Sound barrier was broken a long time ago. Ever since that law was broken, sci-fi geeks have been waiting to see more of “fantasy come true”. One of which is the warp drive from star trek. How far are we from that? Or how close are we? Let me not drag the answer, scientists believe that it is quite impossible considering Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light – however, if we could compact and expand the fabric of space-time ahead of and behind us, technically we could travel faster than the speed of light. Technically.
Anyway, like i mentioned earlier It’s just a theory. Do not worry, It’s not all a bummer; NASA has another solution – Ion propulsion.
The current “fiction come reality”:
NASA has joined hands with researchers at the University of Michigan and Air Force which has designed a X3 thruster. It is basically a Hall Thruster – a system that uses streams of electrically charged atoms called the ions to propel a spacecraft. The plasma is expelled to generate thrust that produces greater speed than the chemical propulsion rockets resulting in much efficient and fast space travel.
A typical chemical rocket can go about 5 kilometers per second (3.1 miles/s) while a Hall thruster can go about 40 kilometers per second (25 miles/s). This could relatively help in long distance space travel. According to Alec Gallimore who is leading the project, when interviewed by space.com said, “We have shown X3 can operate at over 100 kW of power. It operated at a huge range of power from 5 kW to 102 kW, with electrical current of up to 260 amperes. It generated 5.4 Newtons of thrust, which is the highest level of thrust achieved by any plasma thruster to date.”
Hall thrusters and other types of ion engines use electricity to expel plasma — a gas-like cloud of charged particles — out a nozzle, thus generating thrust. However, compared to the chemical ones, ionic ones are capable of very small amount of thrust. This means, it would have to operate for a very long time to reach the same level of acceleration as a chemical system, and as a result its not currently suitable for the launch process. However, our brilliant minds are working towards fixing this – thus the X3.
Present and the future:
According to Gallimore and his team, by making the thruster bigger and addressing the issue should bring a solution.
Instead of having one channel of plasma, multiple channel are being used. The challenge now is that, building an engine powerful and making it compact. Right now, it needs a crane to carry a X3 – that heavy.
In 2018, team will run a bigger test that aims to prove that the thruster can operate at full power for 100 hours.
The research also involves building a shielding system using magnets to protect the walls of the thruster away from the plasma to prevent damage. It will allow it to operate longer periods, even years.
Source: space.com, sciencealert.com