A student has created a new type of ion space drive that could take humans to Mars and back on a single tank of fuel.
Paddy Neumann, a PhD student at the University of Sydney, says his ion space drive Nasa’s shatters current fuel efficiency record.
Ion thrusters expel ions to create thrust and can provide higher spacecraft top speeds than any other rocket currently available.
The technology, in essence, works by hurling particles backwards so that a spacecraft can be propelled forwards.
It is currently used for station keeping on communication satellites and for main propulsion on deep space probes, such as the Dawn spacecraft currently orbiting Ceres.
The current record holder for fuel efficiency of an ion drive is Nasa with its High Power Electric Propulsion (HiPEP) system, which allows 9,600 (+/- 200) seconds of impulse.
This is a measure of thruster efficiency and is sometimes called ‘bounce per ounce’.
The new drive developed by Neumann has achieved up to 14,690 (+/- 2,000), according to student newspaper Honi Soit.
The idea for the ion engine came to Neumann as a third year student assisting a postdoc.
As part of his work, Neumann measured the speed of titanium ions produced by a pulsed electric arc.
‘The titanium was coming out at 20 kilometers per second [12.4 miles per second] and I thought ‘you could use that for thrust’,’ he told IFLScience.
The innovative part of Neumann’s drive is the type of fuel that was used.
While HiPEP system runs on xenon gas, Neumann’s ion drive can instead run on various metals many of which can be found in space junk.
The Neumann ion drive works by bombarding the fuel source with electric arcs, which causes ions be discarded.
These ions then move through a magnetic nozzle, resulting in forward propulsion.
Ion thrusters are capable of propelling a spacecraft up to 90,000 meters per second (over 200,000 miles per hour (mph).
To put that into perspective, the space shuttle is capable of a top speed of around 18,000 mph.
Current industry standard chemical propulsion devices operate through short, high-powered bursts of thrust.
‘Neumann’s drive runs on a continuous rhythm of short and light bursts, preserving the fuel source but requiring long-term missions,’ writes Joanna Connolly from Honi Soit.
It doesn’t perform as well as HiPEP when it comes to acceleration, which means it may not be ideal to launch a spacecraft off a planet.
By with some tweaking, Neumann told Honi Soit that it could power a spacecraft to ‘Mars and back on one tank of fuel’.
While this is an impressive claim, ScienceAlert points out that the results have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Neumann has applied for a patent and will be presenting his results on 30 September at the 15th Australian Space Research Conference.