A new type of rocket thruster that could take humankind to Mars and beyond has been proposed by a physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
The device would apply magnetic fields to cause particles of plasma, electrically charged gas also known as the fourth state of matter, to shoot out the back of a rocket and, because of the conservation of momentum, propel the craft forward. Current space-proven plasma thrusters use electric fields to propel the particles.
The new concept would accelerate the particles using magnetic reconnection, a process found throughout the universe, including the surface of the sun, in which magnetic field lines converge, suddenly separate, and then join together again, producing lots of energy. Reconnection also occurs inside doughnut-shaped fusion devices known as tokamaks,.
“I’ve been cooking this concept for a while,” said PPPL Principal Research Physicist Fatima Ebrahimi, the concept’s inventor and author of a paper detailing the idea in the Journal of Plasma Physics. “I had the idea in 2017 while sitting on a deck and thinking about the similarities between a car’s exhaust and the high-velocity exhaust particles created by PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX),” the forerunner of the laboratory’s present flagship fusion facility. “During its operation, this tokamak produces magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at around 20 kilometers per second, which seemed to me a lot like thrust.”
Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, combines light elements in the form of plasma — the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that represents 99% of the visible universe — to generate massive amounts of energy. Scientists are seeking to replicate fusion on Earth for a virtually inexhaustible supply of power to generate electricity.
Current plasma thrusters that use electric fields to propel the particles can only produce low specific impulse, or speed. But computer simulations performed on PPPL computers and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, showed that the new plasma thruster concept can generate exhaust with velocities of hundreds of kilometers per second, 10 times faster than those of other thrusters.
That faster velocity at the beginning of a spacecraft’s journey could bring the outer planets within reach of astronauts, Ebrahimi said. “Long-distance travel takes months or years because the specific impulse of chemical rocket engines is very low, so the craft takes a while to get up to speed,” she said. “But if we make thrusters based on magnetic reconnection, then we could conceivably complete long-distance missions in a shorter period of time.”
There are three main differences between Ebrahimi’s thruster concept and other devices. The first is that changing the strength of the magnetic fields can increase or decrease the amount of thrust. “By using more electromagnets and more magnetic fields, you can in effect turn a knob to fine-tune the velocity,” Ebrahimi said.
Second, the new thruster produces movement by ejecting both plasma particles and magnetic bubbles known as plasmoids. The plasmoids add power to the propulsion and no other thruster concept incorporates them.
Third, unlike current thruster concepts that rely on electric fields, the magnetic fields in Ebrahimi’s concept allow the plasma inside the thruster to consist of either heavy or light atoms. This flexibility enables scientists to tailor the amount of thrust for a particular mission. “While other thrusters require heavy gas, made of atoms like xenon, in this concept you can use any type of gas you want,” Ebrahimi said. Scientists might prefer light gas in some cases because the smaller atoms can get moving more quickly.
This concept broadens PPPL’s portfolio of space propulsion research. Other projects include the Hall Thruster Experiment which was started in 1999 by PPPL physicists Yevgeny Raitses and Nathaniel Fisch to investigate the use of plasma particles for moving spacecraft. Raitses and students are also investigating the use of tiny Hall thrusters to give small satellites called CubeSats greater maneuverability as they orbit the Earth.
Ebrahimi stressed that her thruster concept stems directly from her research into fusion energy. “This work was inspired by past fusion work and this is the first time that plasmoids and reconnection have been proposed for space propulsion,” Ebrahimi said. “The next step is building a prototype!”
The Latest Updates from Bing News & Google News
Go deeper with Bing News on:
- Fuel made from recycled plastic bottles is being tested to propel rockets into space
What if plastic pollution could be turned into fuel that could propel a rocket into orbit? This British start-up may have found a way.
- UK company Pulsar Fusion demonstrates Green, Mach-7 rocket in Switzerland
On Saturday 26 November, In the sleepy mountain town of Gstaad – Switzerland, British company Pulsar Fusion demonstrated its latest green hybrid rocket engine. An impressive visual plume effect ...
- Engineers conduct test of rocket engine powered by plastic waste
A team of engineers with Pulsar Fusion has conducted a ground test of its plastic-waste-powered rocket engine at the UK's Ministry of Defence military base in Salisbury last week. The team has posted ...
- Brexit Britain win as 'immensely significant' rocket test flies flag for UK science
A BRITISH company has launched the first ever high-power chemical rocket engine in the UK in an "immensely significant" step for British science, Express.co.uk can exclusively reveal.
- Rocket engine powered by PLASTIC WASTE and developed by Made in Chelsea star completes a successful test firing
A British company led by a former Made in Chelsea star has successfully completed the first test of a rocket engine powered by plastic waste. Pulsar Fusion, a nuclear fusion firm based in ...
Go deeper with Google Headlines on:
Go deeper with Bing News on:
- Space station maneuver planned to avoid debris from old U.S. rocket
After outrage in the United States over a Russian anti-satellite test that created a cloud of space debris, the International Space Station crew was told Thursday the lab would carry out a debris ...
- NASA Awards Artemis Contract for Future Mega Moon Rocket Boosters
NASA has awarded the Booster Production and Operations Contract (BPOC) to Northrop Grumman of Brigham City, Utah, to build boosters for the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to support nine ...
- Rocket Lab Reveals First Details of Neutron Rocket, a Real Rival of SpaceX’s Falcon 9
New Zealand space startup Rocket Lab has been busy working on a large reusable rocket called Neutron since the company went public on Nasdaq in March. On Thursday, Rocket Lab revealed the first ...
- University of KwaZulu-Natal Successfully Fires Up Powerful Liquid Rocket Engine In Ground Tests
Natal’s Aerospace Systems Research Group (ASReG) has successfully tested a powerful liquid-propellant rocket engine as the first step towards developing a launch vehicle for placing satellites into ...
- Rocket Lab's next-gen Neutron rocket will be reusable (and have a 'Hungry Hippo' nose cone)
Rocket Lab's plans for its biggest rocket yet promise to take reusability to the next level, complete with a 'Hungry Hippo' nose cone designed for easier recovery and reuse. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck ...