Sunday, January 9, 2011

ESA's SMART-1 ion engine: 39-day trips to Mars in sights!

ESA's SMART-1 ion engine: 39-day trips to Mars in sights!
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SMART-1 was the European Space Agency's first mission to the Moon. SMART-1 was used to test solar electric propulsion and other deep-space technologies, while performing scientific observations of the Moon. SMART-1's primary propulsion system hearkens to Star Wars (the movie) technology! Remember the Galactic Empire's grey and black T.I.E fighters? Well, T.I.E stands for Twin Ion Engine. SMART-1 traveled the full distance and maneuvered for two years on a Xenon ion engine rather than a traditional rocket thruster. In contrast to a traditional rocket which directs a chemical explosion out of a nozzle to generate thrust, the ion engine strips electrons from Xenon gas, and then uses an electrostatic gun (a high-tech cousin to the one in your tube TV) to accelerate the ions out the back of the craft. While the volume of ionized gas is much smaller than what a chemical rocket would expel, the velocity of the ejected matter is over ten times greater, and there is much less wasted heat and energy. So while the thrust per second is lower, the total thrust can be many times greater for the long-burning ion engine.
SMART-1 had on board a range of instruments developed by international partnerships that are designed for studying the lunar surface and for carrying out science during the cruise phase in transit to the Moon. The mission ended on 3 September 2006 when the spacecraft, in a planned manoeuvre, impacted the lunar surface in the Lacus Excellentiae region. The ion drive propulsion is a highly efficient way to travel long distances through space and ESA plan to use this technology in future missions.
Ion engine could one day power 39-day trips to Mars!
Credit: ESA

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