ESA Ion Drive Technology In Space
The European Space Agency (ESA), a combined space effort of the European community of nations, became the third space agency in the world to put a satellite into Lunar orbit for regular observations.
Launched from Kourou, French Guiana, on Sept. 27, 2003 this satellite is known as SMART-1.
What makes this satellite launch and placement ultra unique is that ESA made first utilization of the so-called “Ion” or “Plasma” drive rocket. The concepts of this drive go back to early science fiction and actual science theory. Electricity generated by solar panels is used to heat heavy gas atoms, which are sent out the rear of the engine as a hot stream of what is known as “plasma.” This is a far different concept from the liquid oxygen and hydrogen based chemical fuels used in U.S. and Russian space craft.
ESA took more than a year to send this craft into orbit so they could test out the Ion drive over a long time span. Also, the use of this type of rocket propulsion will enable the satellite to enter a very low and precise orbit.
Generally with other probes a chemical rocket injects them into a trajectory towards an object, like the moon or Mars, and then small jets on the probe are used to alter the trajectory slightly with “mid course” corrections and very slight increases in speed. The ESA Ion drive is a part of the probe and, like the Energizer Bunny, keeps on running and running so long as electricity and heavy gases exist.
Ion drives may be the answer to inter-planetary travel. They weigh less, take up less room in the form of propellant tanks and operate over longer periods of time.
Also from the era of science fiction and real science theories come two other types of drives, one of which this ESA Ion drive would serve as a model for: The Ram Jet. In this method free hydrogen found in space would be rammed into a funnel, compressing it at the very small opening found at the rear. This hydrogen would be ignited into hot plasma, much like the heavy gases used by the Ion drive in the ESA model.
To make such a RAM JET possible requires that a ship must first move at a minimal speed, much like the RAM JET technology used by Hitler in the V-1 bombs, which were launched like gliders, pulled aloft by speeding airplanes or via a catapult.
Traditional chemical or ESA style Ion drives could sent ships off to such speeds and then the hydrogen found in deep space could be turned into an unlimited fuel (well, unlimited until we deplete all the free hydrogen reserves in the universe, much like we are doing with oil under the ground, but that could take centuries).
Another concept of space flight, not yet developed, tested or employed by any nation also comes from sci-fi and SCI-predictions: The solar sail. A concept that a specially designed sail fabric could pull a small ship or satellite via the solar winds and radiation emanating from the sun. The problem here, of course, is that the further you travel from the sun the less these wind effects become. Also, sadly, making a return trip may be quite difficult unless you skimmed in a spiral orbit, much like ESA used for this lunar flight which took more than a year to finish! Remember, the U.S. and Russia puts a satellite around the moon in about one week of time using a chemical rocket.
With Ion drives speed and time are scarified for economy, weight and the ability to have continual, controllable thrust.
ESA would like to use this technology to reach planets like Mars with both probes and people at some date in the distant future.
The U.S. has been experimenting with such drives since the late 1950’s and used a similar type of Ion drive to put a probe deep into space back in 1998.
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