Engines for a new space race


Every now and then I like to write about the new perspectives of space travel and/or space colonization projects. It’s the new frontier since the ’60s and it will become the greatest challenge of human history in a few years from now.

So, here and here you may find what I’ve written before about this matters. Today is about engines, three very different concepts about what we could use to put people and hardware in the direction of Mars and beyond. Everything is still in the concept phase and one of the concepts is quite strange (on the edge of known physics), but what we need now is food for thought.


Let’s start with what we know (we’re already using this stuff) and it’s about ion engines. The concept here is quite clear, ionizing a gas (NASA is using Xenon for this purpose) and accelerating that gas by electromagnetic devices to get propulsion. It works, it’s reliable, but the design uses a lot of the aforementioned gas and the thrust you get is not so much. You need a lot of tanks to keep you fuel with your ship, that makes up for a number of problems (mass, volume and such) and the performance is not so good for the long-range. There are many possible ways to exploit this concept and now a young Australian researcher is pointing in the direction of solid propellants, to be ionized with an electric arc. Read here for more.  The difference? At this stage, more seconds of ion impulse (more efficiency for fuel quantity). The gap? It generate a lesser thrust.


Nuclear fusion, anyone? Well, it looks like that Boeing is going in that direction, no matter how difficult it is to overcome a lot of tech problems. They’re investing money and asking for patents, with the concept of a laser-powered nuclear fusion engine in their sights. If they succeed, it will be one of the biggest breakthrough in the human history, with more consequences that I can imagine of. For the purpose of this post, it’s easy to understand that such an engine will be perfect for the voyages in our Solar system. Earth-Mars could be done in a few weeks instead of a six months, so to speak. Such an engine could be the basic start for an advanced outpost near Jupiter or Saturn, not to mention Uranus or Pluto. Once again, read here for more. and cross your fingers,we need this stuff.


All right, time to take a step in an unknown realm. Fringe science? Something really new? This is about EmDrive. You already know about it, don’t you? The idea is to use microwaves to set up a frenzy of particle activity inside a closed environment. The movement of the particles generates a thrust and the peculiar form of the engine drives this thrust in a specific direction. A lot of experiments has been done to test such an engine, with a lot of controversy about its concept and a number of hoax claims. A NASA-related group tested a version of this concept, Cannae Drive, reporting positive thrust. It should be impossible. But if it’s here and it’s measurable, then we have a lot of explanations to find about it. Read here for more.

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