Ion Propulsion; The Force of Electrons
Space travel as we know it, is extremely expensive. An entire space shuttle operation may cost well over a few billion dollars. The scientists at NASA are nothing but eager to find a method to cut off some expenses. One of the most expensive parts of a NASA space shuttle operation is the launch. This is to the cause that a fantastic amount of fuel is used in order to force out enough down force on to the launch pad in order to fling it into outer space.
When atoms ionise each other, (exchange electons), a certain amount of force is exerted. In the case of NASA, the power which is causing the down force onto the launch pad, is the combustion of fuel. Ion Propulsion was supposed to work around that fact. Ion propulsion would use the force exerted by the ionisation of atoms, to put it into motion.
If you have ever watched Star Trek, you must be familiar with the way the Starship is fueled. It has two massive beams which operate based on the Ion Propulsion Theory. However, as true as it is that ion propulsion will put an object into motion, it has many limits. For example, on the science-fiction show, the Starship is able to reach warp speed by way of ion propulsion in a matter of mili-seconds. This as we know it, is impossible. Its acceleration is to slow to reach high speeds quickly. Although it may reach fantastic speeds, achieving the speed of light in less than one second is impossible.
In the month of October, 1997, NASA launched a satellite named Deep Space 1, which would be powered by ion propulsion. At the beginning of the space voyage, it looked as if the multi-billion dollar experiment, would fail. The satellite was repeatedly losing contact with mission control, and there were many technical problems on board the satellite. However, in the middle of 1998, mission control regained contact with the ion drive powered satellite. The problems were fixed, and the satellite was back in orbit.
However, the scientists at NASA learned a great deal from this experiment. They learned that as far as we know, ion propulsion is the future in space exploration..
However, Ion propulsion as we know it, has many disadvantages. One may ask, why is this so? Ion propulsion seems to be modern, up to date and beneficial all at the same time. However, this is just not so. In order to understand the cons of ion propulsion powered ships, I must first explain how it works.
As I have already said before, a certain amount of force is exerted when atoms exchange electrons. The way NASA`s satellite works is; a steady beam of electrons is focussed and released from the opposite direction in which the satellite wants to move. This beam of electrons steadily combines with other atoms, or in some cases, pushes them away. This in result, pushes the craft away from those atoms which have come into contact with the electrons.
Reasons as to why this process is more detrimental as opposed to beneficial, will be illustrated.
1) The only reason why NASA proceeded with this operation, was to modernize its way of probing space. As in everything, humans are always striving to make what ever they have, better. However, this operation this specific operation met with certain difficulties. The reason is; Ion propulsion requires a fantastic amount of electricity to power the satellite in order to focus an electron beam. The amount of electrons needed, as we know it, is difficult to store in the form of a battery. The battery will expire quite quickly. In the case of the satellite, it receives its electricity from solar power via the sun. However, this will be impossible on deep solar voyages, where solar energy is scarce.
2) Another important point is that; ion propulsion achieves acceleration quite slowly. This is due to the fact that it is gaining speed one atom at a time!!! To counteract this, scientists proposed a theory that if you create a large enough beam, theoretically, the ion propulsion powered vehicle may be able to reach fantastic speeds instantly! However, as I have mentioned in the last point, ion propulsion requires a fantastic amount of electricity, which would be unavailable on deep space voyages where solar energy is scarce.
In Conclusion; Scientists were rather satisfied with the success of the satellite. However, there were certain points which they learned;
1) the acceleration is rather slow. However, this may be fixed by employing a larger beam of electrons. This will result in a larger burst of ionisation, which will push the ship instantly.
2) Ion Propulsion requires much electricity. They have begun working on new methods of creating electricity. For example, with a nuclear fission (or fusion for that matter,) reactor on board, much electricity would be created. Innovative methods have been introduced on how to store more electricity in a battery.
To scientists, the success of the satellite has brought on new meaning to space travel. One day humans may travel far and wide, throughout the ever growing universe.