magnetic fields. He. She VASIMR DESIGN (The Specific Variable Magnetic Pulse rocket) hasn’t been released from the lab yet, but like the plasma thrusters of ThrustMe and ANU, it will be powerful enough to propel heavy spaceships into the Solar System at high speed.

According to the French-Australian researchers, their thermoelectric plasma can be made from water, nitrogen or carbon dioxide.2 Manned missions to Mars are faster than chemical rockets. Because the Martian atmosphere is mainly composed of carbon dioxide أكسيد2 A rocket with this gas as a propellant is very interesting; He can refuel on arrival and therefore does not have to bring fuel for the return trip.

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Pronin: ANU, ThrustMe


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