Ion Drives


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I want to talk about different drives for space transport in this blog. In particular, I want to talk about Ion and Plasma drives.

I am researching a new book series and investigating alternative propulsion systems we may use in space other than the chemical based reactive drives we are most familiar with. My series occurs in the not-too-distant future.

Drives attracting research currently include the Ion type drives (including plasma drives), solar sails and laser based drives.

Ion drives use 2 electrodes to strip the electrons from atoms and then accelerate them from the drive to produce the thrust. These electrodes are prone to erosion from the ions over time. These drives are also constant thrust drives.

Plasma drives do not have electrodes and ionise the gas with electromagnetic waves and then accelerate them with an oscillating electric and magnetic field in a different chamber. This allows variable thrust. The problem of erosion of the electrodes is also removed.

Ion drives are in current use in various space vehicles and their power and efficiency are being improved, so they may be drives of the future for space missions, potentially decreasing mission times from Earth to Mars from 6 months to 39 days using existing technology.

However, the thrust from these drive are small and not enough to overcome Earth’s gravity to launch vehicles from the surface to Earth orbit. Chemical energy is the only propulsion system for this at present.

Ion drives are referenced in several science fiction books and movies, including The Martian.

So, I’m thinking plasma drives may be the drives of the future for interplanetary travel.