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An artist's conception of BepiColumbo in orbit around Mercury

A test of NASA's NSTAR ion engine
Probe to use advanced "Star-Trek" type engine

Few space propulsion technologies have generated as much recent interest as the ion engine. This weekend, the ESA announced it will it an advanced ion thruster to propel an upcoming probe to study the planet Mercury.

The mission is named BepiColumbo after Giuseppe Columbo, a pioneering scientist in the study of Mercury. It will launch in 2013 and arrive six years later. BepiColumbo will be the ESA's first mission to the hot regions of the solar system well inside the Earth's orbit. While approaching Mercury, the spacecraft will have to endure extremely hot temperatures on its sun-facing side, and extremely cold temperatures on the side facing away from the sun.

One of the primary goals of the mission is to discover whether pockets of water ice exist on Mercury's cold, shadowed side.

The ion engine will be built by Astrium, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS). It uses an electric field to propel ions, or electrically-charged atoms of xenon gas to extremely high velocities, giving it an efficiency far above that of chemical-based engines. Its performance, if converted into earthly units, would equate to 17.8 million miles per gallon.

Electro-propulsion specialist Howard Gray says, "Ion propulsion will be a key technology for a series of future long-distance exploration missions. Today's agreement puts British scientists and engineers in a strong position in Europe to take a lead role in adopting these systems for future spacecraft."



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New technology?
By WayneG on 1/21/2008 5:30:49 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not really clued up in this sort of thing but I had believed that NASA had already used ION engines in shuttles previously? Either way it's definitely a step in the right direction and could pave the way for future developments in aircraft technology.




RE: New technology?
By masher2 (blog) on 1/21/2008 10:52:34 AM , Rating: 2
Not in the shuttle, with the Deep Space 1 probe launched in 1998 used an ion thruster. In fact, the test fire image you see above is from that very engine.


RE: New technology?
By Ringold on 1/21/2008 2:46:30 PM , Rating: 2
It won't do anything, or much, directly for aircraft technology here on the Earth.. in the atmosphere, anyway. The actual thrust these things put out is extremely weak. I've got no concept of how much force it really could exert, but I'm thinking it wouldn't budge a bicycle.

Unless it's changed since when I first read about them, they continuously fire the thruster over vast amounts of time to slowly build up speed. Plus, it has the benefit of little friction up there. Aircraft, on the other hand, fight drag/friction continuously, not to mention gravity, and need huge amounts of thrusts over short periods of time.

I dont mean to diminish its usefulness, but its just a different tool for a different application.


RE: New technology?
By Owls on 1/21/2008 4:24:45 PM , Rating: 1
Correct. An engineer said that on earth it doesn't have enough force to even move a peice of paper.


RE: New technology?
By masher2 (blog) on 1/21/2008 6:47:49 PM , Rating: 1
That's a slight exaggeration. I don't know how powerful the ESA engine will be, but NASA's most powerful ion engine generates about 1/4 Newton thrust...enough to accelerate 250 grams at 1 m/s, or 25 grams straight up against gravity.

A piece of paper weighs about 4 grams.


RE: New technology?
By SkyOwner on 1/22/2008 4:40:53 AM , Rating: 3
However, the engine itself has a mass as well.

So unless they found some way to make it weigh less than 21 grams, there is no way it can move that piece of paper straight up.

But it is a very interesting technology for deep space missions, and I myself think it is rather weird that they're using ion thrusters for a mercury mission, since mercury isn't that far in comparison to some other deep space missions... The ion thruster would probably just get up to cruise speed by the time it gets there.


RE: New technology?
By masher2 (blog) on 1/22/2008 6:42:46 AM , Rating: 2
> "it is rather weird that they're using ion thrusters for a mercury mission, since mercury isn't that far."

Mercury is actually further than Jupiter or even Saturn. Distance in a space mission is measured by the change in velocity required (delta-V). Mercury's high orbital velocity thus makes it much harder to reach than physical distance would imply.

Also, BepiColumbo's ion engine is going to be solar powered, which makes it a good fit for a mission close to the sun.


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